Make room for romantics
In today’s world of disillusionment, sustaining a romantic spirit requires courage — but isn’t clearly defined
The monologue at the start of “The Holiday” gives me chills.
I have found almost everything written about love to be true. Shakespeare said, ‘journeys end in lovers meeting.’ Oh, what an extraordinary thought. Personally, I’ve not experienced anything remotely close to that, but I’m more than willing to believe that Shakespeare had. I suppose I think about love more than anyone ever should. I’m constantly amazed by its sheer power to alter and define our lives.
The power to alter and define our lives. What a thing to witness! What a gift to give and to receive. I carry this — and 30 years of RomCom lines, quotes from literature, and memories ranging from the elation of first love to the debilitating crush of heartbreak…and everything in between — around in my mind, jumbled together with dating app notifications, feminist thought and a slew of other things on my to-do list.
I know I’m not alone. Yet, today’s world doesn’t look too fondly — or give much real weight — to romantics (those poor, sensitive souls). Or maybe it has always been that way?
History — and culture — has often championed rational over romantic thought; the latter being simply childish notions, meant to stay in the land of bedtime stories and young adult fiction. That alone feels like a forced dichotomy, and a gendered one at that. There’s folly in romance, realism in its opposite. Characterized feminine and masculine attributes, competing for cultural viability. But what is the opposite of romance? And, what is the absence of it?
Is there room for romantics these days? Grown, adult romantics? If we are to overcome the follies of waiting for a knight in shining armor, must we also reject the chivalry that comes with it? How are we evolving our romantic ideals without losing them altogether in an age where cynicism reigns? The answers to these questions aren’t clear cut, creating much-fought-for runway and new freedoms but in tandem requiring new interpretation — when and where individuals are willing to make that effort. It’s a deeply personal contemplation, but one that is often on display as social commentary in the midst of shifting rituals for dating and romance. Where there’s ambiguity, there’s discomfort. And we Millennials are the guinea pigs as changing romantic ideals unfold; meanwhile, in their place, disillusionment simmers.
Romanticism is so much more than the stories we tell, ones that can do more damage than good if they fit into outdated molds. It is, at the most abstract level, the belief in the personal and the emotional, closely examining passion and inner struggle with an investment in introspection and spiritual awakening. It’s about embracing the subjective in life. Of course, boiled down to contemporary culture, a “hopeless romantic” has just as much to do with joy (and other feelings) in the pursuit of companionship — a lover of love — than anything more lofty, but consider these definitions intertwined. If we are being taught to outgrow romantic notions as a coming-of-age act or a way to be taken more seriously, it’s not hard to see why our society is suffering from a loss of connection, of attachment, and of love.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been an apologist for hopeless romantics. Yet, I’ve also felt the need to suppress my own romantic needs and longing. Being a “hopeless romantic” felt girlish, frivolous; in opposition with my hard-won career ascension, my professional image and the realities of modern life, in general. It always felt like an impassable contradiction, to be both a strategic thinker and a romantic at heart. Where did that urge to silence this part of me — of all of us — first originate? It seems to be a part of entering adulthood, affecting men and women both but in different ways. If adulthood = doing away with romanticism, if romance becomes synonymous with childish ideals, then #adulting means relinquishing romance as a guidepost, indicating zealous hopefulness, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, the playfulness and lightness of heart that coincides with romantic calling. Adventure gives way to practicality; Leading with heart yields to “mind over matter.” Sure, there’s Valentine’s Day thrown into the mix, and a few other (scheduled) moments to make romance a priority. But being too romantic — or too earnest in pursuit of such — still carries a stigma; still makes people a bit uncomfortable.
I call B.S. It’s time to free romantics from their shame. There is depth in romantic ideals, and the very freedom to allow vulnerability to creep in where desensitization has already grown rampant seems in and of itself a revolutionary act. Subduing the spirit of hope that romanticism evokes implies that its existence threatens the very survival of other thinking, ways of being, or worldviews. Knowing full well that the world needs more love — without sounding like a kumbaya chorus — shows me that a romantic resurgence, with a modern twist, would surely benefit us all.
Since there are new love stories — more diverse than ever before — to behold in our culture, shouldn’t we be celebrating it more than ever, instead of tiptoeing around it and bemoaning its demise? It seems that in critiquing marriage constructs or the norms underpinning love and romance, we’ve cast it aside altogether. Maybe that’s the way progress works, and we’re in the unfortunate “messy middle” when it comes to modern romance. There has to be an option C.
I recently read the New York Times article, “Love in the Time of Low Expectations”. It speaks to something I’m quite familiar with: accepting love in whatever form it manifests, while hoping for something more. The realizations that unfold are profound when evaluating how today’s expression of love feels somehow restrained, held back by our own forced ambivalence, necessitated as it is by our human need for belonging and connection.
We have a tendency to give excessive cerebral attention to matters of the heart; in doing so, we cut off the threads that bind us romantically — the act of giving freely something that makes us feel exposed. Over the years, we have assigned so much thought to love that we have lost our way to navigate the way to feel it. And when we finally do, the unfamiliar feelings give us pause. This predisposition toward safety and security may be hardwired into our core, but the separation between our hearts and minds, our internal cries for love and our external expression of those needs has created a division — in this modern love story — that feels somehow new; or wider, at least.
Hemingway’s classic, The Sun Also Rises, ends with the most wistful scene: “‘Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together,’” Brett says to her companion as their parting farewell. Jake says in reply only this: “‘Yes, isn’t it pretty to think so?’”
The most captivating phrase, imagining an alternate reality: one where love lasts and reunions bring happy endings. The pensive, searing vision of what could have been. It’s a gut-wrenching ending to a path through the physical, mental and emotional war zone of disillusionment. If the opposite of love isn’t hate, but rather, apathy, then this version of love and loss is equally romantic, until the pain subsides — leaving indifference, reluctant acceptance and trepidation in its wake.
I’ve always felt my generation has a kinship with the Lost Generation. Sarcastically, I write it off as a feeling of eroded identity and a deep disillusionment in times of ambiguity: for us, because of technology, mobility and community detachment (or community detachment caused by technology); for them, because of the debilitating loss of hope and the tenuous connection between good and evil — industry and war, modernity and the destruction of customs — at the hands of progress.
If the Lost Generation realized the subjectivity of what “good” is, they too in many cases lost the blind faith that love conquers all. Can you blame them? It seems naive to believe in such things in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, even if hope is a very effective mechanism that is in and of itself used to help individuals survive disaster and loss. The stories told of this generation are poignant, reflective, and heart-wrenching — romantic, in their own right, by illuminating the power of longing, regret and, on a lighter note, even how the smallest expressions of love and tenderness can be found in the darkest corners.
If our generation is at all entitled, as some say, it’s because we’ve lost faith in love — without the uprooting devastation of World War, or at least the raw, newfound awakening to the power of human forces to wreck havoc at such scale. We’ve seen our fair share of struggle, but in many cases with some degree of removal — at least in the cross-generational, uniform sense (as a white, upper-middle class woman, I say this while recognizing my own privilege). And we have more tools than ever to make positive strides, to feel empowered by our idealism to shape outcomes: a key component in love and in life that the Lost Generation in many respects did not feel was within grasp. Our disillusionment, then — with love, in particular — feels more self induced; a self-flagellating punishment for what I know not of.
It’s easy to throw up our hands in resignation. “It is what it is”, as they say. I’m guilty; I’ve seen it happen to all of my fierce yet weary single friends. Delete the dating apps, re-download them. Gripe about being single, but opt to stay in for the entire weekend instead of finding socially engaging things to do. I’m not criticizing these behaviors — it’s a vicious (dating) world out there — but simply making the point that the ebb and flow of modern romance creates moments where control feels fleeting and hope feels anything but accessible. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the recognition in surrender — admitting to a need for romance without knowing whether it’s immediately within reach — makes us bolder. Maybe we must find courage in keeping on, with the vision of what could be in mind and the faith in its potential. Kind of like the aforementioned phrase, romance doesn’t have to be a passive occurrence we wait for in the wings.
“It is what it is”, you see, can mean one of two things: quiet resignation or a belief in new and unfolding potential, despite ambiguity. If we, as romantics, can adapt to our uncertain world by believing despite the skeptics and by imagining what’s possible — or new possibilities — before it becomes reality, maybe — just maybe — we’ll hold onto the idea of love long enough to feel its blush, in small ways and in enduring ways alike. If we can conceptualize new actions to take and a mindset to strengthen us as we express love in uncharted waters, we can show the world that we are as resilient in the face of change when it comes to love as with poverty, technological innovation, climate, public health and other areas where progress has shown the opportunity for both ingenuity and destruction. Why should our approach to love be any less of a focus? It is, after all, what makes the world go ‘round (spoken like a true romantic).
There’s so much to do and say, that the process to rebuild even — especially — the most intimate examples of romance, championed, seem daunting at best and futile at worst. But is there an alternative world we wish to inhabit? I hope I find the courage to live out the romantic ideals I once outwardly scoffed at; or, more importantly, to show love without fear in new ways. I don’t want to live my days wishing I had. There’s beauty to be found in the process of taking an action a day to introduce romantic ideas that precede or enhance romance itself: more honest conversations, fewer stilted texts, more walks in the park, more drop-everything-and-dance parties. More stolen kisses. More eye contact. More admitting “I’d like to introduce you to my friends”. Less beating around the bush. Less ghosting. Less assumptions of where things stand. More sharing my quirks instead of hiding behind a “cool girl” status, even if that means more rejection. More at bats. More recharging alone. Reminded all of that’s OK. I’ll start by having the hope that it’s all worthwhile in the end, before the end is in sight.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?