The Island of Love and Existential Suffering

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Painting by Nesreen Alsoraimi.

It was two in the morning, and I was writing my latest poem. Not a peculiar activity for me. Poetry is the only thing that wakes me and prevents me from sleep. Or in truth, it was my head and heart brimming with words to describe emotions which I needed to release, that actually caused the insomnia. The topic was love, or the lack thereof. Words flowed and tensions eased, then I was finally able to sleep.

The next morning, I was still plagued with the paradoxical feeling of emotional fullness and frailty. I went to write more and started scrolling through my poetry. I clicked on one after another of what must be hundreds at this point. So many about love, or the lack thereof. So much for working on my dissertation today. I remembered an article I read by Brent Dean Robbins about the phenomenology of love that had really affected me because it was my first introduction to understanding love from a humanistic psychological perspective.

I looked the article up and I read it again. Then I re-read my poem from the night before. It was not really similar to my other poems; it was much longer and not my usual vague style. It was more of a stream of consciousness, a poetic short story about a new lesson I learned. Had I been trying to describe my experience of von Hildebrand’s “Nature of Love”? I wondered if the lack of this reciprocated in many contexts was the core source of pain for me. I throw the word “love” around a lot. I do crave a deeper type of love and acceptance that is hard to come by, especially for my generation and with my cultural upbringing. For most of my life I would have thought that von Hildebrand’s “Essential Traits of Love” were unrealistic and corny. Now they feel like a priority, non-negotiable elements in a significant relationship.

Something major has changed in the last few years as well. As my academic and career goals seem within reach, my goals have shifted and become more value-based. Identifying my values and living in congruence, with honesty and compassion for self and others has opened up interpersonal dimensions that were once hidden to me. What good is a job or a degree without meaningful relationships? At one time I had tried to sustain “close” relationships (ranging from romantic to family) in which these elements had only emerged in part. Until recently, I was unaware of why many of these relationships were unfulfilling.

Hildebrand’s first element describes love as more than a physiological need, and therefore, is not merely satisfied as such. I had been raised and always taught to love conditionally. “If you are not” and “If you do not”… then love, acceptance, and attention were withheld. Even after I rejected this notion, I still found myself unconsciously placing conditions and limitations on loving certain people with whom I felt most vulnerable. These conditions were, in essence, preventing the whole-hearted acceptance of the person I loved. It is a bit embarrassing and sad to admit, that in my search for unconditional love, I had often forgotten or did not know how to reciprocate.

Also, after witnessing relationships in which women were mistreated and remained stagnant, I came to have a strong propensity for running when the going got tough. Having an “I don’t really need you and can leave at any moment” attitude can be protective but also eliminates the possibility of this deeper, long-lasting love. Similarly, letting my guard down and really adoring someone, seemed risky and a bit foolish to me. The more I read on feminism and felt rage over injustice and inequalities both in my own and other women’s lives, the less apt I was to truly allow myself the opportunity to love. I associated the ideas of union and self sacrifice with dependence. I had been so averse to this that I did not think that a mutual experience of these elements could not be oppressive and in fact, could feel amazing. Then, without consciously choosing to do so, I genuinely fell in love. The kind that made the world around me glow, that made me want to continuously give and that scared the hell out of me. I was simultaneously elated and terrified of losing him or worse yet, him not feeling the same.

My poem had sparked what was forming into an article. I could add words to give it context, take out a period here, and add a comma there, and it would read more like a story about love, loss, despair, and reconciliation. An experiential narrative rendering my taste of von Hildebrand’s description of love. My account of how that ideal can be a difficult, lofty, yet ultimately worthy goal in a relationship. And how, when unrequited, this kind of love can feel most painful.

So I time-traveled back to my bedroom at 2am. Lights dim, I only heard the sound of the occasional traffic buzzing outside my window. I was perched on my black office chair, legs curled tight, as though the carpet was made of lava. I stared at my computer screen and felt a wave of familiarity as I opened a blank word document. “Ahhh” I thought, “a fresh clean slate, waiting to be written on.” Even though it is usually associated with pain and emotional turmoil, writing is my solace, a deep comfort. Perhaps depression was too. I thought about my current situation, remembered the gravity of my sadness, and teared up. I started to write.

Shouldn’t this be easier now? Older and wiser. Learned how to use disguises. My smile gets faker. But I’ve lost to the will to put on that face. I have had my fill of half-truths and incomplete promises. My heart can’t pump with one chamber. At least I can say that I now understand what I once did not. That was love. Ripping me to shreds, leaving me for dead, making me insane, draining every drop of blood. That was love. That was what he once told me about. And I scoffed; I laughed. I made him wish he didn’t love me. Like I wish I didn’t love you now.

Crouched down, I’m allowing the sun to shine hard on me. To drive this out of me. Renew my humanity. Because right now I am a shell. Empty and jaded. Empty and hating “love.” Not just any love. The kind that moves the earth. The kind that makes you want to merge. The kind that makes you swallow your pride. And recite trite phrases you thought you’d never say. Navigate through mazes that inhabit every crevice and corner of your mind, body and soul.

The kind for which you would die, defend, kill, create, obliterate, and then resuscitate. Strong and withstanding, soul wrenching. Yes, a soul mate. It doesn’t come around very often. And it’s a lot to ask for. I know. I was there. And now, I’ve been feeling the blows. Absorbing the impact of each instance that showed me you were not on the same plane. Bait and switch. You wrapped me so tight, and we blended together through the night. Then you pulled back quick, defenses flickering. But I saw the flames and I felt the fire…some of the time, in some of your ways, some of the things you say. The glimpse that you gave would feed me for days. I would cling to the ashes and crave more as time passed.

On the island that I inhabit, I’m still here alone. While you are floating, somewhere. I saw you swimming close to the shore, and then get swept off in the storm. Awareness can be such a hideous place. Slap the smile from your face. Can be awfully demanding and long-winded. It can be beautiful, luminescent, intricate and complicated…or simple. So painful sometimes, but laced with melodies…haunting and sweet. Drowning it out, watering it down. Making it easier to sip, just weak enough to allow for its elastic tendency. But I will admit, I would not trade this bit of insight for all of my past ignorance.

That’s where I thought we’d meet. Island of love. Maybe some existential suffering to start. If you were here then you would know and I would see. I would not have to question your intentions because they would they would be same as mine, same as him, same as them. Same as Romeo or Juliet and every tragic and romantic sap for whom I used to feel pity. For whom I now feel empathy. Because now I think I get it, what they were describing. Why LOVE is the most written about, obsessed over, valuable and most sought after…drug.

Why anyone would want to completely submit to anyone else? Or share a throne, rather than rule an island of their own? It’s why religion stole the idea and tried to divert it to a god. Because when people love like that—reciprocal and passionate, unconditional and lasting—it generates a force. Interdependently independent, it allows you to love everything else in life substantially more. Loved and secure, it produces gratitude and seeing yourself, me and others in a more forgiving light. It gives meaning and brings you closer to being your highest self. Directed only up to heaven it remains a selfish act, lost in the cracks of the clouds. Directed at each other it brings people closer, the pumps in our hearts are healthy, intact. There is a wealth of knowledge that you can start unpacking.

It’s there, I could feel it. Starting, emerging. I could see it, like a burgeoning tree. And in my own clumsy way, in my own over-compensating state, I tried to feed and water it. Secure the roots and shelter the buds. The only way I knew how, with the only thing I had withheld in the past. With openness, and vulnerability. A lifetime worth of love, now with unlimited accessibility. I expressed what was once hidden, in hopes of mutuality and coinciding realities. I imagined two vines, intertwined, growing at the same speed. But hopes and fantasies can only get you so far. Maybe I see what I want to see. You showed me and told me in so many words that you were not ready….for something so heavy. Emotions intermingling, projected, and ascending. It’s hard to tell whose is whose. But I know, alone and defensive we are all somewhat insecure, hurt, confused and lost. Together we can heal and together we can create something real. I know it’s time for me, but I don’t know how you feel.

That was the end of the poem for the night. I came to understand something about myself. Perhaps, as I was discovering a new kind of love, I was also I was learning how to yield a different type of courage. Rollo May describes social courage as “the capacity to risk one’s self in the hope of achieving meaningful intimacy.” I had misinterpreted that the past; I thought social courage was just always saying what was on my mind. I realized that the majority of those initial reactions were defensive and did not reflect or foster true intimacy. This is why my relationships either spring forward or backward very quickly. I have the knack for digging for “truths” and making bold moves based on what I find. I was never good at dating, I wanted to cut to the chase and find out if our values and intentions were really aligned. But there was something vital missing. In this case, the stakes were higher because a deeper level of emotions was being exposed. It was outside of my comfort zone, and definitely outside of his. But this juncture in our relationship led me to clarity and peace. I would not have known how truly compatible we were unless I assessed my own values again, been honest about my emotions, and allowed the opportunity for us to compare. I have been learning, and the path to any type of awareness can be arduous. I was exhausted yet satisfied. I slept well that night; my next poem would have to wait.

Hildebrand, D. (2009). The nature of love. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Robbins, B. (2013, January 15). Dietrich von Hildebrand’s phenomenology of love: Contributions toward a hermeneutics of love. Retrieved from

May, R. (1976). The courage to create. New York, NY: Bantam

— Nesreen Alsoraimi

Today’s guest contributor, Nesreen Alsoraimi, is a fourth-year clinical psychology PhD student at Alliant University focusing on the areas on trauma, social, and women’s psychology.

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