The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
Suddenly there’s a real choce to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a Blackberry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of otential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alvie in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
Jonathan Franzen, The New York Times, 2011 May 29, 'Liking is for Cowards. Go For What Hurts.'
Of course, logically, I could have simply copy-pasted the above from the New York Times, but, no, I had to spend the last few minutes typing this up myself. I might be part of the internet generation (or however you may desire to term us), but I have difficulties reading large blocks of text on a computer screen for a prolonged period of time. I like hard copies, having the written word in front of me in physical form — it tires my eyes out less, and that’s the more practical, physiological reason why I shan’t be making the conversion to e-book any time soon.
(If I were to sum up authors, I’d say that Haruki Murakami does an exquisite job of packaging up human loneliness, Franzen self-loathing, and McEwan poetic ennui, but I think I attribute ennui to McEwan because I still haven’t fully shaken off Solar yet …)