Romanticization Stifled My Love
When we talk about regrets, we usually talk about regretting particular events, especially those in which our actions could have had a direct impact on the result. For example, a few weeks ago I went to a club on Saturday night to attend an event that a friend of mine invited me to. I regretted it because my friend wasn’t able to go, and I basically wasted about 4 hours of my life trying to look interesting but unpretentious, trying quite futilely to avoid sucking in people’s second-hand smoke. In the end it didn’t cost me a lot, but I regretted it because I could have confirmed with my friend if he was going before I went there. I could have saved several thousand yen and spent that time reading, writing, or playing video games.
That’s one episode, worth a modicum of regret, but not worth agonizing over. I mean I’d have forgotten it, if I hadn’t written it down here. On the other hand, there are the kinds of regrets that have to do with habits. I have two such regrettable bad habits —well, at least, two that I can point out at this time.
The first is my habit of escaping reality.
I spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, consuming fictional media. I like saying that it keeps me sane here in my lonely slice of the universe, but I know that I could also be using that time for more productive pursuits. Or at least for consuming better material.
My second and more regrettable habit is dispassion.
I almost never get worked up about anything. As far as I can remember, I have never pursued something ardently for the pure reasons of curiosity and achievement. I approach even the things that interest me with a relatively detached attitude, rather than hyping myself up to enjoy it (which, according to some research, actually improves your enjoyment of something).
This dispassion also extends to my personal relationships. I used to never show strong emotions, even “positive” ones, in front of other people. I am quite likely to analyze and criticize friends, family, and casual acquaintances, and not everyone appreciates that.
Needless to say, it hasn’t helped me in romance. It’s not like I haven’t met some wonderful girls and women. I just haven’t been able to get myself to care enough to even think about building up courage to ask them out.
It would be easy to just tell me to get off my ass and grow up, but that’s like telling a depressed person that what they feel isn’t real, or isn’t as bad as they think. It provides little comfort, and does not do anything much to help solve the underlying problem.
In the spirit of trying to solve my own problems, I’ve been thinking about why I distanced myself from real people and got addicted to fiction, despite generally not being able to get myself emotionally invested in it. It must have been some trauma in the past that got the proverbial ball rolling. If I could identify that trauma, then I could help myself heal.
It actually wasn’t hard to point out a childhood trauma that could cause a child to shutter his heart and seek worlds other than this one.
My childhood was not a happy one. I don’t mean that we were unhappy because we were poor. We lived modest lives, and had enough money for some small luxuries, so that wasn’t it. We three siblings did get smacked, but only on the butt or hand and always with the mistake that led to that punishment clearly pointed out to us.
We were unhappy because of our parents’ relationship.
I’m the eldest of us siblings, and I can only applaud my brother and sister for coming out of our childhood at the very least functional. (Wish I could have been a better big brother.) But when it comes to my parents, there’s a lot that I could criticize.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate my parents. I do love them, but not in the warm way portrayed by families in Christmas specials. Well even if I did love them that way, it wouldn’t stop me from pointing out their mistakes.
My dad cheated on my mom. It started when I was about 5 years old, and I understood some of what was going on. Of course, I didn’t know about sex at the time, but what I knew was that my dad stopped living with us, and that my mom was furious at him for spending time with another woman.
From that time on, we only met our dad once a week and on long holidays. We lived with our mom, but for the first few years after that she was always sulky and withdrawn, when she wasn’t brooding and angry. Her anger did subside but it did not fade away, and instead became a smoldering resentment towards my father.
A Child Copes
As you can imagine, this wasn’t psychologically healthy for us three siblings. We didn’t have a father figure around for most of the time. Our mom did her best to raise us, but was angry more than was healthy for her or us.
So there I was, feeling that I had no one I could talk to about my emotions, because I was told that boys, especially big brothers, don’t cry. What recourse did I have?
Books and TV (and later on, video games) were always there for me. They let me have fun, and allowed me to not have to think about our unhapiness. I learned from them that happy endings came to good boys and girls. It was the hope that sustained me for a few years. But even though I did my best to be a good boy — manners, grades, and so on — I never felt my happy ending coming to me.
I was a quiet child to begin with, but the shame I felt from my family’s situation discouraged me from wanting to make friends, because I didn’t know how I could bear with the embarrassment when they found out. So behind my well-mannered facade, I always felt that I needed to maintain that wall between me and the rest of the world, for fear of being exposed.
I was unremarkable except for my grades, and my neutral or gloomy disposition. I didn’t have any close friends. Going to Chinese language school every day after “normal” school meant I had even less time to play with kids my age. But I comforted myself, telling myself that other people were boring, and anyway there were always some heroics to empathize and distract myself with.
I did that year after year. But things didn’t get better, they just faded into my background. Even tales of daring and triumphs over evil gave me little more than fleeting periods of warm fuzzies.
On An Unhealthy Misconception of Love
In truth, I now think the root of my problems was what I thought love was supposed to be like. Growing up in a pretty conservative Christian environment, I was essentially brainwashed into thinking that love is a precursor to marriage, and that the true model of happiness is the heterosexual married couple with at least one child, all beaming smiles and rainbows.
But since our family situation deviated from this image, I thought that we were abnormal and shameful, and could not possibly be “truly happy”. Worse still, I knew that a fair number of people in my community had a tendency to associate the sins of the parents on the children. It didn’t help that I looked a lot like my father. I knew that there was a strong possibility that some people would think that I would grow up to be “the cheating type” — worse, at one point I was worried about that too. When my facial hair started growing, I refused to shave it clean; I wanted to disassociate myself from my father in the eyes of other people.
I thought that in order to avoid repeating my parents’ mistakes and making all of us miserable, I should only make a move when I have found a woman whom I can love completely and eternally. By extension, I thought that I should not even risk things by acting on my attraction unless I am sure that it was profoundly intense and very likely perpetual.
Now that I look back on it, it was an extremely narrow definition of happiness, and an unnecessarily harsh definition of love; basically a recipe for being forever alone.
That mindset of all-or-nothing in love spilled out onto pretty much my entire life. I was unable to connect with people in meaningful ways, because I always held back. I have not been able to get passionate or seriously geek out over anything, because I feared the pain of seeing them end, and thinking that I “wasted” time on something that I could not have for my whole life.
If I could teach my younger self a few things, winning lottery numbers would be among them. But the one lesson that I really want to tell that struggling tubby bag of hurt that was me is this:
Love should not be so hard.
A Gentler, Broader Concept of Love
Love is something to strive for, as it can give you happiness. The mistake is in thinking that it can only be love if it is absolute and eternal.
Little boy, relationships are much more varied than you think, and most will defy the dogma you’ve been taught; you will realize that love is much more complicated than you think it is.
I want to help you understand that love is far from absolute or eternal.
People change, and how we feel about people changes too. You can only know that you love someone as you see them now. You cannot guarantee that you will still feel attracted to them as you both show more of yourselves to each other, and at the same time change based on your own experiences.
My younger self, once you accept that love is not absolute nor is it eternal, then you have a gentler way of understanding your parents’ relationship, and that it was not your shame to bear. You will escape the trap that you built around yourself with dogma and personal standards.
If you treat near-perfection not as the threshold but as a bonus condition, then you will find it easier to appreciate people and things. More importantly, you will learn to experiment and deepen your relationships and interests. Maybe you’ll learn to live and enjoy the moment, instead of worrying about how things will end.
Love is better and easier than you think. It may also be painful at times, but even then it will be less painful than not being able to love.
The path that version of me will take will differ from mine, but if he is equipped with passion, curiosity, and a ready willingness to connect deeply with others, then he may be able to reach higher, achieve more, and progress faster than I have so far. But even if he didn’t, I think that he’ll still find happiness more often, and that’s what really matters.