Stephen Fry’s first memoir, titled “Moab Is My Washpot”, takes 11 hours to listen to. It was worth it. Apart from finding it interesting and entertaining, it also left me with a thorough sense of validation. By no means do I want to compare myself to Stephen Fry – I’m well aware my intellect and education are no match for his. Nevertheless, I identify with him. And his book (as well as his reading of it), in both content and form, made me feel that I am okay.
That it’s okay to be a bit of a freak, I already knew. I’ve never thought myself normal, and have embraced my status as an outsider and individualist for as long as I can remember. But so many other qualities I possess make me feel just as ashamed as they fill me with pride. The hidden message I found in Moab was that I can let go of that shame. It’s okay to be both eloquent and loquacious, and it’s okay be these things and also use swear words. It’s okay to be educated and obsessed with facts. It’s okay to be intelligent. None of these things in themselves make you a bad person. They don’t make you a snob or elitist.
Of course, it is rather more okay to be these things if you are a famous comedian/actor/writer – and, more importantly, male. Personally, I definitely bashed my head into a bit of a glass ceiling more than once when it comes to being accepted for who I am. But I digress.
What I actually wanted to write about is this: Apart from all of the above, the book told me that it’s okay to be a romantic.
Not to be romantic, as in flowers and chocolate and so on (although those things are obviously perfectly okay too). I’m not talking about actions here, but feelings, and the words we choose for them. Romance in itself is okay.
Once the first rush of this sensation had settled somewhat, I started wondering why this is even an issue for me. I have always, or at least since my teens, had a propensity for shaming myself for any romantic impulses.
My first problem is that I’m obsessed with facts. The one person I know who’s likely to say “Well, actually…” without any trace of irony is myself. For this reason, I always had trouble with phrases such as “I’ll always love you”, or “yours forever”. I mean, aside from the fact we have yet to discover immortality, and that it’s reasonably certain that the universe will eventually die, the statistics (as well as my lived experience) are clear: Most feelings don’t last forever, nor do relationships.
Similarly, whenever I catch myself thinking that my partner is the most wonderful person I ever knew and the most amazing partner I ever had, whose personality and temperament and looks and everything fits me better than anyone could ever dream of, a voice at the back of my mind immediately points out that I felt much the same about previous partners.
Those are the facts, but what is the truth?
I use truth here to mean a sort of emotion, that I really cannot describe in any other words than just that: Truth. It’s taken me a long time to suss out that what my brain recognises as a fact and what it recognises as the truth are not necessarily related to each other.
An example: When I am firmly in the grip of anxiety, I sometimes think the most bizarre thoughts. I had a very rough period a couple of weeks ago, and I remember thinking, “I’m suffering so much anxiety now that it’s pointless to go see my psychiatrist on thursday.” It wasn’t because I didn’t think they could help, but because of a sense of failure. As if I were a student and hadn’t studied for an exam, and, knowing I would fail, thought it pointless to even show up. I knew immediately that all this was not just factually incorrect but fucking ridiculous. Nevertheless, it was true.
Just as it is true right now that I have never loved and will never love anyone as I love my current partner.
Of course, not all romantic emotion and expression thereof are factually incorrect. Sometimes they’re just overly … much. Flowery, sickly sweet, and so on. You see my problem, right there? The internalised disdain for the kind of expressions some may call adolescent and immature, but which if penned by Shakespeare or Keats is suddenly poetry. I used to write poetry, of course I did, what introverted intellectual child didn’t? But I left that behind, and these days it takes the strongest of emotions to plunge me into a headspace where I can allow myself to express them fully and without censorship.
And then I saw him and nothing was ever the same again.
The sky was never the same colour, the moon never the same shape: the air never smelt the same, food never tasted the same. Every word I knew changed its meaning, everything that once was stable and firm became as insubstantial as a puff of wind, and every puff of wind became a solid thing I could feel and touch.
Those are but a few of the words Fry uses to describe what happened during those fleeting moments when he first laid eyes on the object of his adolescent adoration. Listening to the ardour in his voice as he reads them out, I finally understood that you don’t actually have to choose between being intellectual and being romantic. Facts and emotions, even though they are sometimes inconsistent with one another, are not mutually exclusive.
Part of me now wants to exclaim that of course I already knew this. That it’s self-evident, and that it’s rather ridiculous of me to go off on this long-winded ramble as if I have had some sort of revelation. But again: Just because I know something for a fact doesn’t mean that I believe it is true.
To Be Skeptical
I think part of the reason I ended up this way is that for most of my life I have been deeply entrenched in scientific skepticism. And that, I’m afraid, is not an environment conducive to romance. Not that I think skeptics aren’t romantics – many of them most definitely are. There is a deep spiritualism present in the reverence many scientists and science enthusiasts feel for the natural world and the theories we construct to describe it. Consider:
The cosmos is also within us, we’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.
— Carl Sagan
We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically.
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson
If these sentiments aren’t romantic, I don’t know what is.
But I rarely heard anyone talk about love in these circles, except as something to be enjoyed, something which fills our lives with meaning and purpose. Love as expressed through poetry, art, fiction, music, and even as analyzed through philosophy, is simply not a topic of common interest. I suppose individual skeptics probably find themselves wrapped up in romantic feelings at roughly the same rate anyone else is likely to be, but it wasn’t something we shared with each other.
And so, with a lack of affirmation from within my social circles, there was no way for me to battle the onslaught from without. I was told (not always personally) that as a skeptic, one’s emotional register is poorer than that of those who are religious or otherwise “open-minded”. That you can’t know true love unless you know Jesus. That unravelling the mysteries of the universe through science also unravels its beauty. (And more bizarrely, that if you don’t call your partner cute nicknames, you can’t love your partner as much as those who do – this one actually was told to me personally, and I was obviously quite annoyed.)
Of course I knew all these things to be false, or at least felt reasonably certain in my belief that most humans function much the same emotionally. But when a message is thrown at you again and again it is hard not to let it seep into your consciousness and settle there. I am a scientifically minded person, known for being fast thinking and logical and rather dry. There was no way for me to incorporate “romantic” into my self-image.
Nothing But Chemicals?
“So you think love is just, what, chemicals?”
I think I must have been asked that question more than once, although I can’t remember any particular people or circumstances. I’ve tried to answer it in previous texts on previous blogs, and the answer comes down to something like “Yes. Well, no, not if by ‘just’ you mean to diminish or disparage the emotion itself. But essentially yes. Wonderful chemicals, though!”
My worldview is strictly materialistic. I believe we’re made of atoms – or star stuff, as Sagan put it – that make up chemicals and that yes, our emotions could probably be tracked scientifically if we could only understand how the damn thing between our ears actually works. I know for a fact that ingesting chemicals can alter your emotional state without touching your senses (the way for instance chocolate will), because that is how I’m no longer utterly trapped by anxiety. But how does that lessen the impact of the feeling? I never understood the need for anything to be magical to feel magical.
Anyway. What do I think that love is? The question came to me recently as I was falling asleep whilst arguing with imaginary opponents, as I am wont to do, about this very topic. I have a university education in biology, humans are animals and as such fall under that scientific domain, so what would be my educated guess?
Before I could hazard such a guess, I would have to decide how to actually define “love”. So I thought of love in all its forms (which I, if I were Stephen Fry, would now list greek words for, but I’m not so I won’t). What unites the emotions we have for our partners with that which we feel for our family and friends?
Well, love tends to make us want to be with someone, to share our lives with them and to help them if we can, as well as accept help from them when we need it. Even when it’s difficult, love gives us an incentive to stand by others. And I believe this to be the main point.
To explain what I mean, I want to talk about sugar.
Sugar for My Honey
Enjoying the taste of sugar is a completely different thing from those more base urges such as hunger and thirst, where we feel first a need and then discomfort and even pain if we don’t fill that need. Eating as such is absolutely necessary for survival, so as long as what we eat is digestible and not poisonous, it will still our hunger, regardless of how it tastes.
Eating sugar, on the other hand, is pleasurable. We are immensely attracted to sugar because foods rich in sugar used to be good for us, before we invented Skittles and Mars bars. Carbohydrates weren’t always available in such abundance, and when they also come bundled with a whole bunch of vitamins, that’s basically hitting the jackpot.
Love, I think, is rather like the taste of sugar. Love makes it pleasurable to be around other people, to be close to them. And evolutionarily speaking, this has been absolutely crucial to our individual survival, and thus to the survival of our genes.
After all, humans don’t do very well alone. Especially not when we’re trying to procreate. “It takes a village to raise a child” is no idle fancy: Babies are a huge liability to their parents, for a very long time. And before day care centres and hospitals and grocery stores, before farms and villages and even houses, I would say it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to raise a child on one’s own.
In this view, love is the biological urge to be dependable, and to allow ourselves to depend on others.
So yes. I do think that love has a basis in biology. I don’t even think it’s peculiar to humans, I think all animals that interact (consensually) with others of their species in any way that gives them pleasure could be said to experience love. But does that mean I think love is “just chemicals”?
You tell me.
As I’m writing this, intending to post it on my blog, my thoughts stray occasionally to how I will then present it. And I find that I tend to get apologetic or wryly critical of myself. I mean, man, just look at the mess I made. Nary a word from my writer’s glands for weeks, and then suddenly, BOOM, 1700 words about romance and love. And so on.
I may have started accepting that it’s okay to be the way I am. But I wonder if I will ever stop worrying whether anyone else accepts it.