How does it work?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 19, 2004

As you mature, are you more able to love and trust, or do you become bitter from the pain?


Dear Cary,

Do you think that people become more or less capable of love and trust as they grow older?

I’ve thought about this often, both in the context of relationships I have been in and in general with respect to the human condition. Sometimes I think that as a person amasses experiences, there is more to the person who is doing the loving so there is more that can be given in love. I also know that sometimes painful experiences have made me slower and slower to trust.

There’s a woman I love (we’ve been in a relationship for a while). Sometimes I think I love her more than anyone I’ve ever loved, but other days I think of a woman I loved in college and cannot believe that I ever loved someone so completely. I can no longer imagine the sort of trust and abandon I once knew. I feel that over the years I have been losing the ability to trust naively. I used to fight the loss of this naiveté, but now it just seems like a waste of energy: I am broken and will stay this way, I suspect.

I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment. And others have had bad judgment in trusting me, since I had come to lose my ability to trust naively. Now that I know so clearly the consequences of unwise love, I feel I am capable only of what one might call wise love. Not a bad thing — in many ways a very good thing — but not the stuff of passion either. Some would say that trust that asks for reasons is not really trust at all. But perhaps trust that asks for reasons is just the trust that mature (and fragmented) individuals are capable of.

I want to love more deeply than I do. Is this something that one can will? I am curious what you make of this question about experience and love.

Navel Gazer

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Dear Navel Gazer,

It sounds like you’re talking about the fall of man, about what is lost in the passage from innocence to experience. Those are big subjects. After you’ve read Milton and Blake and Rousseau and, sheesh, I don’t know who all else, I guess the Bible of course, and all we know about adolescent development and attachment formation, and emotional life, wow, you could just go down the list of, basically, all of Western thought, and read everything, and after you’ve read all that and digested it, maybe you could just sit there and go, Yeah, right, OK, I get it.

I know what you are talking about, but I have no more answer than you do. What I do in this column is talk about specific situations, and use my intuition and whatever meager book-learning I’ve got to suggest unseen possibilities. It sounds to me like you have already abstracted your ideas from your experiences and are just offering the ideas. That doesn’t give me much to go on. They don’t have much meaning, detached from the experiences that gave rise to them.

We do not live life in generalities and ideas; we live it in specifics. Each experience has texture, weight, color, sound; I try to take a phenomenological approach to life, which means — to me, at least! — that experience must precede meaning; experience has to have a chance to occur before being smothered by concepts and meanings derived from it. You get what I’m saying? Let’s take a walk and look at the trees. It’s stuffy in here.

I’m hesitant to generalize, as you can imagine. But still, in general, I think as we get older and know more, we can lose the ability to have raw, unfiltered experiences. We start to generalize. And I want to fight that, so I can keep seeing clearly each new experience. I would rather be wrong than be blind, you know what I mean? I’d rather not understand the world than not be able to experience it. I know that sounds like a contradiction, in a way, because here I am trying to codify experience in order to provide direction to others. But more than that I am always trying to direct myself and others to the experience itself, because that is always where the truth lies: How you were hurt, what in particular you believed that turned out to be untrue, what specific decisions you made.

You say, “I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment.” And I sort of know what you mean, but if you are complaining about a lessened ability to feel, you may have to turn away from your abstractions and back to life in its sensual particulars. It might be the habit of mind that you think gives you insight into your problem that is causing your problem in the first place, you dig? Maybe your truth is what keeps you from experiencing life in its full intensity. Maybe you need to balance out that truth with a little falsehood, a little chaos and uncertainty.

Yes, it makes sense that experience would make you more cautious and less naive. But whether experience dulls your ability to feel, I do not know. I do not think so. I think that experience hones the judgment and increases the awareness, so that you are less likely to make certain mistakes or to trust certain people in certain situations. But I do not see why judgment and awareness should impede one’s ability to love deeply. Perhaps you mean not just deeply but crazily, dizzily, insanely, passionately, obsessively, as one loves when one is young. Yes, that kind of love does seem to diminish. Because one grows less crazy as one grows more sane. What can be done about that? What should be done about that?

I don’t know.

It’s complicated.

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