“What’s the use of falling in love if you both remain inertly as-you-were?” Mary McCarthy asked her friend Hannah Arendt in their correspondence about love. The question resonates because it speaks to a central necessity of love — at its truest and most potent, love invariably does change us, deconditioning our painful pathologies and elevating us toward our highest human potential. It allows us, as Barack Obama so eloquently wrote in his reflections on what his mother taught him about love, “to break across our solitude, and then, if we’re lucky, [be] finally transformed into something firmer.”
But in the romantic ideal upon which our modern mythos of love is built, the solidity of that togetherness is taken to such an extreme as to render love fragile. When lovers are expected to fuse together so closely and completely, mutuality mutates into a paralyzing codependence — a calcified and rigid firmness that becomes brittle to the possibility of growth. In the most nourishing kind of love, the communion of togetherness coexists with an integrity of individuality, the two aspects always in dynamic and fluid dialogue. The philosopher Martin Heidegger captured this beautifully in his love letters to Hannah Arendt: “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp? Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.”
This difficult balance of intimacy and independence is what the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) explores with uncommon insight and poetic precision in a passage from his 1923 masterwork The Prophet (public library).
By way of advice on the secret to a loving and lasting marriage, Gibran offers:
Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly enchanting The Prophet with Virginia Woolf on what makes love last, philosopher Alain Badiou on how we fall and stay in love, Anna Dostoyevsky on the secret to a happy marriage, Mary Oliver on how differences bring couples closer together, and Joseph Campbell on the single most important factor in sustaining romantic relationships, then revisit Gibran on the seeming self vs. the authentic self and the absurdity of our self-righteousness.