Falling in love implies a helplessness. And if you fall forever, Mark Radcliffe says, you’ll hit the ground.
As a singer/ songwriter, I spend a lot of time thinking about romance.
Hell, I spend a lot of time in romance.
And a lot of it winds up in my music—songs about falling for someone, songs about breaking up with someone, songs about wanting someone back.
Time and time again, it hovers around the experience of falling hopelessly, overwhelmingly in love with someone.
I fall in love quite a lot, actually. Often with women who aren’t even remotely available to me, where nothing will ever come from it other than the joy of knowing how wonderful it is to utterly adore someone. Sometimes I fall in love with something else entirely—a work of art, a film, a book, or another artist’s song. I fall all the time. And I can’t get enough of it.
But I don’t always stay in love.
I even fall in and out of love with music itself on a weekly basis—some days I feel it’s the most empowering thing in my life, and others I’m ready to throw down my guitar and use it for firewood.
And why is that? Is true love impossible to sustain? Is glorious, heart-bursting, head-warping love naturally ephemeral?
Perhaps. But maybe it depends on how we pursue it.
It’s a curious phrase, “falling in love.” It implies a helplessness. A descension. And a bit of peril, too. Falling is usually a bad thing. But we glorify the fall in this case, that experience of becoming so dizzied by someone, by their entire essence, or their effect on us that we lose our bearings, don’t know which way is up. Maybe it’s because our lives are so rational, so predictable most of the time, that we crave a little disorientation sometimes.
And there are many different ways that sense of falling can begin. For me—and for a lot of men, I feel—what I crave is not just the desire to be hypnotized by someone. It has more to do with a desire to open up someone’s soul in a new way, change them, bring out some side of them that even they never knew existed. To see the effect of your actions on someone else’s face is nothing short of illuminating. It’s like being one of the elements in a chemical reaction. There’s something intoxicating about being that one lone element that can come along and transform her, help release something that was previously dormant. Something infinitely more creative and powerful. Something that everyone around can see. And when the other person has the same effect back on you? Well that’s when you’re falling fast.
And that chemical reaction, that rush of falling, it’s a drug. One which I admit I find rather addicting. In some ways I wish I could just fall in love with someone new once a week for the rest of my life. The problem is, what kind of a story can you write if you’re always starting over?
But behind it all is the desire to experience change, some sort of transformation. As Jack Nicolson’s character in As Good As it Gets says to the object of his affection, “You make me want to be a better man.” And that’s how I want to feel when I fall for someone. And not just for her, but for myself. That only my better side will exist from now on. I will stop complaining. I will be more optimistic. I will be less cynical. I will be funnier. I will follow through on my goals more. I will embrace what I have in my life, be grateful for it, maximize it. I will be a force of good. For her. For me. For the random toddler in the grocery store I smile at and make a little less afraid of the world.
But at some point, the other person can’t provide that momentum. It would be wrong for us to expect them to continually be our motivation, to keep us in some state of falling.
Because you can’t fall forever. If you try, sooner or later you’ll hit the ground. Hard.
So maybe there’s something else we should be pursuing in love.
The older I get, the more I realize we can’t expect change to come from without, from some force beyond ourselves. Well, it can at first—that’s what happens when we meet someone new, someone who captivates us so that we want to see the world through their eyes. But we can’t expect them to keep up that role forever. And we can’t resent them for failing to continually being a force of “new” in our lives. So ultimately the longer-term momentum has to come from within us. We have to do the work. When I was an English teacher, the headmaster of my school was fond of telling students who were struggling with motivation that, “You’re better off trying to act your way into feeling than feel your way into acting.” You’re more likely to generate inspiration by just starting something, rather than by waiting for inspiration to come to you. Love works the same way. Start giving yourself to someone and pretty soon you’ll be inspired by the reaction you create. It has to be conscious action. Not just something that “happens” to you and sends you tumbling.
So really, it shouldn’t be “falling” in love that we seek out. It should be “flying” in love that we try to achieve. Because it doesn’t take any effort to fall. That’s just the gravity of someone else’s beauty acting on us. And it can only last so long before the crash. And then you resent the person who couldn’t provide a perpetual falling experience. So the real goal should be to fly. To continually soar. To stay aloft, and experience the magic of “getting somewhere” together. But flying takes work. Just like relationships. You can’t just lay there. You’ve gotta keep flapping your wings or you’ll sink like a stone.
And it’s only by continually trying to spread our wings that we can reach new heights.
The trick of course is to find someone else who’s willing to flap their wings, too. Because if they just want you to give them a ride? You can only fly so far.
So on this Valentine’s day, here’s to finding the right co-pilot.
Happy flying, everyone.
* This essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 02/12/12