In the beginning, we both vomited. Katherine went first, which in retrospect I thought was very kind of her, to make herself vulnerable like that. We had been rolling around in a small patch of grass behind the bar where everyone went, indulging in a weird mixture of arguing and kissing, when she leaped up and ran to a trash can behind the corner. I suppose most dates would have ended at that point; not ours. We made our way back to her apartment, jesting on the street, far too loud, circling each other awkwardly. Whatever in God’s name we were doing all night, it must have made us exhausted: soon after arriving we drifted, fully clothed, into a contorted sleep on her couch. When we awoke, precious few hours later, we awoke to the realization that we were going to have enormous hangovers, and painful neck cramps to boot. None of it mattered to us. Through the pain and apprehension, not to mention the sheer awkwardness, Katherine and I were happy. It might be unfair to say that we knew, then and there, that we were going to fall in love—selective memory and all—but surely we knew there was a chance. Before long she had an appointment to get to, so we made ready to leave. And that, of all moments, was the moment I chose to return the favor. Hunched over in her bathroom, heaving for what seemed like a very long time, I heard the front door click shut behind her.
Later that day I attended the birthday dinner of one of my best friends, in a daze from being poisoned with whiskey the night before, but also dimly aware—maybe—that one of the most important things in my life had just happened. The day after was the second day and, as we all know, that means decision time. I had the good fortune to play frisbee in the afternoon with a friend so levelheaded and blithely confident he could not help giving good advice. Don’t be a coward. Call her. So I wasn’t a coward, I called her, and she agreed to do something that very night. The whole night I was convinced that we would wind up in bed, but I was wrong: we talked and talked, understanding each other so well it was eerie. I went home feeling very much non-rejected.
Another two days went by. This time I was at a loss. It was hard for me to understand then why I was at a loss. If asked, I probably would have said something about the “rhythm” of the situation—to call her on the phone again would have been to go to the well one too many times. I also didn’t want to text, or email, or do anything online. I didn’t want her to contact me either, and not for any old-fashioned reason. I just wanted it to be out of my hands, or out of ours.
In the end it was in the capable hands of Lake Michigan. To me, the lake was the best part of being in Chicago. I loved the buildings, but they would have been hard to bear without that vast, implacable expanse sitting right alongside. The sky and clouds were always better at the lake. I was better too. If ever I needed guidance, all I had to do was walk east. So walk east I did.
It really was like seeing a ghost when I saw her. Not the kind of ghost you have unfinished business with, someone you still have not set free. Her very improbability was ghostly: What was she doing at the lake? We had only ever seen each other there once before. It was already late September, not a particularly warm day, and not even sunny. Hardly anyone else was around. But despite it all, there she was. And she was literally just standing there, along a path. Something about her posture suggested she had seen me first—and had turned away, a little shy, or maybe even a little embarrassed. In theory I could have kept walking; after all, she had turned away. In theory I also could have sprinted for a tree to hide behind. None of that happened. What happened was what actually happened. And the rest, as they say, is love.
To this day I still don’t know if she went to the lake in order to see me. Even if she did, how could that count as intention, given that my own presence there was so unlikely? And was I even intending to see her? I, for one, felt pulled there. Was she pulled there too? I don’t know. I do know that she and I never spoke about that meeting, not once. During our time together Katherine taught me a lot about the value of the unspoken; it was part of the “work” of our relationship, as it were. There were things we avoided talking about, out of respect for each other and for the mystery of those things. But when we avoided them we always knew we were avoiding them. Our meeting at the lake was of a different order. Of such a different order that only much later did it first occur to me that she and I had never spoken of it. Incidentally, it occurred to me around the same time that I became aware of something else: the utter importance of that meeting. I now stand fairly well convinced that had it not happened then we would not have been what we were. An exaggeration? Couldn’t I have simply picked up that telephone again? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same. It is a scary thought: the entire glory of me and her was hanging by a narrow thread. But I had no choice in the matter. It was out of my hands.
In the years since Katherine, as the memory of her gradually set in, I watched the world change around me. Lakes lost their influence; people started using computers to find each other. Before long that became the normal thing to do, and now there are human beings on this earth who have never known otherwise. I understand it, it makes sense: if you are looking for something, then having more options—as you undoubtedly will online—can give you better results. There need not be anything cynical or mercenary about it, as if you were treating other people as objects or commodities. No force or manipulation involved: if the other’s self-fashioning matches up with yours, then everyone is happy.
It makes sense. I, however, never let go of what happened at the lake that day. I never stopped thinking about how I wanted to get my own will out of the picture; and suspecting that I was right to want it gone. And then somehow, as life kept moving along, I ended up in New York City. I was single, I was looking, and I was paralyzed—by my own will. Surrounded by a never-ending sea of human faces, of every one of them I asked: “Will it be you?” But then immediately I asked: “Why you instead of someone else?” Always the two questions, one after the other: always hope, and then always doubt—with people on the street, with people I met, with people I flirted with. I did of course have preferences to guide me, because I do have a personality; a self to fashion just like anyone else. Somehow, though, my preferences weren’t enough. I felt that something was missing, that something else needed to happen. There needed to be, for lack of a better word, a reason to go in one direction rather than another. Let it be noted: I am a bit of an extremist, as my friends, lovingly amused by my misadventures, would be happy to verify. But like any good extremist, I am no more than the exaggerated version of something that is in everybody. We are all at least a little bewildered by the sea of human options.
If there is ever a problem that brings life to a standstill, chances are other people have thought about it. And so, for a good long while, I scoured the intellectual and cultural history of my own country for answers. I didn’t look to the usual places in that history; especially not politics. Following a hunch, I looked instead to what has been overlooked. I think I found my answers.
It did take a while. It was hard for me to believe, at first, that spiritual debates in the American colonies, say, or the conventions of mass-market storytelling could tell me anything about my love life. But they did. How had I missed it? Probably because what they have to offer is so counterintuitive, and maybe even something of a scandal: that here in America, the Land of the Will, it can be good—very good, crucially important even—not to will. Not, that is, to deny the will; rather, to get the will out of the picture altogether. If the message is a scandal, the only thing more scandalous is just how long we have been living with it.
In August of 1722, Jonathan Edwards arrived in New York City to preach. Eighteen years old, at the very beginning of his career as a minister and theologian, and having lived out his life to that point in the Massachusetts-Connecticut world of Puritanism, Edwards would have found New York a very exotic place. It was bustling, as seaports often are: ten thousand people strong, one of the gateways to the new world, sitting at the mouth of the Hudson River. And it had an international pedigree, having originally been a Dutch city in a Dutch colony. Edwards saw a lot of human beings there who were not New Englanders of British extraction like him. He even saw truly mysterious things—like atheists, and Jews.
Spiritually speaking, it was an exciting time in his life. And, by most appearances, a positive one. The year before, while an M.A. student at Yale College—one of the American colonies’ early institutions for training clergymen—Edwards had undergone what he later came to see as the decisive step in his salvation. Back home on break in East Windsor, Connecticut, Edwards went wandering “in a solitary place” after a conversation with his father. “As I was walking there, and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express.” The world took on a new aspect. “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and all nature.” Edwards, formerly afraid of thunderstorms, now rejoiced in them. He learned “to speak with a singing voice.”
Edwards kept up his nature-loving, God-deciphering tendencies while in New York, wandering through the wilderness north of what were then the city limits along the Hudson. (The Meatpacking District? Chelsea?) But lurking behind the scenes was trouble, and not just the trouble of continuing sinfulness that, according to a Congregationalist like Edwards at least, any convert would have to face. The diary that Edwards kept in New York City reveals a disconcerting roller coaster of highs and lows. On January 12, 1723, he renewed his “baptismal covenant,” resolving “never to act as if I were anyway my own, but entirely and altogether God’s.” The entry overflows with confidence; Edwards even concludes with a reflection on his prior failures to sustain his high spirits, sure that he will get it right this time, since he will no longer see respite from his effort as his reward for effort. Darkness fools with the best-laid plan—and the darkness did not take long to visit Edwards. Just five days later, he was “overwhelmed with melancholy.” Three more days brought this heartbreaking entry: “The last week I was sunk so low, that I fear it will be a long time, ’ere I shall be recovered. … I find my heart so deceitful, that I am almost discouraged from making any more resolutions.”
The struggles in New York must have been particularly discouraging. Edwards had spent the better part of his life in a peculiar kind of torture: asking himself the question “Am I converted?” and, heretofore, always getting “no” for an answer. As a nine-year-old he fancied himself a kind of religious outlaw, building a hut with his friends in the woods for secret prayer meetings. The passion didn’t last. Nor did he change his ways for very long after the illness that nearly killed him at sixteen. Being “shaken over the pit of hell” was not enough, apparently. Now, after his salvation in the fields and the official start of his career as a pastor, it looked to Edwards like something was finally going to take—and he was beset by doubt.
It would be a number of years before his tortures would finally resolve themselves: after leaving New York there was something, we know not what, that sank Edwards so low that he did not come back up until his marriage to the pious Sarah Pierpont. But that first arrival of God in his heart and in nature around him did finally take; Edwards did finally attain assurance about the state of his soul, even if he would suffer from melancholy now and then for the rest of his life. His agonies are instructive, however. Not just because they speak volumes for the centrality of the question of conversion for him. But also because this figure, this American searcher, is known to us still today, rather than buried in the sweep of time, precisely because the question of conversion became the focus of his public activity and indeed of his life’s theological work. The storm inside Jonathan Edwards’s soul would become the storm that spread across New England, and across the American colonies as a whole.
Edwards had been pastor in the frontier community of Northampton, Massachusetts for about five years, trying his best to steer the young people away from “company-keeping” (whatever it was, it sometimes resulted in pregnancies), when in 1734 and 1735 an overwhelming wave of conversions seemed to indicate that the Holy Spirit had come to town. The precipitating events were two. First, a young man of excellent health was cut down by pleurisy, dying in two days. He was followed not long after by a woman who, it is told, gave convincing evidence of being saved before her death. There was no talk of the salvation of the young man—suggesting, indirectly, that he had gone off to meet his maker without being saved first. What had really given the town food for thought, then, was the contrast, the one-two punch of hell and heaven in close succession.
In the coming months, the Northamptonites were saved in droves. Edwards later estimated that three hundred hearts were regenerated over a period of just six months—perhaps a quarter of the town’s population. Slow and steady at first, the tide swelled considerably when a young lady known as one of Northampton’s most notorious “company-keepers” (someone really needs to look into this) proclaimed her own conversion. Edwards, worried that her gestures would be taken for counterfeit by the other townsfolk, prepared for the movement to slow down; he was wrong. By the height of the awakening in Northampton, souls were being saved at the rate of four per day. Most surprisingly, there were among the “gone through” a number of the old—by which was meant forty or older—and also the very young—including the four-year-old Phebe Bartlett, who after her own conversion became a sort of youth ambassador for religion in Northampton. The movement spread to other towns as well: up and down the Connecticut River Valley congregations were inspired by the news, and there was a whole lot of salvation going on.
It spread even farther. While times were good in Northampton, Edwards wrote up an account of the things he had seen, now known as A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Stirred by the narrative among others was a man named George Whitefield, a young Anglican rebel who had made a name for himself in England with his fiery, elegant preaching. When Edwards invited Whitefield to visit Northampton, Whitefield had already made trips to Georgia and the Mid-Atlantic, but it was the New England trip of 1740 that proved to be the beginning of a colonies-wide religious fervor. Everywhere Whitefield went he drew enormous crowds: farmers for miles around would drop everything to hear him preach, as if their lives depended on it. In his final appearance in Boston he stood before nearly thirty thousand human beings—more than the entire population of Boston itself. Every sermon by George Whitefield was like the moon landing. When his tour was over, others took his place: if anything, the following year saw more conversions, as formerly stationary pastors packed their bags and hit the road. Jonathan Edwards, carried by the swell that he had initiated, did some itinerant preaching of his own in the prodigious summer of 1741. One of his guest performances was the sermon for which he remains most famous: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” delivered in Enfield, Connecticut to an initially cool audience that turned warm, quite warm, upon hearing Edwards’s sustained imagery of the fires of hell. He couldn’t even finish for all the shrieks and cries.
The spiritual tide was indeed high; perhaps unsurprisingly, backlash and schism were not far off. The issue for those who disagreed with the new ways was precisely all the emoting: not just shrieks and cries but seizures and fainting were becoming commonplace. It also didn’t help that preachers like Whitefield were constantly questioning the bona fides of the old-fashioned clergy, even going so far as to name impostors. And why not—from the perspective of the new movement, an unconverted pastor was like a swimming instructor who didn’t know how to swim, an obvious danger to the community. Those who were targeted didn’t always take the criticism lying down: a representative response was issued by the professors of that other clergy-training facility in New England, Harvard College. In a surprisingly frank attack, the Harvard men warned of excessive “enthusiasm”—which is worse than it sounds. An enthusiast, in their definition, is “one that acts, either according to dreams, or some sudden impulses and impressions upon his mind, which he fondly imagines to be from the Spirit of God, persuading and inclining him thereby to such and such actions, though he has no proof that such persuasions or impressions are from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, Whitefield and his ilk were pretentious and emotionally unstable frauds. The view proposed by the authors was rationalist by comparison. “Sudden impulses and impressions” should always be tested against the canons of sound reason, or at least the revelation of God as expressed in scripture. And, strictly speaking, “sudden impulses and impressions” aren’t even necessary: one can have the assurance that the Spirit dwells inside even without particular emotion. Again, in other words: please calm down.
The party of emotion did calm down. But only a bit. They eventually settled into a fixed position, the other side did too, and New England found itself divided. Towns had to choose between the “New Lights” and the “Old Lights” for their churches, either going over to one side as a whole or, more awkwardly, splitting the town itself in two, with “separatists” forming their own “pure” church, restricted to the heartfelt converted. It went on for decades—the New Light pastors kept preaching that old Gospel feelin’; the Old Light pastors kept being very reasonable. Long after the distinction in nomenclature had lost its currency, effects were still felt. The Baptists—soon to be a religious megapower in the South—were inheritors of the New Lights. The leading figure among the Old Lights, Charles Chauncy, played a key role in the beginnings of Unitarianism.
It had been quite a ride: the first rumblings in Jonathan Edwards’s church in Northampton; the wandering preachers and the bountiful conversions; the bitter sectarian aftermath. We now know it as the Great Awakening. By some metrics, it was the most significant event in the colonies before the War of Independence. It certainly changed a lot of lives. It also made a lot of people angry at each other.
There are so many reasons to get angry, though. Those early Americans could have been arguing about whether or not the Eucharist wafer was the body of Christ; or, for that matter, whether eggs should be cracked at the big end or the little end. They argued instead about conversion. It was conversion that tore communities in two; it was conversion that was at the center of the New Light assault on the established church; and it was conversion that tormented Jonathan Edwards for so much of his life—all those years arguing with himself, his own harshest critic.
The source of the problem is not far to seek. Whitefield for one was always clear, in his attacks on poseurs and the self-deceived, that the key to true Christianity is emotion, rather than reason or deeds. Those who think they will go to heaven because they are baptized, or because they study theology, or because they are good human beings—“though they have a Christ in their heads, they have no Christ in their hearts.” Not just any place in the heart will do, however. As Edwards puts it in one of his most famous sermons, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” the Spirit comes to one in conversion not via any typical emotion—even if it is an emotion stronger than any emotion the convert has ever felt. The “light” that reaches into the soul from God reaches in via a special sort of emotion, an emotion of an entirely new kind—or not even an emotion, but a sixth sense, perhaps: a sense of the excellency of the divine, and of all the divine things. Like all senses, its particulars can never be accounted for by human reason. It is irreducible, unthinkable. To use a metaphor that Edwards himself was fond of: the divine light of God is like the sweetness of honey. It is one thing to have a rational belief that honey is sweet; it is another to know from real experience that honey is sweet, and to have a sense of that sweetness.
This is asking for trouble, obviously. Imagine trying to convince another person that you really had tasted honey before. How would you do it? Better yet, imagine a parlor game in which you, as “contestant,” would have to judge which among a group of people have really tasted honey—though they all profess to have done so. You would have better luck judging who truly understood friendship. And, certainly, you would have worse luck judging who had been truly converted. No wonder there was such a hullabaloo during the Great Awakening. No wonder the New Light Protestants thought so lowly of their rationalist opponents. If you haven’t been touched by the divine light, filling you with a sensation unlike any other, then of course you will think that God is best approached through steady reflection. That’s exactly the sort of thing you think when you “just don’t get it.” And no wonder so much suspicion was sown even within the New Light communities; if no one can prove anything, no one can be safe from doubt. Not even yourself. Case in point: the torment of Jonathan Edwards.
Seen from far enough away, the theological position of Edwards and the New Lights is no historical aberration. It is only one version—a refined version, Edwards might say—of Martin Luther’s original protest of 1517. Luther was not merely fed up with the Catholics for charging entrance fees to heaven; he was fed up with the very idea that human beings themselves could do anything at all to get there. The attack on the doctrine of “salvation by works” is an attack on human arrogance. Making sure to do good things rather than bad—to obey the angel on one shoulder rather than the devil on the other—cannot be the cause of salvation. God does not make a list and check it twice. Salvation comes by grace alone—by God’s gracious bestowal of gifts upon human beings.
The urge to protect divine sovereignty is understandable. But the consequence is bizarre: utter human helplessness. Why on earth would anyone think it is a good thing not to be in control of one’s own destiny? Isn’t it better to get what one wants rather than not to get what one wants? And yet this counterintuitive position has been holding strong for hundreds of years, defended by the likes of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards—and by countless millions of Christians. There must be a reason why.
The most curious thing about passion is that it comes upon us. We can’t will it. Consider the category of modern twentysomethings, many of whom have a very modern problem: they have no idea what to do with their lives. These young people are not necessarily lazy, nor even lazy typically. They want to set their powers in motion; they just can’t get it going somehow. The refrain is well known: “I just don’t feel passionately about anything.” Some of these young people give up, and mock the very idea of passion. Some of them find a passionate vocation. (Some just get a damn job and do some good in the world, and then later in life develop a passion for an avocation.)
As for how it happens, when it happens—the details are always a bit mysterious. Who knows why one young person becomes a doctor, why another becomes a farmer; why one thing fits like a glove and another doesn’t. Accounts are constructed in retrospect: “I always wanted to help people heal.” “I always felt a connection to the earth.” But if they always wanted to help people heal, or always felt a connection to the earth, then those things were also true five years ago—and yet for some reason the decision wasn’t made five years ago. At no point can we just decide to care deeply about something. (Try it, right now.) The things that click, click; and the things that don’t, don’t. We can hope to be enveloped in this way, and even scheme for it, but we will hope and scheme to no avail. One day something just clicks. And then we can’t think about anything else.
Converts are like this. They are never the same afterwards, and they never saw it coming. In a sense, the Puritans of New England always saw it coming: they were surrounded by other Puritans putting constant pressure on them, direct or indirect. But we know from countless first-person narratives that the convert can never anticipate the event—and can never will it. It is this very non-willing-ness of the event, that it comes from God and not from man, that makes it so precious. This is what Jonathan Edwards and his fellow New Lights wanted to keep safe at all costs. Thus did they make the experience of conversion the center of their thinking; thus did they sneer at their opponents. There is no path of reason to God’s door. If you don’t feel the passion, the irrational, overwhelming devotion, then you’re not there. And something so overwhelming is never up to you. You don’t approach it; it approaches you.
Central to Jonathan Edwards, and many thinkers like him, was the third chapter of the Gospel of St. John. Nicodemus, one of the law-loving Jews known as Pharisees, comes to Jesus by night. In response to Nicodemus’s wonder about Jesus’s origins, Jesus proposes that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The Greek word for “above” can also mean “again”—so Nicodemus, choosing the second meaning, is confused: How can someone be born again? For if you are already old, then surely it is too late to emerge from a uterus. But Jesus was talking about being born of the Spirit, and not of woman; when you are born of the Spirit above then you are indeed born a second time. Nicodemus, in his Pharisaical simplicity, may have missed the finer point, but we can learn from his example and keep the simple in view. There is something simple, something quite simple, to appreciate about being born: you cannot choose to do it. In being born something bigger and greater than you is acting. Whatever happens to you is not done by you, and is not up to you. The insight was fundamental to Edwards and his New Lights. It is a good one: sometimes the most important things in life are not chosen.
Love can feel like a conversion, too. It can certainly look like it from the outside. How many times have we seen someone saved by someone else? Someone who was struggling: the alcohol, the drugs, the phone calls to friends, the filthy apartment. And then he met her, and she was pious, or she was wise, or she really loved life. And he never saw it coming, and he was never the same afterwards. And we all looked on and said, “She’s the best thing that ever happened to him.”
The love stories that we know from the movies, the love stories we grew up with, have this feature. The finding of love is always also a moral conversion, a big life change. The protagonist learns that money is not the most important thing in life, say, or that you can’t always be in control. Upon reflection there is something gratuitous about it; the two lovers could have been two people who really had their lives working, and then, happily, met each other and fell in love. But something more is always going on. That Hollywood love stories are also conversion narratives cannot be an accident. It most likely has something to do with the changing fortunes of religion in the West—secular moderns, perhaps, asking love to do for them what God did in the past.
Whatever the causes may be, the kinship between America’s homegrown religion and its cinema is even stronger than this one similarity would suggest. In an uncanny connection reaching across the centuries, Hollywood ends up reenacting the spirit of the Protestantism of the American colonies. The Hollywood romance ends up harboring the same scandalous idea that the New Lights fought for: that the human will is occasionally, but essentially and importantly, useless. Thus love stories in the movies “translate,” as it were, the gospel of anti-choice from the language of religion to the language of romance. What the New Lights did for faith, Hollywood now does for love.
The proposal is admittedly unlikely on the surface—not just that a romantic comedy would have something in common with eighteenth-century Puritanism, but that it would be worth taking seriously at all. What could Sleepless in Seattle tell us that we don’t already know? Surely the only thing we’ll learn—for the umpteenth time—is that we’ll feel a little guilty the next day, which won’t be helped by eating all that ice cream and falling asleep on the couch. But, perhaps, if we keep watching these movies over and over, it is because they are telling us something important about the will. Better, then, to think of every repeated viewing of Sleepless in Seattle as a vital reminder. Better not to feel guilty—about the movie, or about the ice cream for that matter.
First, the taxonomy of the romantic film. Every Hollywood romance fits into one of a large handful of subclasses, each defined by the plotline that governs the coupling. In one classic plot, the eventual pair pretend to be together, usually to make their respective crushes jealous: Can’t Buy Me Love, Picture Perfect, Drive Me Crazy, The Perfect Date. Curiously enough, pretending to like each other actually makes them like each other. And when they’re finally together, they have no desire to make their former crushes jealous anymore—but they are so happy they can’t help making everyone jealous. Then there is “oil and water,” perhaps the biggest subclass: It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, Gone with the Wind, The Cutting Edge, Reality Bites, The Notebook, No Reservations, The Choice. They argue and argue. Would they just do it and get it over with? But it takes most of the movie for that to happen. “Right-there-before-my-eyes-and-I-didn’t-see-it”: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Some Kind of Wonderful, When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, Clueless, Get Over It. She is such a tomboy, it’s easy to overlook her. And yet at the end she looks really good in those earrings—couldn’t he have just used his future-discerning powers at the beginning? Finally, the most convoluted plotline, and probably also the least believable: the one where somebody gets used as a means for somebody else’s end. She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, French Kiss, The Pill, L’Arnacœur. Yes, she was a bet, but he made that bet with his unrealistically evil jock friend before he knew who she was—before he knew who he was. Never you mind that their future marriage will be founded on deception.
What all of these films have in common—aside from dialogue that people keep quoting—is this: the two leads never approach each other directly. In the “oil and water” subclass the mutual dislike keeps them apart. In “right-there-before-my-eyes” it is the friendship that keeps them apart, or the desire for another person. And so on—the subclasses are simply defined by the way they prevent the lovers from a direct approach. The trick, in other words, is to create a situation in which they do not want each other. That is the very essence of the Hollywood romance.
But, in the name of all that is non-convoluted, why? There is one ready answer, of course. A story is a story, and there is no story without an obstacle to be overcome. Why this obstacle, though? There do exist filmed romances in which the lovers love each other avowedly from the beginning but external circumstances keep them apart. There could even be a snappy title for this subclass too, like “star-cross’d lovers.” Yet while these films do exist, and many are real giants—just think of Pretty Woman and Notting Hill, or Roman Holiday—they are still in the minority. The truth is that Hollywood loves those who cannot admit they love each other. The romantic comedy lives so that its lovers can love despite themselves. It lives for the lovers to have their expectations spoiled, and to delight in the spoiling—to have that aha moment, when what they thought they didn’t want they now realize they really do want. Or, better, when what they thought they didn’t want becomes what they have always wanted.
We know the drill. For the conversion to be genuine, the protagonist has to hit rock bottom first. Something is eating away at her insides—what could it be? She could ask someone she trusts, but for whatever reason, at this very moment everyone in her life has abandoned her. (What are the odds?) Well, not everyone has abandoned her: thankfully she still has her father (her mother is dead, obviously), or at least the wise old shopkeeper, or maybe the benevolent female role model who has been secretly keeping an eye on her. Whoever it is, they drop a hint, but never more than a hint, because she has to find a way through by herself. And sure enough she does. Her rebirth is sudden: the lights come on all at once. “I love him! How could I have been so clueless?” Indeed, how could she have been so clueless? Now all ambiguity has departed her life. All other possibilities for action have been foreclosed; there is only one conceivable thing left to do in the entire world. And that one conceivable thing left to do in the entire world is to go to the airport. She rushes as she has never rushed before—and thank God she is so manic, because even though her cab driver is, inexplicably, the same cab driver she had at the beginning of the movie, the regular version of her would never have been able to tell him to “step on it,” and the airplane would already be taking off, with her true love on board.
In real life (if that’s your thing) it is usually not so sudden. To be sure, it can sometimes happen like that: ask a married couple to tell their story and there is a decent chance that at some point one of them did, in fact, “go to the airport.” A letter was sent; a party was attended; somebody stopped being such an idiot. For the most part it is gradual, though, without an airport, and perhaps that is for the good. When there’s a love one thinks one doesn’t want, it can sneak up better if it is undetected. It can slowly bore its way in, so the anti-love forces don’t register the invasion. But rest assured that even couples of the “gradualist” type will give off the telltale sign. They will still have that look in their eyes—you know the one—when they say: “It was the last thing we ever expected…” It was the last thing they ever expected. And now, what do you know: they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Consider a critique of online dating, one that runs like this: you shouldn’t constrain your candidate pool quite so much with the rigorous application of filters. You should not think to yourself: “I want someone who satisfies criteria a, b, c and d—and I don’t even want to look at those who don’t.” Ease off the constraints, the critique goes, because you might in fact be wrong about what you really want. But the critique is not radical enough. You should ease off the constraints not because you don’t know what you want, but because the process is not even about what you want at all. What you want has nothing to do with it. The things that are passionately important to you in life are not chosen by you; what makes you think that you can choose who you love?
The quick response—that we first narrow down the field and then see who we have “chemistry” with—is too quick. Think of it this way. If you rule out all tall women from the beginning, you will never be able to say, later in life: “I never thought I would fall in love with such a tall woman.” If you rule out all churchgoers from the beginning, you will never be able to say, later in life: “I never thought I would fall in love with a church girl.” If you rule out all women who have more money than you do, you will never be able to say, later in life: “I never thought I would fall in love with a rich girl.” Okay, maybe you would never utter that last sentence out loud. The point remains. It is when something happens to you, outside of whatever scheming your will is engaged in, that something becomes important to you. And you cannot get yourself into a situation where your will is thwarted if you are always choosing situations that are shaped by your will.
In perplexing, near-miraculous, fashion, the world backs this up. It is much more usual that we come to prize certain qualities after we fall in love than that we fall in love based on qualities that we already prize. Say you fall in love with a mathematician. You never had a particular interest in math, you never wanted it in your life, and you thought people who enjoyed talking about it were savages. After you fall in love with the mathematician—your mathematician—you suddenly find mathematics utterly fascinating. Or say you fall in love with someone who has red hair. Those red-hairs—you never bore them any ill will; you were kind, and so you treated them like human beings, no different from normal people. And afterwards? All the redheads in your life become—suddenly, unaccountably—sexy. We don’t fall for qualities. We fall for something irreducible and ineffable in the people we fall for—and then the qualities come later.
Yes, this can be a problem. First of all, given that we do at least claim we love others because of their qualities, it is not a little bit disruptive if we only come to prefer those qualities after falling in love, and indeed after falling in love for what is apparently no reason at all. (This is a fun philosophical problem to dwell on.) Second, we are always at risk of falling in love with the wrong people, people whose values are completely different from ours. And if that happens, then we can only change ourselves so much to accommodate. But no one ever said love was reasonable, or tidy. Attraction is an unpredictable thing.
Not entirely unpredictable, though—because attraction has formed a secret alliance with the forces of necessity. It is not just that passion only arises in contexts that are not chosen, contexts in which choice can be thwarted; that a context has not been chosen can itself be the reason for attraction. If the man you just met turns out to have been born on the same day as you in the same hospital many years before, then that could easily make you fall in love with him—or at least steamroll some doubts if you were already on the way to falling. Less prophetically, if your friends maneuver behind your back and set you up with someone, you might be all the more attracted to him when you find out about the brilliant setup. Or, finally, try an experiment on for size: in which situation do you think you will be more likely to fall in love? Situation one: you keep running into him at the place where you always go to watch the sun set. Situation two: he is part of a lineup of men paraded in front of you, a buffet for you to choose from.
The choice is clear. May the sun set on the two of you after a long life together. Love is not a buffet, and a person is not something that you scoop onto your plate. Extract yourself, then, from situations in which your will holds sway. This will probably mean putting away the computer and the smartphone, and avoiding singles nights and speed dating. You certainly don’t need those things, demographically speaking. Somehow, a lot of people managed to find other people to love long before the internet came around. And somehow, all those other people are still here, and the ways of finding them are too. The only thing the internet can provide is the illogical fantasy that your will can be master. Get your will out of the picture. Other people are interesting; the world is interesting; the future is interesting. Your own desires, on the other hand, are goddamned boring.
You know the feeling: You’re on a date. The two of you are trying your best to keep your “filters” out of it; you want to be open and enjoy the moment. But you are also there with a specific purpose in mind. You know, and the other knows, that you are both thinking the same thing: “I am evaluating you right now, with an eye towards the future.” You’re thinking it because it’s true. The situation is forced; you’re forcing it. You are pushing, and pushing doesn’t get you anywhere. You need to let yourself be pulled.
The blessed protagonists in a romantic comedy don’t have to do online dating, because the writer of the screenplay just arranges a meeting for them. There is a lovely term for this: it is the meet-cute. The future lovers meet, and when they meet, it is cute: she takes his seat on the bus, and then, jostled, ends up on his lap; he is tap-dancing upstairs and she can’t sleep downstairs. The force of necessity works upon them through the divine will of the screenwriter.
If you are not a character in a movie, do not despair. Your meets may not be always cute, but they can be non-willed, which is what counts. Something really very mundane could be working on your behalf. Maybe you make it a policy never to look at women in the gym because you know how annoying it is to them—and then one day you realize that the girl in the purple shirt is looking at you. Voilà: it’s not “fate,” or “destiny,” it’s just something you didn’t plan for; mundane, but effective. Or maybe you, cycling enthusiast, meet her on the bike path when she keeps passing you and is a good sport about it. Not impossible at all; it even has the ring of truth. And it makes a damn good story, too. It’s even… kind of cute. And why not? There is plenty of cuteness to go around in the world. On second thought, there might even be more cuteness in the world than in the movies. That makes a kind of sense, after all: reality is like having thousands and thousands of screenwriters scheming for you, all the time.
But there’s one way the fictional lovers have you beat. After their first meeting, when it comes time for them to see each other again, they just do. Without fail. They don’t have to pick up the phone to call each other. They couldn’t even if they wanted to; characters in romantic comedies are forbidden from using telephones. They just run into each other on the street, or they end up sitting near each other in an airplane. Or, more often, she ends up being his boss’s daughter. In other words, in addition to the meet-cute, they also get the meet-again-cute. They always get it: the meet-again-cute is more reliably present in a Hollywood movie than the meet-cute itself. And it is ruthlessly effective.
If you don’t know it already, you will soon. And the more you see it, the more you’ll want to shake your fist at the screen for making everything so deceptively easy. Because you have agonized over this. You agonized over why he didn’t just show up at that place where you ran into each other that one time. And then when he didn’t you agonized over the waiting. Finally you agonized over whether or not you should have been agonizing at all. One of you could have just picked up the telephone, right? But you knew that something would have been disappointing in that; some dimly seen glory would have fallen by the wayside. And so you returned to agonizing. And you wanted to crawl inside his head and scream at him, without him ever knowing it was you.
A meet-again-cute may not be necessary. It may only be necessary if things are going swimmingly. Maybe you will be lucky enough to have things not go so well. You could be lucky enough, say, to go years and years without meeting anyone you like. Or you could really hit the jackpot and meet someone who argues with you constantly about truly idiotic things. There are so many ways to not get what you want. And who knows—maybe that near-paradoxical tension could rear its head in something as seemingly un-romantic as an arranged marriage. Or even online. Rumor has it some people who meet online do love each other.
But amid all your wants and choices—whatever you do, don’t try to cheat. If you want to be frustrated, you can’t ask the other person to frustrate you; they have to really frustrate you. And if you want to meet-cute someone, you can’t go around trying to set it up, because then your meet-cute would just be the effect of your own will, and that wouldn’t be cute at all. Shame on you for trying to defraud the universe of its native rights.
You also have rights. One of your rights is to wait for the universe to exercise its rights. But again, remember, its rights are its gifts. It gave you those other human beings you might someday come to love. It gave you physical things, like fields and lakes, the sky and clouds. And it gave you the big grid of space and time in which everything plays out. You have to operate within that grid, so don’t try to game it; don’t try to be master of what is not yours. When, one fine day, you choose a time and a place to be, she might just be served up there. She might be standing there waiting for you. Or she might not. Either way, it is out of your hands.
Love is not all waiting. How could it be? Let us suppose we do learn our lesson from conversionary Protestantism and its deputy in the realm of love, the Hollywood film. Let us suppose we stop seeing the world as a field for our choosing and accept that there are ways in which things become important to us only if we don’t choose them. Let us suppose it—should we then cease to act at all? Obviously not. Sitting around waiting on the world cannot be enough.
At some point, when the sovereign law of romance decides it is time, you will be allowed to contact the other person directly. There doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid that: it is difficult to imagine a successful marriage in which the spouses just keep hoping to run into each other on the street. Similarly, at some point the two of you will have to stop disagreeing with each other about everything—or whatever contrivance had prevented a direct approach. There doesn’t seem any avoiding that either; if the goal is to love, then somewhere along the way you will have to start… loving. It might be easier to recognize the transition in hindsight, because it can be gradual and hard to notice. But it can also be sudden, and then pleasantly disorienting when it happens: good luck thinking straight the first time she reaches out to hold your hand.
At some point, therefore, the will comes back into the picture. While there is no script for how to do this—which is hardly surprising—there is wisdom for it. And here the Americans are in their element. When Ralph Waldo Emerson ignited the American intellectual tradition with his “American Scholar” address in 1837, calling on his compatriots to free themselves from European cultural domination with the power of self-reliance, he was also calling on them to think about the place of the will. A half-century downstream from Emerson—early enough to lie in his shadow still, late enough to be hurtling into the modern world—the American pragmatists came on the scene and did just that. It was one of their number who may have made the finest contribution on the topic.
William James’s theory of the will is still, to this day, surprising in its boldness. But that doesn’t stop it from being helpful for thinking about love; it is in fact the perfect complement to the lesson learned from the religion of Jonathan Edwards and the Hollywood romance. If you’ve been cooperative in letting the world have its way with you, then James’s theory is just what you need. After all that waiting you will be parched for action. And rightfully so; it is indeed time to act. The question is how.
William James led a life well suited to thinking about what a human being can or cannot achieve by the strength of will. He was, as is often forgotten, a New Yorker, arriving into the world in 1842 in the Astor House, just below city hall—but his post-childhood education was conducted in notoriously haphazard fashion all across Europe, courtesy of his father’s repeatedly shifting aspirations for his firstborn son. The sheer diversity of James’s upbringing—not to mention an indecisiveness that proved to be an enduring character trait—may have landed him in a particularly nasty version of the twentysomething slump. That is, not only: no idea what to do with life; but also: no idea whether or not to keep living.
The worst of it for James seems to have begun in November of 1866. Then a medical student at Harvard University (those clergy-training facilities had started doing things like granting M.D.s and Ph.D.s), James was in the middle of a dissection when, “almost without perceptible exciting cause,” his back went out. From such a small beginning came great, dreadfully great, things. First torpor, then a trip abroad. Going to Europe didn’t help—in the words of Emerson, James’s giant went with him. Much of the winter of 1867-68 was spent thinking about suicide in Germany. James went back to the States at the end of 1868, and managed to finish up medical school in June of the following year. Then there was a bright spot: the summer of 1869, spent on vacation in Connecticut with family, gave some grounds for hope. But as every struggler knows, you’re not out of it until you’re really out of it, and it can always get worse. For James it got worse.
We can point to what sank him low: it was the death of his first cousin, Minnie Temple. James seems to have had some sort of affair of the heart with her, inasmuch as their relation would have permitted it. He admired her and he felt close to her, and when she died in March of 1870 at the age of 24, her passing was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Two events followed that have been canonized in William James’s biography. First, James had a vision. One night in a darkened dressing room, he was seized by a chilling memory: of an epileptic patient he had once seen, “a black-haired youth with greenish skin,” who spent his days sitting motionless, only his dark eyes shifting back and forth. James felt, with visceral, overwhelming force, that precious little separated him from the youth, that at any moment he could become the same. For a good while after, James lived in terror, and believed himself to be, indeed, on the brink of insanity.
The second event was more cerebral, but no less life-changing: an intellectual breakthrough, which we know about from a diary entry of April 30, 1870. Throughout his medical studies, James had come increasingly under the sway of a “deterministic” philosophy of life: What was the point of trying to do anything on one’s own, to put it bluntly, if all one was was a collection of impulses conditioned by physical laws? James came to realize, with the help of the neo-Kantian French philosopher Charles Renouvier, that the guarantor of free will was the phenomenon of attention. If you can resolve to hold a thought in your mind, and succeed in holding it there, you have executed the paradigmatic act of human freedom. On the day of his legendary diary entry, the thought that James chose to hold in his mind was—cleverly enough—the thought of his own freedom. “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
There is an easy way to digest these two events together: the first event is the crisis to which the second is the cure. Such is the interpretive option taken by the majority of biographers, and it is too easy, of course. Among the other overlooked complications, there is the one really big one: that nobody gets over a four-year depression with a single diary entry. James may have bestowed his own freedom upon himself in a moment of epiphany, but it would take a number of years before the depression that began in the dissecting room would resolve itself: he tried to scratch and claw his way out of the hole, but he really didn’t come back up until his courtship, six years later, with the wise Alice Gibbens. Nevertheless, despite the roles played by time, chance and the world in the unraveling of his affliction, there remains something distinctly self-made about the re-making of William James. There was a moment amid the madness when he reached down for the straps of his own boots and lifted. That was the beginning of it, and, in a way, the essence of it. The bootstrapping would even be repeated over the course of his life—to address what appeared to be seasonal depression, the recurring echo of his great crisis.
Thankfully, James took his definitive experience and turned it into words. Having spent a couple decades studying, teaching and writing across the gamut from physiology through psychology to philosophy, he issued a series of essays in the 1890s that still stand as classics of their type—broadly speaking, philosophical treatments of the question everybody really wants to think about: how to lead a human life. It is in these essays that James introduces his new theory of the will. The will in James’s hands becomes more than just the ordinary organ of wanting and procuring; it becomes the super-will. The will—not flying, not X-ray vision—is to be the true human superpower. How do we claim our power and become heroes? The first step is to accept what James dares us to accept: that we can will a belief. That is, after all, what he himself did on the day of his journal entry: he willed himself to believe in the freedom of his own will. Now he asks what other beliefs we can will. Getting to the answer, with relentless Jamesian rigor and charm, is the work of his 1896 essay “The Will to Believe.”
Can we decide what we believe? The immediate, intuitive response for most of us is probably yes. A quick test makes for a quick refutation: choose an object in your vicinity and try to believe it is a different color from what it is. (Try it, right now.) Belief starts to seem a little less malleable. The truths of mathematics will also bar the way: good luck believing 7 + 5 is anything other than 12. And natural science? Its truths seem to build on each other with interlocking necessity: you start with everyday things like the color of the paperweight on your desk—no choice there—then you add in a little mathematics—don’t even try to resist—and before you know it you have to accept that there are molecules. You dwell in a knowledge prison.
What about those molecules, though? Unless we’ve been presented with a nicely ordered history of chemistry, complete with a well-stocked laboratory, chances are we have accepted the existence of molecules “on faith.” If this is so, James invites us to wonder, then was there not at some point a willingness to believe in them, even if it was just a willingness to align oneself with a high-status theory? Or try democracy—an example James slides in right alongside his molecules, troublemaker that he is. Why not believe, instead of the equal worth of all, that some human beings are just better than others, and that these magnificent aristoi should be in charge? James’s point is not simply that our beliefs do not have the undeniable justification we might hope for them—there’s plenty of that kind of talk in the history of philosophy—but that we in some sense have willed our beliefs. We voted for them with our hearts.
Sometimes we vote with our hearts when we really don’t know yet if something is true or false. Let’s say a chemist is trying to figure out if there are molecules. She happens to have a hunch that there are. She gets into a few discussions with her colleagues about it; her hunch becomes a real inclination; and faster than she can say “unbiased inquiry” her inclination has become a mission. She has no intellectual reasons to prefer the molecular hypothesis, but she’s all in anyway. And why not? Is this such a bad thing? She will have much more energy for her cause. If there is a piece of evidence in the world that supports her view, she will unearth it. She might not see the evidence that speaks against her—but no matter, others can look for that. In the end she has excellent reason to just go ahead and will the belief in molecules; her newfound zeal is reason enough.
James never stopped short in an exploration or an argument—and for him that meant never stopping short of the biggest question: the religious one. His thinking of the late 1890s kept pushing in this direction, culminating in the Gifford Lectures delivered in Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902, the lectures known to posterity as The Varieties of Religious Experience. James felt that the question of this world and the other world was somehow decisive for all of us, whichever way we answered it. And that included a whole lot of answers for someone like William James—attender of séances, consulter of mediums and all-around junkie for experience. In “The Will to Believe,” James is mostly interested in leveling the playing field vis-à-vis his skeptical colleagues. When it comes down to it, he wonders, why can’t we just go ahead and will the belief in God? The stern-minded skeptic is happy to object: we have no evidence for it. James replies: we have no evidence against it. The skeptic concedes, and objects again: well, then, I’ll wait until we have decisive evidence one way or the other. William James: to spend a life in indecision is no different from choosing against it; for example, if you have no decisive evidence that a potential career is best for you, you can’t just delay your decision until you die. The skeptic: but religion is not like that. William James: why not?
For someone like James, someone who spent a good portion of his life struggling to live, the life-giving aspects of faith would probably have never left his mind. If the need to move forward can itself be a reason for believing in molecules—the zealous chemist going full speed ahead, barreling out of bed in the morning—then why can’t it also be a reason for believing in God? The skeptic of stern mind won’t go down without a fight: you can’t comfort yourself with an illusion! But to say “illusion” would be to assume an answer to the very question the stern-minded skeptic agreed was still open: whether or not there is a God. A double standard has a funny way of sneaking back in whenever it can. James won’t let it. Towards the end of “The Will to Believe,” he has a memorable rebuke for the dogmatic anti-believer. The anti-believer, arguing so fervently against being fooled by lack of evidence, has simply succumbed to fear instead. And “dupery for dupery, what proof is there, that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear?” The hope that God exists is a sound reason for believing in God; so go ahead and believe.
Democracy, molecules, God—all of these beliefs can be willed. The human will is indeed a mighty thing. But James won’t let it rest at that: there is one more twist in the argument; the will becomes mightier still. Some of these beliefs that we can now claim a right to—later in life James wished he had used the phrase “the right to believe” instead of “the will to believe”—have a further curious feature: they can create the reality they envision. This might seem, at first glance, utter hogwash. James has examples for us, though, as he always does. Imagine you are an Alpinist. You have worked yourself into a position on your mountain from which there is only one escape: a leap. (James doesn’t consider why you can’t backtrack—just have a little faith and pretend that the sun is going down and it’s getting cold.) If you do as the stern skeptic does, filling yourself with doubts and negative scenarios—all quite possibly very reasonable, it should be added—then you are much more likely to fall to your death. Do as the daredevil does, dare to believe, filling yourself with affirmation and positive visualizations—all quite possibly irrational—and you are much more likely to make it. The world is nothing but a maybe before you come on the scene. Whatever it is you want to create—it doesn’t approach you; you approach it. Take the leap, impose your will. Afterwards the world becomes what you have made it to be.
All this talk of leaping—sounds like it could be a metaphor for something, like faith, say. James does not disappoint. True to form, he takes his theory all the way to the highest level again. The final passage of the 1895 address “Is Life Worth Living” is one of the crowning gestures of his life’s work. It is about God, and it is bold: the belief in God, yes, even the belief in God, could be one of those beliefs that creates the reality it envisions.
I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.
The universe needs us; God needs us; we will God into existence. It would be an understatement to say that this is an oddball view within the history of theology. “Heresy” is another word that comes to mind. Luckily, though, mercifully, in the event that the weight of God’s demand is too much to bear, there are other happy recipients for our steadfast belief. Human beings.
Smile and the world smiles with you. There may have been times in your life when you were consistently sad, or consistently happy. If you have moved between the two enough, you might have gathered sufficient data to test the maxim. People liked you less when you were sad, not just because nobody loves you when you’re down and out, but because you were untrusting. Take James’s “trivial illustration”: “a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trusting spirit would earn.” If you reach towards human beings, they will reach back. This is the Jamesian prescription for social success. You have the right to believe you like other people, because that is the sort of belief you really can will into existence; and if you believe that you like them, then they will like you, because it is also the sort of belief that creates the reality it envisions.
At the moment this advice goes unheeded, and the contrary tendency reigns. If there were a way to collect data on “playing it cool,” the resulting charts would show a pronounced societal shift over the last few decades: skyrocketing levels of cool-playing; widespread, unprecedented coolness. The phenomenon can be run through the mill of the usual game-theoretic apparatus, if such explanation is desired. In a “market” like the “dating market,” there is advantage to be had, or disadvantage to be avoided, by being the last to make a gesture of interest, or by advertising that one has other buyers lined up for one’s goods. Others will do the same in response, inevitably in slightly greater degree; followed by others in still greater degree—and in due time the race to the bottom reaches the foreordained result of all group-action dilemmas: the tragically overgrazed commons, the polluted air, cities full of people who don’t trust each other. The only way out is to remind yourself of the reason for getting into this whole mess in the first place.
So what do you want when you want someone? Do you want him merely to perform a sequence of actions over a given span of years—to attend a certain number of social events with you, to utter desired strings of phonemes to you, to continue to eat and breathe so that he can be present at a certain church on a certain day? No, you want him to love you. And while love itself might be read off from actions, it is the love we want, and not the actions. But can’t we nevertheless make someone else love us by pretending we don’t love him? In theory, yes. There are objections, though: you may end up in a situation in which he loves you and you don’t love him back; or you may end up in a situation in which he loves someone who is not really you, but just the you that is pretending not to love him. These objections are important. There is an even more important objection, a Jamesian one: since it is the case that loving begets loving, you would be missing out on something if you pretended not to love. You would be missing out on the opportunity to create love in another person through the presence of your own.
Such a formulation looks like it could lead to circularity. It does. The best kind of circle: an ascending one. If love begets love, then when you create love in someone else by loving him, that love you create in him will then create love in you—more than you had before. And that greater amount of love in you? It will create an even greater amount in him. There is in principle no limit to the ascending spiral—no brake on the runaway train. This is why young people smile at each other for hours on park benches. This is also why adults raise children together—what a great way to show someone you love them and get them to love you back so that you can love them more! Of course, by then the love has spread to the children too. More begets more begets more. Immerse yourself for long enough in this way of thinking—this way of being—and the love produced by playing hard-to-get doesn’t even seem like love at all. It seems like suffering. A passion that is suffered. The age-old question is thereby answered: Can you be in love with someone who is not in love with you? No. Not really.
Concessions must be made. A concession to timing, for one. If you call a love interest every day immediately after meeting them, chances are this will have a negative effect. There is something to be said for leaving space and making distance. There is something to be said for being playful. There is even something to be said for putting up a fight. But the question should be asked, early and often: Which is primary, the ascending spiral of mutual affection, or the fight? Appoint someone to whisper in your ear at unpredictable moments: “How about now; what is primary now? Has the fight become the main course, and not just the spice?” Learn to recognize the danger signs. Do the two of you compete to see who can end the interaction first, and does the loser immediately say they also have something very important to do? Danger. Is it difficult for the two of you to actually find ways to see each other, because of the battle of wills? Danger. Togetherness first, battle second. In love, war should be peace by other means.
Trust can be broken, too. Lots of things can go wrong. Life has no guarantees. But there will come moments, even with someone you trust, when you are on the fence: should you leap forward or should you draw back? If you are on the fence it is probably because you have landed in a William James moment, a moment in which your own will really can make the difference. If you take the leap, your leap could very well be the act that tilts the balance and allows the two of you to love each other. In other words: just go ahead and believe that you love her. That could make her love you. That could be the only thing that makes her love you.
It is, upon reflection, pretty extraordinary. You have within you this thing called intention, and you direct it toward that same mysterious thing in another person. The two intentions feed off of each other and grow, and suddenly there is something in the world that wantonly disobeys the law of conservation of energy. Love is an embarrassment to physics. Physics will never learn anything from its disgrace—poor, stubborn physics—but you can. If you have been waiting around for the magic of love to happen to you, you are making a grave error. You yourself are the magic. You have it within you to start the chain reaction, to drive the runaway train.
The world is filled with people who will tell you to settle—they’ll say that talk of love is idealistic nonsense, that it’s time to grow up and get realistic. They counsel as they do because they assume that love is something you wait for. If you know that love is not something you wait for but something you create, you can tune out their counsel of despair. You can embrace a second innocence. Just keep in mind that sometimes you have to push instead of being pulled.
Alexis de Tocqueville knew what a contradictory place America is. One experience in particular during his travels in the 1830s seemed to confirm it. Wandering through the western reaches of the country, he came across religious gatherings with distinctive features: the worshippers were outdoors, they were listening to itinerant preachers, and they were getting very emotional. This should all sound familiar, because this time history really was repeating itself. Tocqueville had stumbled upon what we now call the Second Great Awakening. The fervor was repeating itself too. Tocqueville spoke to pioneer families who had made long treks through rough country to take part; he saw them “forget for several days and nights the care of their affairs and even the most pressing needs of the body.” He was not entirely surprised. As Tocqueville saw it, Americans are as a general rule so concerned with the pursuit of self-interest that their spiritual instincts are neglected. Sooner or later, those instincts will resurface. And when they do, all bets are off: “The American spirit … feels itself imprisoned within limits from which it is seemingly not allowed to leave. As soon as it passes these limits, it does not know where to settle, and it often runs without stopping beyond the bounds of common sense.”
This experience—related in the section of Democracy in America aptly titled “Why Certain Americans Display Such an Exalted Spiritualism”—is emblematic of a larger American tendency for Tocqueville: an oscillation between extremes of independence and dependence. Americans are always swinging between an instinctive reliance on individual reason (what Tocqueville called their “practical Cartesianism”) and a corresponding, or perhaps compensating, tendency to put their faith in something outside of themselves. In this observation, as always, Tocqueville was insightful.
The theology of Jonathan Edwards, like the romance-ology of the Hollywood film, offers a particularly stark version of dependence: the powerlessness, the absolute powerlessness, of the will. If you are in any way the architect of your own conversion, then your conversion is not a true conversion, and you have missed out on the real thing. The psychology of William James offers a particularly radical version of independence: the power, the superpower, of the will. Not only can you rely on your individual reason to fix your car and make a lot of money; you can also will your own beliefs, and your beliefs can actively create the world. These two phenomena together heighten the tension that Tocqueville discovered: the most necessary of necessities comes up against the most willful of wills. What does this say about America? That is probably a question for sociologists and historians. No matter the answer, it is a confused brew: a culture in which William James-inspired self-help books thrive alongside Jonathan Edwards-inspired churches.
But America has a special place in its heart for lovers. Amid all the confusion, lovers need not worry, because for lovers the confusion can work itself out. It’s really very simple: the moment of necessity and the moment of freedom do not conflict, because they are separated in time. Waiting comes first, waiting for the world to deliver a special someone, instead of trying to impose your preferences on the world; willing comes second, willing the love for the person who has been delivered. First you fall for someone, and that is not up to you; then you believe, you believe with all your heart, and that most assuredly is. First you don’t will, then you do. You wait, and then you leap.
Why does it work that way? Who knows, that’s just the way it works. We don’t make the rules. But there is at least something philosophically satisfying in it. Human beings spend their lives torn between necessity and freedom. Of every single action it can be asked: “To what extent was that the product of my own will? To what extent was that just the result of the way I was raised, the food I happened to eat, the street I happened to walk down? Alas, when is something mine?” In love, you know the meet-cute wasn’t yours, or you know you used to think there was no chance in hell you would marry someone like that. But in love you also know that when you say damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead, then that definitely is yours. Thus there come into the world, side by side, an unambiguous necessity and an unambiguous freedom. And you get to bring them together. Delightful. The boundaries of existence meet up in love.
Is this too much fuss? No, it is just the right amount. Remember, love is not about holding out for something wonderful to strike, like lightning. It is about waiting for an opportunity to strike, and then, within that opportunity, creating your own lightning. This is perfectly realistic and it is perfectly available to everyone.
I am still in New York City, and I am still single. I am less bewildered by the multitude of faces, because I understand something I didn’t before—which is about all one can do in response to this place, this bewildering territory where Americans come to get lost. As I see it, everyone around me has things backwards, and doubly so. Instead of waiting for the world to tell them who will be theirs, they go out searching, with their preferences as a sieve. They do not know that what they seek cannot be sought. And instead of giving themselves to the one the world chooses, they hesitate for fear of being hurt. They do not know that they have to give to get. Thus they have it backwards—doubly, precisely backwards. Early in the process, when they should be waiting they are willing; later, when they should be willing they are waiting.
Are you, too, like this? If so, I disagree with you, obviously. And to be honest you make me uncomfortable. I was involved with one of your type recently. In the course of a very long and earnest conversation that proved to be our doom, she informed me of several of her criteria for selecting a mate and openly questioned if I met one of them. This while we held each other with an affection that still makes me shudder a little bit on the inside to remember it. What can I say? When you find someone, you find someone. I think I might have been ready to love her. But neither one of us took the leap. Or at least I don’t think so.
For the longest time I had dreams about Katherine. I was haunted by her, and I was having trouble setting her free. Everything had just gone so right between us. There was the vomiting, of course—really the cutest thing imaginable—and there was the lake, the lake telling us what to do. There was also the night that a friend of mine heard me talking about her and said “you know you’re in love, right?” and I picked up a fork and threw it across the room. Once Katherine and I got going, we practically put on a love clinic for the city of Chicago. We destroyed everyone and everything in our path. It was total dominance. People could tell we were in love just from looking at us, and if they had any cynicism before looking, they didn’t after.
I think I had such trouble letting go because I failed to see what we ourselves had put into it. I see now. I remember the time we went swimming in the lake, late in the season, the water so cold that only extremists like myself would partake. But she jumped right in. That was a gift. I also remember the exact moment I let myself believe that I loved her. An event inside my own mind, but with grand consequences. I loved that she loved me, and she loved that I loved her. Now I see that our love was what we made of it. We made it. So now I can let go. I can let go because I know that if I created love once before then I can create love again. I know that there can be a second partner in creation. As for why things ended between me and Katherine—well, that’s none of your business. You’ll just have to have a little faith.
A friend of mine often asks me—usually when our conversation has begun to run its course and we fall back on the tried and true—about the person who will become my wife. “Who will it be?” “What do you think her name is?” “What is she doing right now, at this very moment?” “How will you two meet?” My friend accompanies his questions with a mock-earnest insistence that he absolutely needs to know the answers, and is extraordinarily impatient that I cannot provide them. This makes us laugh. The game inevitably has another effect, though: it stirs up desire in me for my wife—my wife who, let us remember, does not exist. There is something unnerving about yearning for a void. Particularly when I know that someday there will be someone, and she and I will talk about today, when I yearned for her without knowing who she was. That’s how it could go. But then again maybe not. It depends on her, and the kinds of things she offers me, and the kinds of things I offer back. So I really have no idea about any of this, no idea at all—and sometimes, deep down, underneath the fear of the unknown, I find the waiting joyous.
Art credit: Denis Sarazhin, courtesy of the artist and Arcadia Contemporary.
Reference images: 1) George Whitefield Preaching in Bolton, June 1750 (Bolton Library & Museum Services, Bolton Council); 2) Sleepless in Seattle; 3) The Wedding Planner