Thursday, 4 February 2016

When lightning strikes a crowded room

When I met my first boyfriend, lightning struck. We had never met before, but the moment he walked into my friend's kitchen, he was my sole focus that night. It turned out to be mutual. We talked to each other, and for each other all through dinner. We walked to the bus stop for me to catch a bus, he wheeling his bike so he could keep talking to me. It was only the part of my screaming "you're not out yet! To anyone! Do not make any rash decisions!" that stopped me from kissing him that very night.
We texted incessantly, and began a rapid, dramatic courtship. We went on dates, walked through London at night, kissed, fought, made up, spilled our hearts to each other. It was passionate and powerful and joyous and liberating and melodramatic in a way only the first encounter with those feelings can be. I have no regrets about that relationship.
It lasted three months. We broke up (with much elegant drama), saw each other a couple more times, then went off on our separate lives once again. The only fallout from that relationship was a bruised heart, and some lessons about how to treat other people.
I was young, and single, and my boyfriend was a stranger. Lightning struck us, and it was exhilarating. If any of those parameters had been different, the lightning strike would have been at least inconvenient, at most terrifying.
There is a reason Anna Karenina flees the ball after her encounter with Vronsky. There is a reason Olivia's response to meeting Viola/Cesario is "Soft, even so swiftly may one catch the plague?" There is a reason Elinor Dashwood will not speak of her feelings for Edward Farrars, when she does not know (and has reason to doubt) that any good may come of it.
The lightning strikes of love guarantee nothing: not that the lightning strike is reciprocated, not that the fit is good, not that happiness will befall. To use them as the sole guide of behavior is foolishness. To claim they are the pathway to goodness and happiness and should be given special consideration above all other factors is adolescent petulance that results in real pain.
People take risks for love yes. They sometimes must. And they sometimes pay a heavy price. You probably know several people who've moved for love, only to have it not work out. They rebuild their lives in a new place, alluding only rarely to the circumstance that brought them there. We often, if we are friends with people making those choices, have misgivings, fears. "Are you sure? Is this wise?"
Literature and personal history tell us that lightning love is a poor guide of behavior. And yet, when some suggest that, in situations were abuse of power is easy, where all outside factors conspire to suggest that following the guides of Eros's arrow is foolish and dangerous, and enables much worse behavior, how quick we are to demand that love be given primacy.
How many of you would counsel a friend or daughter to run off with someone they'd met only once? How many of you would counsel a married friend to start an affair because of a moment on chemistry, rather than to make quite sure they were never alone with that person again? And yet you would not counsel someone not to start a relationship with their subordinates? And yet you would not tell them that is ill advised? And yet you would not tell them to protect both themselves and the one they claim to love? I call shenanigans.
Edward Farrars, as it turns out, was as enamoured of Elinor as she of him. But he had gotten engaged to Lucy Steele much younger, and to break that engagement (because of the fucked up social mores of Austen's time) would have ruined the young woman. Edward chose to honor his promise to Lucy (until circumstances relieved him of it). Had he not done so, not only would he have ruined Lucy, he would not have been the honorable, kind man that Elinor fell for in the first place.
In contrast, Willoughby, the Villain of sense and sensibility, pursues Elinor's sister Marianne. Here is the point though: Willoughby's love for Marianne is not insincere. But because he is selfish, he does not recognise that pursuing that attraction can only harm Marianne. This is what Elinor cannot forgive in him: that he put his own pleasure ahead of her sister's wellbeing. Austen understood only too well that to be in love with someone, is not the same as to care for them.
If you wish to do well by people, you cannot rely on the lightning strikes of passion to guide you to goodness. Austen knew this, Tolstoi knew this, Shakespeare knew this. Scientists should remember it too

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