6 min read

It's Been a While

A bedroom scene in high-contrast black-and-white. In the foreground, a bed with the covers and pillows stripped off. Light shining through venetian blinds to the left. On the back wall, a framed photograph of rumpled sheets.

It hurts to feel unloved.

The first thing I need to tell you is that I'm okay, now. When the person whom you have loved with your whole heart for nearly two-thirds of your life tells you that they don't want you anymore, it is natural to have some feelings. It is natural not to be okay for a while. I wasn't okay. In some ways, I suppose, I haven't been okay for as long as I can remember. I'm getting there now, I think.

I have spent so much of my life feeling unloved and unlovable, feeling unremarkable, uninteresting, unseen and unworthy of being seen. And, yes, when you have devoted your life to a person who has lost interest in you, that doesn't help. But, truthfully, I've been like this since before we were ever an us. And it hurts. It hurts to try so hard to be good, to be worthwhile, and to constantly feel like you're coming up short. To want so badly to be loved and to be known, to feel a connection, and not feel it.

Being loved is not enough to make you feel loved.

About four months ago, I tweeted that I'd been having a hard time and asked for someone to say something nice to me. Well over a hundred people—friends, acquaintances, and strangers—responded to me with a compliment. If I'm being honest with myself, it's not even all that uncommon for people to pay me a compliment. But I've always had an excuse.

You're only saying that because you have to, because you're my parent/family/spouse/child.

You're only saying that because you don't know what I'm like on the inside.

You're only saying that because I've tricked you into thinking that I'm worth saying that to.

People have tried to tell me for a long time that I am loved, but because I felt unlovable, I didn't feel their love.

It hurts to let yourself feel loved, when you are used to feeling unloved.

Once, on a high school camping trip, I made a new friend, a boy who hadn't ever had a close friend before, who had learned to hate himself the same way I had. The program of this trip was ostensibly to teach us about ecology and wildlife science, geology, outdoor careers, but really it was about teaching us to love each other and ourselves. One night at the campfire, I watched him receive validation, receive love, for what may have been the first time in his life. His face screwed up and he hunched over, his hand clutching his chest. "This hurts!" he howled, tears streaming down his cheeks. I knew how he felt, because I'd felt the same thing the first time I went on that trip, the year before.

Knowing that that pain exists—the pain of release, of freedom, of love accepted—can make you hold even tighter to self-loathing. Self-loathing hurts longer, but it's less intense in the moment.

Loving someone won't change who they are.

That night on that camping trip, it was like watching my friend being born. We were close after that for a few years, and we loved each other. Then we both moved away to go to college and grew apart. We lost touch some time after his first wedding. When we finally did reconnect, many years later, I discovered that he'd become a conspiracy theorist with unmanaged rage issues. He unfriended me after I told him that I loved him but that I refused to engage with his arguments on his terms. That was years ago now, and it's for the best. I'm still a little sad about it, though.

Loving someone won't fix them. Loving someone won't turn them into a person who will be who you need them to be.

"You are what you love, not what loves you."

There's a scene in the movie Adaptation where Donald Kaufman says to his brother Charlie (both played by Nicolas Cage), "You are what you love, not what loves you." I've carried that line around with me for 19 years now, I think about it all the time. It's come up most often for me when thinking about about my creative work—my writing, my photography, my podcasts, and so on—and my relationship to audience. But it is also something I think about in terms of the world, this country, the people around me, and my relationships to them all.

Lately, I have been struggling. I have believed—believed without evidence or reason, but nevertheless believed fully and deeply—that I have loved my wife more than anyone has else has ever loved or been loved. If I am what I love then if that love diminishes, am I not also diminished? I feel smaller, and my world feels smaller. I've been resentful about that, feeling that my love has been taken away from me.

It's been a long time since I've actually watched Adaptation. In coming to write this, I finally looked up that scene again:

Let me transcribe the exchange:

Charlie: There was this time in high school. I was watching you at the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marshall.

Donald: Oh, God, I was so in love with her.

Charlie: I know. And you were flirting with her, and she was being really sweet to you.

Donald: I remember that.

Charlie: And then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Cannetti. And it was like they were laughing at me. But you didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.

Donald: I knew. I heard them.

Charlie: Well how come you were so happy?

Donald: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. And Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.

Charlie: But she thought you were pathetic.

Donald: [laughs] That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.

You can't make someone love you, no matter how much you might want them to love you nor how hard you try to be what they want you to be. That's a truth I've known and accepted for some time now. One that I'm learning now is that a person can only take your love away from you if you let them. Perhaps I am diminished now, but if my love is gone it's because I let it go. I let it go in order to protect myself, because it hurt too much to keep it, at least for now. But if I have become smaller, perhaps it's to give myself the chance to grow again in the future.

Sometimes I love the world so much I can't stand it.

I've been thinking a lot about Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" lately—of course I have. "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on."

Sometimes loving a world with so much ugliness in it feels immoral. And yet I do. I do.

You can choose to let yourself feel loved.

You cannot choose which feelings or thoughts will come to you. But you can choose which ones to give your attention and focus to, which ones to feed. There are many kinds of love. The temporary loss of one doesn't negate or diminish the others that are still present—quite the opposite, sometimes.

I have long felt that giving one's attention is the purest and truest expression of love. That we all want to feel that we are important, that we are being seen and heard and known, and so to really look and listen closely is the greatest gift. It's what I have always wanted. To be known, and to know. To be loved, and to love.

This is what I'm learning and re-learning, over and over again: that there is color in my life, that there are so many people who love me, that I have so much love to give and so many people who I can and do give it to. I'm letting myself imagine a fuller, happier life, perhaps for the first time. I'm learning to love myself in the same measure that I love the world and the people in my life. I haven't been okay, not for a long time. But I'm getting there. I'm closer than I've ever been, and I'm getting there.

Thank you, and take care.


A green hydrangea leaf in deep shadow, backlit and glowing.