I'm in San Francisco, where it's bright and sunny and 80 degrees. I should be exploring organic local markets and the liberally-minded kitsch stores and art galleries.
Instead, I've holed myself up in a dark room with one narrow window, with only the glow of my computer screen throwing light on my face (and not very flattering light, mind you).
The reason I've opted for this self-induced hermit-ude (solitude without the natural surroundings of Walden Pond), is because before boarding my flight to SF yesterday, I picked up a copy of Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding at the Boston Public Library (I can write a whole other post on the virtue of paper books and the library, but I'll save that for another time). It turns out Helen Fielding's first novel is more enjoyable and revelatory than Bridget Jones--at least for me, and perhaps anyone else who dallied with the idea of "saving the world."
For those of you who haven't read it, Cause Celeb follows twenty-something Rosie Richardson as she dates a B-list TV host, gets caught up in the media and publicity world, and then chucks it all to go save dying people in Africa after she realized the man she loves -- desperately, chemically, addictively -- is a real prat. Sound familiar?
In my twenties, I had a special talent for dating men who fell somewhere on the spectrum between self-absorbed do-gooders and narcissistic "victims." These men had the uncanny knack of getting me to sympathize with them through their minefield of self-discovery, to which I ultimately fell victim to, often losing a vital limb of my own self-identity.
But the charm wears off. Around 25 I decided I would never ask any of them to love me--either they did or they didn't, but I was not going to hitch my needs to their emotional rollercoaster. Around 28, I started trending more towards the self-absorbed do-gooders, who were easier to not hate after the break-up (thereby ensuring that more of the person I wanted to be was preserved). Around 32, I just stopped. Stopped dating, stopped trying to figure them out.
As Rosie says in Cause Celeb, "I've had four years of romantic aridity, but also emotional peace."
I couldn't say it better. I became smarter and happier when I stopped trying to figure out men. As Rosie figures out, you can do all the things the books and magazines say, but you can't earn love the way you earn money. Romantic love is spontaneous and unconditional--meaning you can't earn it at all. The relationship is conditional on all sorts of things -- lifestyle choices, emotional stability, philosophical alignment, sometimes even in-laws -- but the chemistry is not. It's completely out of your control. You can have a date with the most good-looking, kind, smart, eligible guy and not feel a thing. Trust me. That's what I've been doing (repeatedly) for the past year and a half.
But the question that keeps coming up in my mind, the one that makes me think that I'll never want to be in a relationship ever again, is "Do men really want to love a woman?" Sure, they want companionship, sex, and all the other goodies related to being in a relationship (if they want a relationship at all). But do they want to give of themselves?
Most women do, and the whole dating scene seems to predicated on this imbalance--women want to give emotionally, and most men want a muse or mother--someone to inspire them and take care of them in their moments of self-doubt. But what if you don't need a provider, nor do you want to be anyone's muse? Can a man want a relationship that doesn't bolster his manhood through the "provider" trope or force the woman to be a self-negating muse? (After all, did a muse ever receive royalties or her own book deal?)
Now, I don't think all men are life-sucking narcissists (though some remain out there--I think that explains the proliferation of vampire movies). But I've never heard a man of talking about wanting a relationship because they had so much to give. Have you?
Of course, the full irony of Cause Celeb is that those of us who dally with the idea of saving the world are narcissists ourselves. Not selfish narcissists, but generous narcissists, who think that it's somehow our responsibility to right all the wrongs of the world. It's a great way to feel validated while invalidating yourself--everyone thinks you're noble while you ignore your own needs. That's why we so easily fall into the role of muse/mother for self-absorbed narcissists--we're so eager to heal anyone but ourselves.