January 13, 2008

Love, an Inability to Love, and a Poem about Love

This is a difficult subject for me to figure out, much less discuss. It is the fact that Lynn is apparently in a terminal decline (though she has rallied a little now that Danny, her son, is visiting from Texas) and her husband of 61 devoted years is going to be left behind, that brings it to the forefront. That is a terribly sad situation by itself but it is not what I wish to discuss here; it's only that her closeness to her husband for these past decades has been such that I can only call it true love undying, something I thought didn't really exist. The understanding that some people fall in love and love for a lifetime brings up evokes all sorts of "feelings" in me or at least brings up various issues.

First among them is my own felt inability to love. Despite what I say (to Lynn, to Joe) and despite what I want to feel, I think I do not feel any emotion deep enough to match what I think most people mean when they say "I love you." For one thing, I am not sure I feel that committed to the people I "love". I mean, I would give them a kidney, yes, I would give them my bank card, I would probably do all sorts of things for them. But I would, I venture to say, do those things for almost anyone if asked, or would want to. Though I can't give away my kidney to just anyone, lest my twin sister need it someday and I be her perfect match, I have in fact given my bank card to a number of people, along with my PIN, and told them to take as much as they needed! I would not say I loved them, however, unless I could say, in general, that I love humanity, which I do not, particularly. I mostly did it out of a feeling that, were it I who needed the money, I would feel relieved if someone helped out. I wanted them to experience that sort of help and relief from someone, just for once, and that someone just happened to be Pam W. Actually, I wanted to treat everyone as if they were Jesus Christ coming back in disguise...But it was of course foolish of me, as I learned when my bank account was 2 or 3 times found to be missing large sums of money and the stranger nowhere to be found.

But as I was saying, I cannot feel the deeper feelings of personal love, nor do I want or am I able to accept the intimacy of physical love. At 55, I have never felt the first and rarely experienced the second, and then only with distaste and feelings of being trespassed and invaded (it was loveless, by definition). This bothers me, and it worries me that when I am Lynn’s age, I will be dying and come to the realization that I regret I missed out on such basic experiences as love and sex. Yet, I cannot make myself love, can I? Nor force myself to enjoy the physical act of love, especially when I am not in love, can I? (I know, I know, love is not a feeling, it is an act of caritas, or loving-kindness yada yada yada, and it may well be, in the end. But we all know what I am talking about, the feeling I refer to, whether you call it love or something else...

But more, I fear I do not in general feel emotions properly, or remember them the way others do, or even as long as they do. To give an example, I was talking with Dr O the other day, on the phone because I could not get to her office and it had been several weeks since I had had an appointment (her vacation then a lack of a ride had prevented them). Lynn was the subject, and the fact that she was so ill I was not allowed to visit her. I became somewhat tearful as we spoke, and Dr O was sympathetic but as the conversation went on, it gradually turned away from Lynn, or I allowed it to, and my tears dried and I was distracted from the apparent sadness I’d felt. Then, about five minutes later, Dr O brought up Lynn again. “How do you feel about Lynn?” she asked, seemingly a propos of nothing. Odd, I thought. Why is she asking me that? But I didn’t feel anything about Lynn, no grief, no sadness, no nothing. It was as if I’d forgotten she was dying, forgotten how I felt, forgotten there was anything sad going on at all. I knew, vaguely, that I should feel something, that something sad was in fact taking place. But I mostly felt irritated that Dr O wanted me to dredge it all up once more, to find the feelings of sadness all over again, when it would take time and energy and cost me...

She didn’t seem to get it, only wanted to ascertain that I'd had so-called "normal feelings" and that I had felt sad at the time, which I assured her I had. But she didn’t understand the profound lack of feeling, of emotional memory that prevailed only minutes later, a void and even a coldness that scared me. It wasn’t that I felt anything against Lynn, only that I forgot to feel something for her or about her...It was in essence as if I forgot her. Forgot I was supposed to feel something! The very fact that I phrase it that way says something is wrong. No one is supposed to feel grief, most people simply do. I feel it because I know I am supposed to? What is wrong with me? Is this schizophrenia or am I simply a psychopath, a monster?

This worries me, it really does, far more than whether or not I will ever enjoy sex or physical intimacy. If I cannot love, how will I be able to care about anyone deeply enough to grieve or feel real emotions? Will it always be a matter of how I am supposed to feel, to act, to do? Or will I ever be able to simply trust myself to really experience the proper emotions at the proper depth and act out of them? I tell Joe every time I see him, I love you, but I do so because I know he wants to hear it, and it is a gift to and for him. But do I really feel what he feels for me? I doubt it...I may get jealous of Karen visiting so much more often than I can, because she can drive there at the drop of a hat, while I need to get a ride, from her no less. But the jealousy comes from simple possessiveness, and the feeling that she is trying to take away someone who has been my best friend for far longer than he has been friendly with her. But do I feel like his "girlfriend" as I have agreed to call myself? NO WAY! I just call myself that because it makes him feel good and I want to do that for him. There is no particular reason not to. It is not as if I will be finding Mr Right and wanting to "break up" with Joe anytime soon...Am I wrong to do this? Am I just pond scum for essentially deceiving him in this way, even though it is simply to make him happy, happier than he has ever been?

As for other feelings, oh, I know, I do get afraid and angry, yes, and those are real, but the object of them is not, because it is anger and fear in the paranoid sense. So what use are those emotions, and how “real” are they, if their cause is imaginary?! Yes, they are real, of course they are, no unreal anger or fear could do the damage that paranoid schizophrenia can wreak. But in the sense that such feelings aren’t based in reality, well, you see the problem. And besides, it is the higher, less primitive emotions I am talking about, not the primal ones, the amygdala-generated ones. It is easy to feel a “flight or fight” emotion; it is something even animals experience. But to feel grief or love or what have you, those do not proceed from the amygdala, but take a longer path around the brain, and while certain animals may also experience these (voles, dogs, whales and elephants come to mind) they are certainly part of what makes us human.

So I ask again, am I human? Or am I a monster?


Here’s the poem, finally finished, that I started two years ago or so for Lynn’s husband Cy, on his 88th birthday. Prairie voles are noted for their monogamy and really remarkable devotion to each other as mates and to their offspring as well. They really have been studied in the lab for the source of what hormones and other organic molecules make them, and us humans by extension, fall in love.


For Cy, on his 88 th birthday, who needs
no metaphor but deserves a poem

Thinking to write a gift, I studied the prairie vole,
monogamous, doting parent, tender provider,
a model, literally, for human love.
If I could write of prairie vole attachment
it would be a metaphor for this couple’s devotion.
But the poem didn’t work. Nothing I did
could make it fit or squeeze it into a proper form.
A year passed. I wrote other poems,
but no gifts, because none presented themselves.
Finally, I had to do something with the voles,
They were rubbing my mind raw.
I wrote everything I’d learned about them
on a sheet of paper, twenty different facts—
So much to know about so tiny a creature,
all five inches of peppery fur and tail!
Surely it matters not that a widowed vole
prefers to remain alone rather than mate again.
It’s a behavior scientists attribute to hormones.
But that made me think. Why merely hormones?
Why shouldn’t a vole experience love?
It has the same love chemistry we do:
vasopressin, oxytocin, dopamine—
Aren’t those teenagers’ falling-heels-over-head
chemicals, the “attachment molecules” all mothers
are awash in giving birth and no wonder:
pain would be the otherwise all
they remembered...? So, who’s to say
that voles don’t grieve when separated in the lab
or dream of evenings in their moss-lined nest,
of making love then sleeping side by side?

Posted by pamwagg at January 13, 2008 06:17 PM | TrackBack


I know this much: you are not a monster or a psychopath. This is beautiful writing that comes from the heart. Don't fret. You're a lovely human being.

Posted by: forsythia at January 14, 2008 06:37 AM

Dearest Pam,
Once again I quote the words of a woman I have never met, but whose importance in your life is inestimable. "The feeling is primary." For me to presume to decide whether or not you do or do not experience "feelings" or emotions according to some set standard is not within my ability. According to Dr. O, however,you DO feel, and whether or not the situation which initiates that feeling is "real" or imagined, your feelings are valid. How can anyone know if others experience the same sensation as he or she does when experiencing love, shame, empathy, indifference etc.? The vast realm in which emotion dwells is not subject to scientific quantification or the establishment of specific, verifiable definition. For my part, your words and actions regarding me have convinced me that you do love me, if indeed that statement can be made of anyone. I don't know if whatever I "feel" at any given time is 'correct". One thing that I do believe with all my heart is that you and I and many others are indeed humans, not monsters. Of this I can produce no proof. I can only say,"The feeling is primary."
With love,Your T3

Posted by: Paula Kirkpatrick at January 13, 2008 09:04 PM

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