Unrequited Love - Finding Peace in What Our Relationships Actually Are

The final day of vacation is always an emotional trip. Wednesday morning I woke up in Estes Park, Colorado and lay in my bed for a moment with a felt awareness of how much effort it takes to go home. Once I finally got out of bed, I packed the clothes I spent a week skillfully strewing around my bedroom, and then hopped into a rental vehicle—a very practical red Dodge Ram—with Luke and a buddy to begin our 1.5 hour drive to the Denver Airport.

On that ride to the airport, I did all the typical things one does to pass the time when in that awkward in-between state... no longer on vacation but also not home yet: On my Bluetooth connected phone I skipped songs in the playlist the group wasn’t feeling, I periodically closed my eyes, and I scrolled through Instagram and Facebook. And in my scrolling, I came across an excerpt from a book written by poet and philosopher David Whyte—whom I commend to you to investigate (he has an intriguing TED Talk... here’s the link). I read the excerpt, then reread it, and then pushed it to a mental back-burner to focus on saying goodbye to our friend and getting through security.

After security, in the hour or so of waiting time prior to boarding the plane, I read up on David Whyte and his writing. I got on Amazon and ordered one of his collections of poems, along with a copy of his book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, knowing virtually nothing about his writing except that two paragraphs of David’s words had so clearly spelled out a truth in my life that I hadn’t—up to that point—been able to put into words myself.

In the Church we talk a lot about accepting people for who they are.  Teaching acceptance is a fundamental commitment in our children’s and youth programming, and a foundational part of our sharing in Communion.  However, David Whyte has an additional charge for us: in addition to accepting who other people are, we should be willing to accept them for what they are... for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had.

As a pastor, I consistently lend my heart to the task of wishing things could be as they aren’t yet.  I have a lot of hopes for the world and for people, which I believe are attainable through love.  After all, faith is the reality of things hoped for.  And as a people-person, I frequently wish the intimacy of my relationships could be greater.  Though it is just and noble for us to lean in to deeper ways of knowing the people we are in relationship with, there is also peace in the discipline of giving up the expectation that others will reciprocate the love we show them in the exact and measured way we want them to.  David Whyte rhetorically questions, “What other human being could ever love us [precisely] as we need to be loved?  And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?”

In our wishing for some version of future love, we often end up missing or underappreciating the particular love that is actually possible right now. We have been born into a world in which the expectation of love is that it should be perfectly requited… reciprocated in just the right way so we receive in equal measure and quality what affection we give. The reality that accompanies marriage, parenting, friendship, and every other kind of relationship, though, is such an expectation leads to heartbreak because we couldn’t possibly keep up with the task of knowing how to love the people we love in the exact way they want us to. This is why grace and forgiveness is such an important part of relationship building and sustaining.

David continues, “Requited love is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship.”

To be grateful for the very particular relationship we share with another person and appreciate its beauty requires that we settle into the present moment with that person rather than some imaginary, wished-for future. Try loving what your relationships are instead of lamenting all the ways they aren’t what they could be, and see if that opens your eyes to their beauty. Because beauty, David points out, is the harvest of presence.