Joanna Cooper was the first girl I ever fell in love with. It was Grade 4. I must have been nine. She was smart, pretty, and chatty. She sat in front of me, in my new class, at my new school. Kool and the Gang’s hit, “Joanna”, was tearing up the charts. It’s chorus said it all.
Given my age, you might be tempted to dismiss the emotions I was experiencing as something other than love — by calling it “puppy love” or a “crush.” The experience of love, however, is little more than a brain awash in the right chemicals. If those chemicals were awash in my brain, then, it’s fair to say I was in love. If my memory serves correctly, later experience suggests that my nine year old brain was awash in the right chemicals.
Of course, Capital-L Love refers to much more than one person’s experience of those chemicals. It also refers to our reactions to those chemicals, how the beloved responds to our reactions, whether or not the beloved’s brain is awash in the same chemicals, and whether or not the beloved’s brain is awash in the chemicals because of and for you. Love is an experience, reactions to the experience, and a relationship.
My nine year old brain’s reaction to the chemicals that Joanna stirred in me was, I think, both sweet and sad. On a piece of paper, I wrote, “Joanna, I love you.” Then, around this little note, I folded construction paper of different colours, making many protective layers. Then, I tightly sealed the little bundle of construction paper in masking tape. On that, I wrote statements like, “Top secret” and “Do not open.” Finally, I hid the package at the back of my sock drawer. Basically, I turned my love for Joanna into a secret treasure.
I did this, I think, because, on the one hand, my nine year old brain recognized that the experience of love was precious, valuable, and a kind of treasure. That’s the sweet part. On the other hand, my nine year old brain had also decided that the experience of love was something that should be concealed and protected. And that, I think, is the sad part. I suspect my nine year old brain reached this sad conclusion because of bad parenting, playground politics, and biology.
From my parents, who had been separated for a few years and, by this point, were locked in a custody battle, I learned that all emotions can and will be manipulated, especially the feelings I have for others. Emotions and, most importantly, the expression of them, I learned the hard way, put one at risk and made one highly vulnerable.
I also learned on the playground that emotions could be ridiculed and manipulated. In those days, for example, little boys teased each other for liking girls. Today, I’m not even sure why that was the case, but, back then, liking a girl could and would be used against you in the kangaroo court of the playground. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the very same boys doing the teasing were also the first boys to sneak kisses with the girls behind the portable.
Last but not least, I think the intense power of the chemicals of love also helped me draw my sad conclusion. Evolution put them there for a reason — to motivate us to action — and they are incredibly powerful motivators. For a kid, who had already learned that survival at home and on the playground depended on controlling one’s emotions, the arrival of this new high octane motivator must have felt like some kind of new mutant force. No matter how good the experience might have felt, my nine year old brain had been nurtured to think it had to be contained, controlled, and protected.
I remember taking great satisfaction in the knowledge that my love was safely hidden and preserved in my drawer. I also suspect that the chance of its discovery added a measure of titillation. Often, when I was sure I wouldn’t be discovered, I’d run to the drawer, uncover the package, and take hold of my beautiful secret, rolling it in my hands, testing the security of the tape. On more than one occasion, I tore open the package to reveal and read the exquisite secret hidden inside. Once the satisfaction of revealing and relishing the secret ebbed, I would make a new package, and hide it away again.
I don’t remember for how long my treasure making game went on. Was this something I did over a weekend or was it something I did for a couple of weeks or even months? I’m not sure. I am sure, however, that I never communicated my feelings to Joanna. The treasure game took the place of that scary and much riskier task.
Because I never expressed my feelings to Joanna or to anyone else who might have done the hard work of telling her for me, I had — and have — no idea, if anything like my feelings were reciprocated. I suspect they weren’t. I was probably a convenient new distraction in class, nothing more. Similarly, she may have been only a conveniently located target for my newly hormone-charged emotions. Love, as in property and business, is often a simple matter of location, location, location.
I also have no specific memory of my feelings for Joanna fading or disappearing. I switched schools again in the first month or two of Grade 5, and, by the time Joanna and I ended up in the same high school together, four years later, she no longer had any special effect on me. I recognized her as the girl I previously had strong feelings for, but my memory of her younger self had no effect on my feelings for her older self. Time does much more than heal wounds.
By the time I was eleven or twelve, I had divided the world of girls into two camps. There were girls I loved and desired, but about whom it was inappropriate for me to fantasize sexually. Alternatively, there were girls I didn’t particularly like, but about whom it was OK to fantasize. By all appearances, a seemingly classic distinction.
This distinction, however, is somewhat different from the conventional distinction between virgins and whores. I wasn’t particularly concerned about preserving or honouring the virtue of the girls I loved. I had incredibly strong sexual desires for them, but the romantic longing, I decided, had to take precedence over my sexual desires. So long as the love I wanted was unattainable, I wouldn’t allow myself to entertain the sexual fantasy, as kind of way to honour that love. I was, nevertheless, desperately horny. I wanted — nay, needed, — some hope of sexual intimacy, even if only as a fantasy, so I decided that it was OK to fantasize about girls about whom I was otherwise indifferent.
Once high school rolled around, and along with it the theoretical chance of actual physical intimacy, I had firmly committed myself to the idea that I was going to have sex for the first time with someone I was totally in love with — and she with me — or with someone to whom I was mostly indifferent. Eventually, and not surprisingly, my first sexual encounters were with perfectly pleasant people to whom I was mostly indifferent.
In the first year of university, at the age of twenty, I fell in love with someone that I was in awe of and, fortunately, she also fell in love with me. We successfully communicated our love to each other, and started what was was to be my first relationship. It was in that relationship that I learned to share my feelings of love and, importantly, some of the dark and still wordless sadness I had bottled up from childhood. One important and debilitating habit — concealing and containing emotion — was not quite broken, but it was severely cracked.
Despite the positives in the relationship, we broke up in the last year of our undergraduate degree. I can’t say that we broke up for any particular reason. By the end, there were obvious incompatibilities that the high fire of our chemical love had obscured early on, but nothing that we couldn’t have worked through, if we had the weight of tradition or children to hold us together. I also suspect, by not addressing those underlying issues when they first appeared, we let the chemical fires of our love burn too low. Without tradition, children, or a blazing love to encourage or compel us to work on evolving the relationship, when we were both feeling restless towards the end of university, we ended it.
Since then, when I review my romantic history, it seems like it has been governed by the distinction I first formulated when I was ten or eleven. I have had relationships with women because they stirred in me incredible feelings of love and I have had relationships with women because they were perfectly good and likable people, but, for whatever reason, there was no spark. Often, the first kind of relationship seemed to be a struggle against all odds, while the second developed out of good natured convenience.
On the one hand, the persistence of this distinction might be a sign that, despite a life of constant self-examination, I have not actually matured much with respect to my romantic feelings. On the other hand, it could also mean the distinction is motivated by some fundamental experience which is as true today as it was then. I won’t entirely dismiss the notion that I sometimes have the emotional development of an eleven year old, but I am also inclined to think the distinction may have some relevance at any age.
I think this because the experience of love, whatever our age, is always powerful and unsettling. It has the curious ability to make us both invincible and immeasurably vulnerable. It moves us in ways that are both mysterious and mundane. It is liberating and imprisoning. It makes of us both a master and a slave. In contrast, physical intimacy can be satisfying, fun, enjoyable and relatively frictionless, with no love required, so long as it is with a reasonably decent and considerate person. Ideally, I want to say, people will find love, physical intimacy, and companionship in one relationship, but I’m not sure everyone would agree with me.
Love, however powerful and beautiful it may be, can be terrifying because it is always experienced for some other person who may or may not be having the same experience, who may react to the experience of love in a manner that is unfamiliar to us (sometimes, even unfamiliar to him or herself), and who, for many reasons, rightly and wrongly, may not want to devote the time and energy to build and evolve a relationship that keeps both fires blazing. The indubitable experience of love, in and of itself, is a well-spring of uncertainty and, through it, an immeasurable ocean of vulnerability is discovered. It is only in and through the reactions of the beloved that we might find some certainty, but there is no assessment of those reactions that will ever provide the total certainty for which we desperately long. There are charlatans and fakes; sincere and well meaning people who evolve and change in the light of new circumstances; and some of us have been nurtured to experience the chemical rush with the wrong kind of people for all the wrong reasons.
With so much at stake in love, for many, it may seem simpler and safer to stick with the pleasant and nonthreatening comforts of physical intimacy and companionship. Despite my own commitment to the delicious terrors of love, I can’t think of any definitive reason why people shouldn’t take this easier and, arguably, more conventional path, so long as, they are, on the whole, happy. I prefer a relationship forged in love, but I won’t say it’s the one true path to a happy and long-term relationship. A commitment to perpetuate the relationship, for any reason, and a willingness to work together to solve problems and resolve difficulties seem to be the only prerequisites.
All these years later, long after my first encounter of it with Joanna, I am still in awe of the experience of love and those who can stoke its flames in me. And while I have sometimes wished that I had had the courage to jump into the game of love at a much early age than I did, when I reflect on the circumstances of my much younger self, I’m inclined to think, all things considered, he probably made the right decision to hide and protect his secret treasure.
Rejection by Joanna or some other beloved in my adolescence would have been devastating, and it would have been at a time when I was ill equipped to deal with such devastation. I also doubt I would have been well-prepared or well-positioned to return love had it been on offer. It is no coincidence, I think, that I had my first meaningful relationship far from the environment in which I learned to control and conceal my emotions. Emotional vulnerability, which is a necessary prerequisite of love, really wasn’t an option for me so long as I was living with or in proximity to my parents and the world I had created to endure them.
I also think it’s fair to say that my first relationship was far more successful than it otherwise might have been simply because my brain was much more developed. The human brain, we are discovering, continues to grow and develop for far longer than we had originally thought. A brain today is considered adolescent until “an individual attains a stable, independent role in society.”
Notably, an adolescent brain is as effective at rule following as an adult brain, but it is measurably less effective at adopting the perspective of another person to guide its behaviour, and this is an ability which is essential to any happy and healthy relationship, romantic or otherwise. Had I jumped into the game of love at too young an age, before my brain was ready, I might have made a mess of it, developing childish habits that would have haunted me long into adulthood.
Of course, my rosy glassed conclusion is probably one more example of the same after-the-fact reasoning our brains are always inclined to do. Research suggests we are hardwired to take solace in whatever outcome we eventually happen to find ourselves. Similarly, my fierce and, perhaps, irrational commitment to the experience of love, and relationships driven by it, is probably little more than a swollen set of rogue neurons or the accidental outcome of a highly imaginative kid growing up in a loveless family.
Nevertheless, whatever the root cause of my analysis and commitment may be, when I reflect on the contingency of the universe and the fact that it and everything in it will come to an empty end, and when I think of all the imaginable and currently unimaginable works and feats of humankind and of whatever other intelligent life might be out there, it is, for me, the fact that beings evolved to experience and share love that makes the whole noisy exercise seem worthwhile. If I am ever so lucky to have one final and grand assessment of my life, before I drift off into that good and empty night, I know, of all my achievements, what will matter most to me is that I learned to love and to be loved in return. And that, more than anything else, will make the noisy exercise of my life seem worthwhile now, tomorrow, and until the moment before my own empty end.