The Misuse of A Word
The misuse of a word: A short story about defining love
“You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”
These dryly comical words are spoken by the character, Inigo Montoya, in the film The Princess Bride. His statement is a critique of his mercenary boss, Vizzini, who repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable” to describe events that are, in fact, quite readily conceivable. Baffled by his employer's choice of words, the thoughtful Spaniard draws attention to this bungled usage. This line, so well written to highlight Vizzini's sophomoric demeanor, resonates with me as I look back on my own foibles in life. A word that I have personally misused on several occasions is 'love'. Like Vizzini, I was confident with my use of the word, and for a long time, I gave it no second thought. 'Love' was a term that seemed so easily defined that I used it frequently and without much consideration for the fact that it was completely incongruous with the circumstances before me.
I believed that I had loved before I met my husband, Thom; exactly three separate times, I had possessed what I thought was the deepest of visceral emotion. With sacrifice and suffering, sincerely and severely, I had loved. Or, at least, I thought I had. My perspective is now one of regret, tempered only by the trite but true observation that those missteps along the way have brought me to where I am today. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when I learned the true meaning of love, because it was more of an evolution that spanned the entire first half of my twenties. As a result of that period, Thom would be the unsuspecting benefactor of my reflections on love.
Thom and I had met one winter night in an outdoor hot tub on a mutual friend's back porch. I was sufficiently drunk from red wine and donning a borrowed bikini. I was not there to impress anyone; I was merely present for the distraction of a moderately wild house party while avoiding the emotional aftermath of an on-again/off-again relationship. Off again, I was resolved not to pursue another relationship until I had made peace with myself as a single gal. So there I was, blitzed and oblivious to the nice looking, young man introducing himself across the steamy veil. He was involved with the hostess of the party (our friend in common), so he was ever more off limits. We had brief pleasantries, but no more than that for a long time.
Weeks and months passed by, allowing me to attune my awareness to the causes of my earlier relational failures. It slowly, yet powerfully and irreversibly, occurred to me that all of my efforts to love in the past had been thwarted by the simple lack of reciprocity. My previous intendeds never shared my intentions. I realize that the idea is rather ubiquitous now with the dissemination of such messages as the one from He's Just Not That Into You, a film with so much happy wisdom. However, when I realized this for myself, I was ashamed and terrifically frustrated by my inability to see what had been so apparent. Looking back, I could see all of the evidence: the lack of consideration for my needs and preferences, the endless arguments without resolution, the one-way sacrifices. I gave everything to them, and received so little in return. How could I think that was love?
I quickly resolved to end the cycle. After months of retrospection, my philosophy on love morphed into something superior than it once was. I no longer perceived it as a gut wrenching sensation when a special someone came and went. Those were the sensations of excitement and longing. I no longer attached the word 'love' to the attraction and enjoyment of a physical compatibility. I parsed that out to be aesthetics and lust. All of these feelings were no more than crude chemistry, which led to volatile and confounding situations. Love, then, having been isolated from these relevant yet unnecessary perks, became something controllable, communicable and clear.
When Thom and I met again, it was in public at a music venue. We intersected several times this way, and developed something of a rapport. Being entrenched in self-reflection, however, I was surprised when he asked me for a date. One thing led to another, as it always does, and we grew close. Over the course of that summer, we laughed together and learned about each other in the most delightful and uninhibited ways. During our many escapades, we discovered that we had all of the aforementioned perks and then some! We agreed that we had something special, but at the summer's close, I was packing up for grad school a thousand miles away.
We had doubts about committing to a long distance relationship, having each suffered the slings of unfaithful partners. I was especially apprehensive due to one particularly bad relationship: a boyfriend of mine once called me to mope and whine while I was traveling abroad for school. Although I assumed his complaints were caused by the longing for my return, he very blatantly attested to his envy and claimed self-righteously that he (and not I) belonged in Europe. He never supported me and was only ever invested in himself. This sort of history haunted me that August when Thom and I agreed to give the relationship a chance. Despite our pact, I continued to have doubts until, one weekend, he flew in for a visit. Until he did this, on his own accord, with his own money and convictions, I had not yet realized that he loved me. We sat together one evening, far away from home, and spoke to each other at a depth untouched during the months of our summer fling. It was that night, in his arms, that I shared my treatise on love.
I outlined what love must entail in order to survive the influences of our time: the convenience-driven consumption, the planned obsolescence, and the rampant sense of entitlement to “effortless” beauty. Love has to withstand these unfortunate phenomena. I told him that love is not emotional; love is an agreement to endure. This agreement involves the constant consideration of your partner's needs and desires, to respect and support each other, to negotiate when times are tough. If one chooses to love—yes, I believe it is a choice—one also chooses to make sacrifices without totally sacrificing oneself. A strong self is essential to a successful relationship, but strength must be monitored by humility too. Love is the determination to hear the other point of view, even if it appears to be ridiculous at first glance. Love is the support to help your partner to grow into the person that they will become, while struggling to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way.
Without this kind of love, all we have are fleeting emotions—chemicals that saturate the brain almost as quickly as they dissipate. These feelings alone cannot weather the hardships of life. Regretfully, true love is a rarity because we romanticize relationships to the point where we forget that they require hard work, patience, and effective communication. Without love, we move from one failed relationship to the next in search of something less troublesome and are never satisfied by the reprised results. Of course, Thom and I are not invincible; there will always be threats to our happiness. Our circumstances, however, differ greatly from my previous endeavors at coupledom. Unlike them, Thom and I have agreed to love each other, and we understand what it takes to emerge from the challenges of life together and grow stronger because of them. Now, when I look back on my misuse of the word 'love' (conjuring up the image of Vizzini, exasperated by defeat), I still find it embarrassing to have hit my head so many times against the same wall. Yet as pitiable as some mistakes may be, those particular blunders pushed me to examine the word’s true meaning, which is how I know that my love with Thom means exactly what I think it means.