Love and Violence
On resolving the boundary between
Today is my 31st birthday. It marks another year obsessed with the question of love, violence and the space in-between.
I have known violence, intimately, from a young age. I spent my years as a dependent trying to find the boundary between love and violence, thinking if I could discover the right words to describe and evoke and curse and resist then the boundary would suddenly appear, like a cell wall, finally holding together all that was broken, fluid leaking out onto the paving stones on an Italian summer night.
I was a fortunate child in many ways: I never believed myself to be the source of this violence. I understood and often screeched that the demons hunting me were not my own, not my fault. I knew, somehow, within me, it had nothing to do with me. Yet, I also felt, sincerely, that if I could just find that boundary, that moment where things hold and the world tips its scales and becomes more loving, then I would be free of violence, and be able to chase the demons away. I believed, perhaps, not that it was my role, but more simply that I could. In fact, this belief that I could was the only salve to the wounds inflicted upon me.
I found it, one Italian summer night, at the age of 15. I refused, for the first time, to be the sober caretaker of adults. I drew a hard and fast boundary for myself, refusing to bear witness to what I considered the subtle and heart-breaking violence of watching the sick make themselves sicker. My mother ended up at the bottom of a stone staircase, skull cracked open. In drawing a boundary between love and violence, I believed for a decade I had all but pushed her down the stairs.
This past week I have been grappling with the question of whether or not to leave the man I love, falling into the crack between violence and love and overwhelmed with guilt. I have looped over this tension in thought, in writing and in conversation, questioning how to resolve a deep love with the violence of an ending: How do I reach through violence with love? How dare I boundary love with violence? How can men and women love each other under patriarchy?
Two conversations last night illuminated the source of my tension. The first was with my dear friend Paddy, with whom I have the most extraordinary conversations that gently weave all these necessary relationships between the big picture (the political) and the details (the personal). As we discussed the boundary between love and “no”, he suggested it was the very notion of a boundary which made the tension difficult to resolve, offering a new framing: What is the relationship between love and no?
The second conversation was with the man I love in which we teased out the previously unthinkable possibility that we may, in fact, be better able to love each other, at this time, as something other than lovers. He is facing the violence of leaving behind a culture; the less I am a source of tension, the more I can be a source of love. The less he is a source of tension, the more he will feel deserving of that love.
This morning, I awoke at a reasonable adult hour for the first time in weeks and took myself off to a gym around my Athenian corner. Feeling physically and mentally much lighter, I danced around those two conversations, sensing the resolution of something. As ever, it is sitting down to put such dancing to words that illuminates the resolution.
There is no boundary between love and violence. There is only relationship. There is no border over which we cross from a world of violence into a world of love. There is no tension here, only the bittersweet reality of suffering, which cannot be experienced without both violence and love. We live in a world that is full of violence and of love, and we live in a time when it feels like violence is winning, a time when we ask questions about how men and women can love each other, when patriarchy dominates according to gender, race, nationality, wealth. bell hooks wrote that there can be no love where there is domination, thus bravely dissecting the reality of the heterosexual relationship under patriarchy, a relationship which can be extrapolated to reveal that ultimate big picture question: How do we learn to love each other?
Perhaps: How do we love each other in violence?
We learn by accepting the relationship, and by daring to love most brilliantly, and most effectively. This has never meant pouring love into the void of violence, which a lot of New Age mythology would have us believe. Love, if I may, is not a cure. It is a reality: How do we furnish it most brightly? How do we bring it into focus?
The love I gave those who hurt me as a child did not stymie the violence they inflicted. Had the violence not stopped, love would not have kept me there. But, once the violence ended, it was love that guided our determination to build relationships that acknowledged the past without being defined by violence. It is undoubtedly my single biggest act of bravery, and even in the moments of frustration or pain, I do not regret it. It is this same bravery I commit to my relationships, a determination to figure out how to be most defined by love and least defined by violence.
As I write this, I receive a birthday message from the man who taught me most about love. Henry, the father of my ex, and his family of boys, are beacons of unconditional love, and it was being part of their family that I learned real love is a choice, a choice we make every day, even in the face of violence. His son and I exemplified that lesson when we chose to end our relationship at the height of our stability and love because we knew the inevitable divergence of our paths would cause greater pain when forced rather than chosen.
If suffering is the root of the human condition then it is defined by this interplay of love and violence which plays out in our hearts. The world is fractured by the boundary drawn between: hearts broken in two, choices made impossible. The world will never be without violence for it is the violence of death that allows for life, and it is love which allows us to survive violence. But, more important than merely surviving, is surviving together. To survive together, we must accept the interplay, and choose how best to love one another in a violent world.
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