We are a practical species and when we think of love, it is normal to focus on the sort that goes places, that is mutual, and that leads people to form couples and perhaps one-day households.
But the more peculiar reality is that the greatest share of humanity’s love stories has unfolded in a directionless form in the recesses of the mind of only one part.
It seems that we are- in aggregate at least- committed first and foremost to the unrequited version of love. At any point, millions of love stories are quietly being spun by one person while the object of their adoration goes about their business blithely unconcerned.
Someone watches someone else on a train, casts surreptitious glances at a delegate at a conference; carefully notes a fellow shopper’s manner in a grocery store- and the earth spins on undisturbed.
Unrequited lovers are easy to dismiss as not far from pathetic.
If we were better designed and a little saner, we would of course never develop feelings for people who were not prepared to develop them for us- nor squander our days on desires without logical or practical outcomes.
But, looked at more benevolently, there is something hugely salutary and n9ble about our capacity to entertain tender daydreams. It us a feat to ve able to detonate powerful longings without causing any inconvenience to other people. The ability to daydream is a significant human achievement.
Rather than wishing that we stop doing so, we should be worried by what might happen to us if we couldn’t day dream, if we were faced with the voice of either accepting reality in all its barrenness or else if bargaining into the lives of other people without unwanted desires.
Daydreaming is a vital and artful safety valve, mediating between resignation on the one hand and uncontained effusions on the other. Along the way, unrequited love provides us with an occasion to exercise our aptitudes for optimism in a highly salutary way. After a few decades on the earth, it is only too easy to start to hate our fellow humans for their mediocrity, selfiness and idiocy.
But with our beloved in mind, we can, for once, give free resigm to a boundless generosity that a God or the parent of a newborn might deploy. We can tell ourselves that we have found an angel, an exalted being, on the basis of nothing more than how wise their green eyes look or how delicately they open their yogurt for lunch.
Our verdicts ate a delusional exaggeration, but-given how much grounds there is to despair at the human experiment perhaps a noble or forgivable one as well. It’s the privilege of unrequited love never to have to encounter the disappointment that follows from contract with reality. We are not after accurate knowledge of what it would be like to coexist with this person.
We don’t really want to know how they might behave in the midst of a crisis at work or over a holiday with their parents. We’ve been through enough such trials- and the results are not edifying. Of course they would, after a time in our arms, prove less than ideal and a little more like everyone else we know. We may be denied intimacy, but we are granted access to something arguably far nicer: boundless hope.
We can attach to the form and figure of the person we desire everything we so want to be true about human beings. The beloved becomes the repository of every desire: for a particular kind of intelligence, wit, temperament and outlook. The older we get, the more unrequited love brings us back into contact with a passion and hope that feels like an essential relief, like finding out that we can still run- or giggle.
In meditating on our beloved, we’re not getting to know a real person; we are gaining an insight into our ideals. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, we’ll be surrounded by police that will look inside our minds at will and ruthlessly con us for all the phantasmagoria that goes on in them. But for the moment at least we can have anh thought we like with impunity: we and the beloved can go on holiday to anywhere, can have four adorable children together, can dance in the town square all night and the armed guards will never know.