What a Woman Wants of Love

I would be presumptuous to tell you what a woman wants from a man (or any romantic partner) in the way of love. But I told you my intentions in the title and I do not mean to disappoint. Moreover, the description of such love will come from another man — just as doubtful a source as I.

I have it on good authority that this other man, Wendell Berry, should be trusted. High praise of Mr. Berry’s insight comes from a wise and lovely lady named Priscilla, who told me (and several of her friends and classmates) Berry got it right. The class includes a number of the Ms., Miss, and Mrs. persuasion, including the instructor. There was no dissenting opinion from even one of them.

Berry’s conception of amour comes from his 1971 poem, The Country of Marriage. As the poet says, “love is always too much.” And later, “We enter, willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.” I find the last three stanzas especially touching.

I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

If your partner doesn’t understand what you want, you can always hand him the poem. If, on the other hand, you are pursuing a female and wish to know her heart of hearts, the verse offers you a lesson in love:

The Country of Marriage

I.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

II.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

III.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

IV.

How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.

V.

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen tine and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

VI.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

VII.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy–and this poem,
no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.

Wendell Berry, from “The Country of Marriage: Poems”

All the images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons, beginning with The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. A Kiss between Bride and Groom is the work of Bleiglass, followed by Hands Free of Takuma Kimura. Finally comes The Kiss by Bernardien Sternheim.

In Praise of Time Away From Your Lover

Federico_Andreotti_-_The_Love_Letter

Distance creates mystery.

I became an adult at the end of the letter writing era. Now we are all digitally connected, skyping our faces and smiles when not texting and emailing over the globe. There is no escape from each other. We have gained something definable, but lost something ineffable.

If your young love went on a family vacation or to a faraway school, you ached for time together and love deepened out of the pain. You idealized your partner and counted the days until his or her return. Romance flourished. Ecstasy was the moment of reunion: no separation, no ecstasy.

You wrote to her with care not usually taken in email and certainly not in the cobbled together, dashed-off, and criminally illiterate text message. Letter paper of the day had the heft and texture of something important. It matched the substance of your human communication. After all, a just-received post had been in the hands of your inamorata. The missive might even have been sealed with a kiss. The touch you craved had touched the parchment in your hands. Sometimes the paper was perfumed or held a flower. I still have a letter my dad sent to my mother from wartime France in the 1940s, along with what remains of a daisy impressed therein.

Soldiers still experience these feelings of distance in place and time. They know their dark side, no matter the electronic contact now available that was unimaginable in the 1940s or even in the early 1990s. One cannot help but wonder whether the one you miss will find another during your absence. Yet some amount of insecurity is necessary for affection to grow. Romance flourishes in the uncertainty of early dates and on the thin ice of self-disclosure. Love without risk is not love.

Once begun, the importance of the other grows because of the transience of her physical presence, the sweetness of her scent, her breath — all temporary before your lives meld. This is the law of supply and demand converted to matters of the heart. You don’t move in together on your second date, or at least you shouldn’t lest you destroy the developing magic. Some things are worth the wait and require the wait to flower.

In the course of my marriage I have traveled once or twice a year on short trips alone or with a male friend. The experience helps my wife and me appreciate each other anew. We create, in this way, a freshness of perspective — an opportunity to see each other with new eyes.

Solo contact with friends also is a form of time away from one’s love. I am able to make close relationships one-to-one which would otherwise be hard, if not impossible, in couples. I then expect less of my spouse to satisfy all my emotional and intellectual needs — a burden and a pressure. I don’t believe any single person is the repository of all desirable qualities for the other. Moreover, I return home altered — an individual with new ideas and an occasional epiphany to enrich my relationship with the love of my life. She does the same.

For most of human history a woman having public business or social life away from her husband was unseemly. In the West we do without chaperones, but couples are still supposed to be couples, two links in a charm bracelet. This was especially true in my parents’ day and before. It remains true in some places today.

The danger of lock-step devotion, however, is that familiarity can breed contempt. The lovingly linked charm bracelet can turn the starry-eyed into adjacent members of a human chain gang.

If you need to be within arm’s length of your partner for assurance of his devotion, you are in danger of suffocating the life out of his affection. Of course, spouses will stray and temptation is everywhere. A leash, however, does not guarantee fidelity. If you suspect your lover requires one, more’s the pity. There is no visible or invisible fence preventing a wolf or a cougar from being on the prowl. Watch the ’60s film, The Graduate, for an old lesson in how this works.

Something touching resides in the effort of writing a love letter to a dear heart who is far from you. Inscribing the words in your own hand counts. Choosing the terms to express the inexpressible matters too. How can the ABCs be transmuted into yearning, aching, desperation, sadness, loneliness, incompleteness? How can the bitter-sweetness, the future, the past, the passion and intensity jump from pen to ink to eye to heart? One would need music.

And yet, it has been done, and not only in matters of romance. Beethoven wrote these words at the head of his Missa Solemnis, to express his hope of how this musical message of transcendent spirituality would be received. A love letter might borrow the same heading:

Von Herzen, möge es wieder zu Herzen gehen.

“From the heart, may it return to the heart.”

The top image is Federico Andreotti’s, The Love Letter. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

Of Clocks and Weddings and Getting Cold Feet

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It could have happened to you, but it probably didn’t.

The young man was 28 years old and in love with a 21-year-old beauty. His prospects were not great, but he had finally landed a steady job at the Post Office near the end of an economic downturn. Marriage was now possible, his intended said “yes,” and her parents gave their permission.

A marriage license would be required.

They agreed to meet in downtown Chicago at the famous Marshall Field and Company Building, now known as Macy’s. That block-long edifice faces State Street on the west, Randolph on the north, and Washington on the south.

The time was set. From Field’s they would make the short walk to City Hall to get the legal document.

“We’ll meet under the Field’s clock,” he’d said off-handedly and she’d quickly agreed.

The day came and at the appointed time he was there. Right under the clock at Randolph and State as he’d promised.

Only she wasn’t.

What could have happened? Did she get delayed? Was she injured?

Or, just perhaps, did she get cold feet?

Meanwhile, a lovely young woman aged 21 stood at the corner of Washington and State.

And she was thinking to herself, “What happened to Milton? He is always so punctual. Where could he be? I’m standing under the clock just as we agreed.”

You see, a small misunderstanding had occurred. Marshall Field’s had two clocks, one at each State Street corner.

It wasn’t long before one or the other figured things out and walked toward the corner opposite. The meeting occurred, only a little late. The marriage license was obtained and the wedding followed later that year, just as planned.

Both the bride and the groom showed up for that, on time and in the right place.

My parents’ wedding.

How easily it all could have gone wrong, in which case, you wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t have written it, because I never would have been even “a twinkle” in my father’s eye, as he sometimes referred to me.

And my wife couldn’t have married me — a man who didn’t exist. And our kids would never have been born, etc., etc.

Getting “stood up” at weddings is hardly unheard of. Movies have been made about such events. Think Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Then there was the 2005 media circus surrounding Jennifer Carol Wilbanks, who disappeared in order to avoid wedding bells, later falsely stating (in an effort to explain her absence at the alter) that she had been abducted and sexually assaulted.

The worst “real life” tale of this type that I ever heard from someone personally involved in the event concerned a “high society” wedding — one for which no expense had been spared, enormous numbers of people had been invited, and everyone showed up other than the groom, who didn’t even call ahead to cancel or ever apologize to his fiance by letter, e-mail, phone, or text message, and certainly not face-to-face.

And then there is an Internet story of a young man who actually went so far as to go through the wedding ceremony and reception, only to speak to the assembled throng of well-wishers declaring that he intended to get an annulment the next day because of his new wife’s recent sexual escapade with his best man, upon which he pulled out photos of the two that more than verified his report.

Now there are those who would say that “everything happens for a reason,” and that everything turns out well in the end.

I am not one of those people. I believe in accidents, good and bad, which seem to be randomly distributed despite our best efforts to control events.

And, as far as happy endings are concerned, they do happen sometimes, although not everything ends happily.

But, I do believe that you have to make the best of things.

The young woman of the “high society” wedding I mentioned was humiliated and devastated, but did eventually marry a man who loved her to pieces and actually showed up on their wedding day to prove it. They’ve been married forever and continue to be very much in love.

And, it’s hard to argue that the man who promised annulment would have been better off married for more than a day to his unfaithful if temporary spouse.

Let’s hope they both learned something from the experience and went on to find happiness elsewhere.

In the end, especially when you are young, most set-backs are relatively brief, especially if you have some resilience.

Of course, whatever children might have been born of the last two ill-starred matches I’ve described never came to be.

A good thing? Not a good thing?

Did we miss the next baby Beethoven (who was born of a very unhappy marriage)?

I can’t say.

All I know for sure is that I’m glad my folks had enough confidence in their love to stick around, and that one of them walked down the block to find the other.

But for that… well, you know.

One of the two State Street clocks of the old Marshall Field and Company Building in Chicago, now known as Macy’s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons, photo by DDima.

Looking For Trouble? Why Being “Friends With Benefits” Might Not Be To Your Benefit

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Like a parent putting a weapon in the hands of someone too young to use it safely, Mother Nature has given teenagers sex. And, along with its novelty and thrill, come bodies that are drawn to each other with an out-of-control animal magnetism. They are spring-loaded even before spring time, aching to be launched.

And, perhaps worst of all, Western culture has made sex into something almost as impersonal as buying your groceries.

Like those groceries, it is a thing to be consumed. And, like food, it produces sensations, with particular attention to appearance, shape, smell, taste, and texture.

But unfortunately, this thing that we consume with alacrity, just might eat the consumer alive.

Sex has always been a problematic commodity, even before the days when it began to be used to sell other commodities: cars, soft drinks, and the like.

Now the idea of “friends with benefits,” with No Strings Attached as the movie title promises, has added a new wrinkle to the long list of carnal complications.

For ages sex has put young people in the position of trying to figure out how to have it, without the concomitant problems of shame, disease, and pregnancy. For a long while access to young women was restricted by their families and trustworthy chaperones, with religious institutions casting a long shadow over the entire reproductive process. Perhaps George Orwell’s Big Brother wasn’t involved in surveillance of one’s comings and goings, but your own big brother was likely to be if you were female.

What the church couldn’t monitor, it condemned. Punishment by shunning and shaming was Hester Prynne’s reward for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Church-derived predictions of a hellish afterlife and a powerfully ingrained sense of guilt also contributed to hesitation even when your older male sibling wasn’t close by.

Eventually, however, several things happened. Urbanization made people more anonymous and independent than when they lived in small communities. They were now less easily watched and controlled. Women asserted their rights, and politicians and voters followed their lead in granting them. The automobile assisted a couple in getting away from watchful eyes and offered a place, even if uncomfortable, where sex could occur.

Meanwhile, more women began to go to school in co-ed institutions and economic necessity brought them out of the kitchen and into the work place. The weakening of religion’s governance and the invention of the birth control pill further undermined the likelihood of negative consequences if the female became sexually active.

With less to constrain them, young people did what comes naturally. Casual sex always existed, but now it was a game that the woman could play with less chance of social disgrace. The 1969 movie John and Mary portrayed the very young Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow as two characters who become sexually involved and only introduce themselves by name at the film’s end.

One night stands, of course, can last more than one night. “Hook ups,” can hook you permanently. But the once common expectation of something meaningful coming from a sexual encounter has been relegated to a past that many young people see as a relic from the prehistoric age of their grandparents.

Which brings us to the idea of “friendship with benefits.” There are even instructions on the internet on how best to achieve this (apparently desirable) change in a platonic relationship. You are expected to think clearly, recognize in advance whether you can keep your emotions in check, choose the right person, and create clear and mutually agreeable rules about how often and under what circumstances you will see each other.

Unfortunately, even with some guidance, you are working against biology and psychology. And, you are risking the conventional friendship (without benefits) that existed before. As Robert Burns put it, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” often go awry.

Let me count the ways, leaving out such complications as sexually transmitted disease, religion, and pregnancy:

  1. The human heart is hard-wired to “care,” especially the female heart. Having won equality and the right to control their own bodies, women are well-advised not to assume that they can objectify the opposite sex with the ease that men can.
  2. Even in friendships jealousy can be an issue. Despite the new set of “rules” that govern your sexualized relatedness, how might it feel to you after intercourse if your companion finds other things and people to occupy himself? Eventually, at least one of the parties is likely to attach to someone permanently. How will the “old friend” like it when his or her status is changed unilaterally back to what it was before sex?
  3. A “romance” with no commitments, no responsibilities, and no future is not likely to bring out the best in either person. It encourages treatment that is callous or indifferent.
  4. Do you believe that it is possible to make the relationship sexual without changing it? A kind of vulnerability can come with nakedness; the other person now knows some very personal things about you. Will he look at you and you at him in the same way later?
  5. Performance questions are almost inevitable. Was the sex good? Good enough? How did it compare to others? If it was not satisfying, how do you move back to a platonic relationship without injuring your friend?
  6. Perhaps you believe that you will get out of the “benefits” portion of the connection before your emotions get in the way. This represents a pretty basic misunderstanding of how (and how rapidly) love can bloom. If I had a nickel for every time one of my patients predicted incorrectly that her brain was in charge and would signal the moment in which to exit, I would be the richest man in the world.
  7. Even if you are able to keep your head dominant over your heart, your decision to get out might leave your friend devastated. Why would you want to risk something (your friendship) that you claim is so important to you?
  8. Does your mate-of-convenience have a different agenda than you do? Does he hope that love will follow sex, even if he states that he does not want or expect that?

One more point. Why would you want to give up the romance, the mystery, the allure of growing intimacy that might lead to love? Why debase something that can be precious and make it a commonplace?

We lose our appreciation of things too easily achieved. If gold grew on trees, it would not be so highly valued as it is. Few of life’s offerings escape the law of supply and demand.

Society puts young people, even including some not quite so young, in a tough spot. “Choose!” it says at the extreme, between an inflexible abstinence based on religious text and physical contact that has been so commoditized it is little more than the raw reproductive act of our mammalian cousins.

Remember: song writers write love songs, not songs about friends with benefits.

The photo above captures a Navy Seal showing a child an M4 carbine at the Veteran’s Day Ceremony of November 7, 2009 at Ft. Pierce, Florida. The author is Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Stories That We Tell Ourselves

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/49/Don_Juan_and_the_statue_of_the_Commander_mg_0119.jpg/500px-Don_Juan_and_the_statue_of_the_Commander_mg_0119.jpg

Therapists hear stories. Tons of them.

Everyone has one.

But the stories that are most important are those that represent the essential narrative of a person’s life. You might have just one such story, one that tells you how you see yourself and your journey through life.

It may not even take the form of a specific tale or recollection, instead describing a view of how your life has progressed.

Perhaps you think you are lucky or, alternatively, unlucky. Maybe you see yourself as a “mover and a shaker.”  Do you imagine a handsome and suave (or beautiful and charming) persona as you look in the mirror? Or someone who is lazy or hardworking or resilient or weak?

But even if there is no story attached to the qualities that you ascribe to yourself or to your life path, the character traits you claim still are central to how you see of yourself, something you refer back to repeatedly.

Nor does the story or characteristic even have to be true. It just has to be something that you believe is true.

An example. An old acquaintance thought of himself as a “lady’s man,” making such politically incorrect comments as this simile: “A woman is like a taxi cab — if you miss this one, there will be another one along in 10 minutes.” He was clever, energetic, interesting, and outgoing, but unremarkable in his level of success and appearance — not particularly tactful either. When a woman rejected him, he was usually undaunted.

This gentleman even had a theme-song, of sorts. It was the soaring horn call from the Richard Strauss orchestral tone poem “Don Juan,” representing the bold, dashing title character he believed himself to be. And so, ever on the look-out for attractive women, he did, in fact, have numerous love affairs. Many ended badly, and he was as often rejected as he was the person who terminated the relationship.

Another person, no less likeable or successful with the opposite sex, might have seen the identical romantic life as a disappointment. But, our “Don Juan” never showed regret, rarely was chagrined for long, and continued to pursue women with the vigor he had always demonstrated.

Well, you might say that our hero had little self-awareness and you might be right. But, the case can be made that he was more satisfied in living-out his romantic life through his chosen vision of himself — through the story he was telling himself about himself — than if he had defined his role in the story differently, or come up with an alternate narrative altogether, especially if it was that of the jilted, luckless lover.

Now, I am not recommending either this man’s approach to women or his less-than-fully realistic view of himself. Nor would I have been pleased if one of my daughters found someone like him appealing. But his view did enable him to have much romance and fun in his life. In other words, he would have told you that it worked for him.

Unlike our friend, I have seen people change their stories over a life-time. For example, from feeling unlucky to feeling lucky, or from being timid and unsure to becoming more bold, assertive, and capable.

It is worth asking ourselves what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Again, they might not stand up to external scrutiny, but they don’t necessarily have to in order to be useful. We frequently create self-fulfilling prophecies for ourselves, succeeding or failing because of what we believe will happen or who we believe we are. In large part the man in question had much romance because he believed in his “Don Juan” myth. Had he seen himself as an undiplomatic opportunist (something as fitting as his chosen vision), he would have had much less female companionship. Even worse, if he saw himself as a schlemiel.

Was his glass half-full or half-empty? That too is part of his story, and he certainly looked at life with a hopeful, optimistic gaze and focused on what was best in himself, not his weaknesses.

The person I’ve described had many, many friends and had much pleasure, not only with women. He led an interesting life. Even if it is not one you would personally choose, do not be too hasty to judge it (especially after I tell you that he was a loving father).

A great man?

No, but then, there aren’t too many of those.

But he was one who found a useful story.

Many of us do worse.

The above image is Don Juan and the Statue of the Commander by Alexandre-Evariste Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1830–1835; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


Lost and Forgotten Loves

Do you remember, perhaps wistfully, someone who has long been out of your life? The person might be a first love or a romantic interest who came along at a vulnerable moment. That individual provided something timely and touching, perhaps a feeling that you thought you would never have. Usually it was the possibility of love — the possibility of being loved and feeling loveable — something that hadn’t been experienced recently if at all; something that seemed hopelessly out of reach. And so, this person who opened the door to embracing that feeling — to a sense of being worthwhile and valuable — acquired a special value herself. She brought the “music” into your life and might continue to hold a special place in your heart.

Perhaps you felt that the lost love was too good for you — at least so you thought. The interest she had in you seemed a bit astonishing to you. And you were enormously grateful for her interest and the pleasure that she seemed to take in your company. If you were lucky, the relationship lasted long enough to change you for the better. And even though it ended with your heart breaking, you still carry inside of you a sense of gratitude and an enduring soft-spot for this person who you’ve likely not seen for many years.

There are ironies here, at least two I can think of. First, that your gratitude just might be a bit misplaced. You probably thought too little of yourself and too much of the object of your affection. Perhaps you placed her on a pedestal. You might have dismissed what you brought to the relationship: your good nature, your wit, your humor or kindness, or  your own physical attractiveness. And so, whatever affection or interest you experienced that felt to be more than you deserved, might in fact have been just what you were entitled to: you were better than you thought.

Another irony is that, as much as you might still think of this individual from time to time, it is entirely possible that she almost never thinks of you. You did not change her life, even if she changed yours. Your role was more peripheral, less important. To her, you are another relationship in a history of such contacts, not the one that made an enormous difference in her life, as she did in yours. It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Yet that is the way life works.

But I think that the ultimate irony in these unequal pairings is that there is probably someone out there whose life you did alter, to whom you meant everything, and who you now hardly ever think about. In other words, the roles described at the start of this essay are reversed. And you may not even know (or remember) just how profound your impact was on that lover of the moment. For him or for her, that time together with you was much more special, decisive, and profound than it was for you.

It helps to see both sides of this. Both the over-valuing of another and the impact we make on people without really trying — just by showing up in their lives at the right moment and being ourselves. The most dramatic impact outside of a romantic relationship (and indeed one that has more influence) is surely that between a parent and a child, but bosses and friends can sometimes approach the importance of a romantic partner.

Therapists and teachers need to be mindful of this too, in their relationships with patients and students, respectively. Whether you help or you hurt another can be of enormous importance. And, if you’ve done your job especially well or especially poorly, you will probably be recalled long after the relationship has ended.

My high school friends and I take part in something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, about which a search of this blog’s archives will reveal more. One of the things we have done in addition to giving scholarships at our alma mater is to honor our old Mather High School teachers. We let them know how much they meant to us, at least those who made an important difference in our lives and are still living. Even decades later and long since they might have recalled any of our names, we remember them and their influence.

I suppose that the most appropriate metaphor for the way in which we unknowingly impact others negatively (and this can apply to teachers who were particularly poor or nasty) is one of walking down the street, being unaware and unconcerned (as we all are) of the very little creatures (bugs) that we might be treading upon. I know that this is an exaggerated comparison to the way that we are affected by others. But the point is that we are all pretty fragile, easily hurt by those who care less about us than we do about them.

Just something to be mindful of in any relationship, whichever end of it you are on. Like throwing a stone into a pool of water, the ripples can go on for a very long time.

Be nice.

gustav-klimt-the-kiss-c-1907-detail

A cropped version of the painting at the top of this page: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

When the Lover is Ready the Soul Mate Will Appear

Mel Nudelman and Sally

I’ve read or heard two different meanings attributed to the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready the master will appear.” The first suggests the universe is ordered in such a way that things happen when they are supposed to:  knowledge will be offered by events in the universe (or God) at the right time. If I am allowed to amplify the meaning slightly, the saying would also refer to the idea that when you are ready, the right person for you might also appear, not just a teacher, but your future love.

I prefer, however, another, more psychological way of thinking about this aphorism: there are always available “masters” or other persons who might be important in your life, but the “student” doesn’t notice the presence of those persons until he is ready. Or, to look at a different aspect of this notion, important knowledge is always or almost always available to us, if only we are open to it, prepared by experience or mind-set to receive it.

In other words, we must be ready to learn, to think and feel differently than we have before in order to recognize there is something important to be learned.

Those in life who have all the answers — certain of everything — will never learn anything new. Those afraid to do new things are unlikely to learn, since in order for the “master to appear” one must have one’s eyes open and actually get out of the house — the master being unlikely to call you to make an appointment, unsolicited.

But if you are humble about what you know, humble in the knowledge there is always more to learn, you might just learn something. Branch Rickey, the baseball executive, said “luck is the residue of design.” I’d add to that, so is learning the residue of design. And part of the “design” or preparation is to put yourself into situations where it is possible to be enlightened, whether by people or events or your actions; by books or theater, music or child-rearing or romance.

A good therapist is enlightened by his patients. He experiences a whole world, the world of the patient, seen through the patient’s eyes. His patients also inform him, directly or by their response to him and to the therapy, what works and what doesn’t.

People in less formal relationships than therapist and client teach us too, and enrich our lives. For example, some people believe there is only one person who represents our romantic destiny. When the person comes along they might say, by the first definition I gave you at the top of this essay, the universe or God put this person in our lives at just the right time. There is a Yiddish word that captures this notion nicely: “bashert” or “beshert.” In other words, to be “fated.” It is used when someone tries to say an event was “meant to be,” and is often employed with respect to a reference in the Jewish Talmud that God has chosen your soul mate.

My own opinion, however, is that most of us might have met, fallen in love with, and married any number of good people and had equally good lives as we have with the person whom we did marry; different, certainly, but just as good, more or less. That we didn’t marry someone else might have been due to a lack of maturity when the “other” person appeared, poor judgment about the value of the qualities in a person, or fear of rejection and heartbreak, to name just a few possible reasons.

If you protect your heart against the poisonous arrows that can harm it, you also might prevent Cupid’s arrow from reaching it.

One must be open, then, for the right person, for the master, for whatever knowledge or experience might enrich us. Vincent Van Gogh wrote the following to his brother Theo in 1880:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney, and go their way… I am drawn more and more to the conclusion that to love much is the best means of approaching God. Love a friend, anyone, or anything you like, and I tell you, you will be on the right road to learn more. You must love with a high and intense determination, with your will and your intellect, and seek always to deepen, expand, and improve your knowledge. …”

Which makes me think of my late friend, Mel Nudelman. Mel was an old friend in both senses of the phrase — I’d known him since the ’70s and at age 87 he lost his wife of 50 years and was devastated. But, to his credit he fought through and grieved his broken heart to the point of making a new girlfriend! (A lovely woman, by the way). And so, Mel lived as he always did, learning, taking classes, counseling others, being with his children and grandchildren, making friends young and old; ever curious about politics, music, sports, medicine, and the world. All this until near the end of his days in his 90s.

Put differently, Mel was open to life and whatever it would reveal to him.

My advice then, to you and to myself, is to keep learning and keep being open to “possibility,” including the possibility there are things yet unseen, unexpected, or unacknowledged to enlighten us if only we keep our eyes open and look.

We are all students of the greatest teacher of all: life.

The photo above shows Mel and Sally Nudelman.