When Speaking of Love

A phone conversation ends in my presence. The final words spoken: I love you.

These three words have become a ubiquitous sign-off, often to a child, or a spouse or a partner. There must be a generational divide, for such farewells (except possibly when whispered) were rarely heard in my youth, or even in my middle years. And they leave me feeling somewhat disquieted, uneasy.

And then I silently chastise myself for my cynicism. I even wonder at my own awkwardness when I sense I’m expected to echo these parting words from a dear friend, and I remain mute.

But here is my quandary: Doesn’t saying the words: I love you make you feel a little crazy if just hours earlier you were greatly annoyed because once again your spouse failed to meet you on time, or if moments after you speak the words to a child, you display what seems like irrational anger at a disrespectful remark?

The actor and playwright, Wallace Shawn, spoke for me when he said: The difficulty of saying “I love you” is that it presupposes that you know who “I” is and that you know who “you” is.

Exactly my point. The scenarios are infinite. Who “I” am keeps shifting and who “he” or “she” is does as well. Which is the real “you”? Which are the true feelings? Isn’t it safer to avoid the routine sign-off so as not to later meet ambivalence head on?

But now at long last, I’ve gained a new slant on these three oft spoken words of parting. I chanced upon an interview of Matthew Crawford, author of a new book: “The World Beyond Your Head”. I must paraphrase his comments as best I remember them: Consider someone who is suffering from sadness, discontent, boredom or annoyance, say she is a wife who is feeling this way about her husband. Yet she says “I love you ”on retiring every night. She does not say this as a report on her feelings. It is not sincere, but nether is it a lie. What it is, is a kind of prayer.

This really helps me. If it is a ritual which allows one to act as if some state of affairs were true, even though the words spoken at that moment are without authenticity, and the words are an expression of a hoped for reality, I can buy that.

These three words are rarely spoken by me in an offhanded way, although sometimes they are written, and then meant most sincerely. I, after all, was married to a man named Larsen, whose ancestors came from a northern land of short days and long winter nights. I fondly recall the day he turned to me with a wry smile and asked if I’d heard the one about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much, he almost told her.