I used to treat every wound. Pimples got one cream, eczema another. On trips, I carried a freezer bag full of medications: for flu, for cramps, for sleeplessness. Any bodily event somewhat out of the ordinary warranted a doctor’s appointment. Infections made me anxious. What if the antibiotic didn’t work? I sensed my body a fragile thing entrusted to the pharmacy aisle.
And then, one long journey deep into the wilderness, I forgot the freezer bag — and promptly got a cut on my cheek that festered. I had absolutely nothing to treat it besides time. It’s a testament to how alienated we are from the body’s own healing capacities that I was astonished when the infection, in a few days, resolved itself.
Some months ago, I traveled with my family to a Kenyan plain called the Masai Mara. The Mara, a green reserve teeming with wildebeest, has lately suffered climactic and human damage. Drought has turned the neighboring villages to dustbowls, and the cattle-herders, in turn, have begged permission from the Kenyan government to graze their ragged flocks inside the Mara. The silky grass has been bitten down to the stalk, trees burnt to spindles of charcoal by conflagrations set to clear land for more grazing.
And yet I noticed, too, how fiercely the land wanted to heal itself. New shoots sprouted up everywhere. Saplings struggled from the ash fields. Erosion gulleys silted over and living trees reached out their roots to hold the new earth. Just like my body, the whole plain was a being that wanted to live, that fought for its own life.
Could love be such a thing? The younger me armed with my freezer bag didn’t trust my body but believed its health could only be a function of how obsessively I attended to it. We’re similarly inclined to distrust love. Lately, we’ve been inundated by a wave of popular articles telling us the steps to create happy love affairs. There was the New York Times’s “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This“; Lydia Netzer’s “15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years; the Atlantic’s “Masters of Love.” I wrote recently about one such technique, the Gottman Institute’s Gottman Method, in the Huffington Post: in that technique, you build love consciously from the foundation up, creating a base of friendship, then praising your partner, then responding the right way to his “bids for connection,” then devoting yourself to helping him achieve his dreams. These are the ointments by which we are instructed to medicate love.
Nurturing love takes lots of work, of course. But I have also come to believe that love wants to exist as much as we want love. It’s like the plain of the Mara that wants to be green, or my unconsciously-managed body, which strives to live, with or without my assistance.
This sounds counterintuitive. How could an emotion we manifest have its own separate will? But the value — even the necessity — of understanding love as a force sometimes beyond our power becomes clear when we consider that love can need inattentiveness to flourish: the old adage that if you love something, set it free.
Recently, some people wiser than myself told me I had to walk away from a faltering love affair and give it time. That went against all my instincts. I wanted to fight: to fling at it every salve I had, all my arguments, my cajoling, my gifts, my parades of affection. If love is ultimately only what we do — the sum total of all of our loving gestures — how could it possibly be true that packing up our freezer bag and turning away for a time could allow love to regenerate in secret?
But it can be true, of course. And I think really contemplating that forces us to look closely at our beliefs about the constant necessity of action to bring about beautiful things in life. Love resists our control as much as she submits to it. That’s what we hate: what we seek to subdue with all the listicles telling us the 47 things we need to do to ensure that love will never wither or die. But her unmanageability has an upside we neglect when we strive to make her hidden processes knowable. She comes and grows when we don’t ask her to, too, and that is one of the greatest blessings of life.