Approaching Love with Utter Openness and Reasonable Caution

"In every human being there is only so large a supply of love. It's like the limbs of a starfish, to some extent: if you chew off a chunk, it will grow back. But if you chew off too much, the starfish dies. Valerie B. chewed off a chunk of love from my dwindling reserve … a reserve already nibbled by Charlotte and Lory and Sherri and Cindy and others down through the years. There's still enough there to make the saleable appearance of a whole creature, but nobody gets gnawed on that way without becoming a little dead. So, if Cupid (that perverted little motherfucker) decides his lightning ought to strike this gnarly tree trunk again, whoever or whatever gets me is going to get a handy second, damaged goods, something a little dead and a little crippled.

Having learned that, all I can advise is an impossible stance for all of you: utter openness and reasonable caution. Don't close yourself off, but jeezus, be careful of monsters with teeth. And just so you know what they look like when they come clanking after you, here is a photo of one. The package is so pretty, one can only urge you to remember Pandora. Be careful which boxes you open, troops."

From Harlan Ellison's Valerie: A True Memoir (1972).

(thanks to Maria Pacana for the pointer)

10 Responses to Approaching Love with Utter Openness and Reasonable Caution

  1. Justin Wehr says:

    Nice quote.

    I wonder if people have any resource that is not scarce. (Not love, not self-control, not gratitude…) Maybe empathy? Probably not that either.

  2. Kerry Kimble says:

    Not letting one’s caution overwhelm one’s open-ness: that’s the trick. There’s a high price to pay for both not enough caution and too much. Like many other things, finding the right combination takes a great deal more practice than one ever might imagine.

  3. I don’t think love is a finite resource within us. But I think our willingness to be open to giving and (perhaps surprisingly) receiving it can be depleted to almost nil. It’s like wealth – more can always be created, but you usually have to spend out to get any back. (I say “usually” because I see people, every day, who are shut off to being loved or loving in return, and I see others loving them anyway. It’s an awesome thing to witness and incredibly rewarding to participate in, as giver and recipient. I’ve been both on certain days.)

  4. Justine Musk says:

    Don’t buy it. What he’s talking about isn’t love, because real love doesn’t chew you up like that — real love involves compassion and empathy and comes from a place of (say it with me boys and girls) abundance. If you grow up with it (most of us experience it only partially, or not at all), if you carry the feeling of it inside you (internalized from your parents) then you can recognize it when you find it and, since you know how to love yourself (most of us don’t, not truly), you know to recognize and reject the destructive stuff because if it hurts, it ain’t love. It’s not that you don’t risk loss and heartbreak, but since you don’t lose yourself in the other person, there’s always enough of you left to recover fully and go on to find it again (since you know that it’s out there).

    What he’s talking about is a kind of addiction or obsession, the kind of stuff that often masquerades as love — and which our often-adolescent culture tends to celebrate — but ends up being about control, power, manipulation — you trying to manipulate and control the other person into giving you what you need, fill the void. Except in the end this always turns out to be impossible. So at some point the relationship ends and you move on to chew or be chewed up by the next person (we can’t help but repeat ourselves, since all we know is what we already know, what feels comfortable and familiar, grooved into our brains growing up). But there’s passion and drama and obsession and craziness and all that cool stuff (that distracts us from the dangers of real, actual intimacy) — stuff that makes for good fiction.

    (The stuff of my ended marriage, for example, will make for awesome fiction [bonus for me!]. But it sure as hell wasn’t love, and I was the mauled and chewed up starfish who got out just in time.)

    The key is to truly learn yourself, know yourself, including your vulnerable spots, your history, your patterns, what you’re strongly attracted to and whether those people are good for you (in my case, immediate attraction is usually a sign to run for the hills). Once you learn your own inner wounds, and resolve them, you won’t be prey to the people who feed off them (or be a predator yourself). This is, of course, much easier said than done.

    Having said all that, Harlan Ellison kicks ass. And knows it.

  5. Vince Williams says:

    Harlan Ellison is absolutely full of shit here, and what a clumsy, ugly simile to compare love to a fucking parapalegic starfish, for God’s sake.

    He even compounds the crime by mixing this nasty metaphor with the image of himself as a “gnarly tree trunk”.

    The motherfucker can definitely write, though, and I admire his style– anybody who can tell the fightin’ Aggies they’re America’s “next generation of Nazis” to their faces in a speech has got balls the size of Mars’ moons.

    I know Harlan Ellison is a great writer because reading him makes me seriously want to kick his ass.

  6. PS:

    Harlan Ellison doesn’t know jack about love, and anyone who follows the advice of someone whose best advice on the subject “is an impossible stance for all” of us is a fool.

    The monster with teeth you want to be careful of is Harlan Ellison– his are very sharp.

  7. Arkadius Zylka says:

    Love is a horrible indicator of a “healthy, satisfying relationship”.

    Think about it: some wo-/men are being cheated on, lied to and mistreated…….only because they “love” that person.

    Like in a binary solar system, the center of gravity doesn’t reside in the middle of either star. Both are orbiting a center they share.

    An indicator of an unhealthy relationship is one of the partners being an “orbiter”. Not a star in its own right, but a planet which orbits the much “heavier”, brighter star.

    In relationships, there are also pulsars and black holes. Those who give (because they can afford it) and those who only take (because they haven’t learned to do anything else).

  8. Love as behavior (dedication of one’s will to the good of an Other) and love as emotion (passion, affection, attachment, sympathy, generousity) are inexhaustible.

    But every choice to love is also a radical hope in and willingness to trust the Other. There are few emotions more readily exhausted than hope or trust.

    Each lost love makes it more difficult to invest hope in future Others. And with each lost love, it becomes more difficult to trust ourselves, both our capacity to see others as they are and our worthiness of others’ love.

    If what Ellison is asking of us is to see the others as they truly are, and yet choose to hope and trust despite—and even because of—our own and others flaws, then I agree with him wholeheartedly.

  9. Patrick says:

    …as a good friend of mine from the Naval Academy likes to say “dating a 30yr old is like dating a war veteran…the battle scars and wounds from past relationships never really heal”

  10. Mike says:

    Justine, I read this post of yours a few weeks ago and it completely reordered my thoughts on love: link to moschus.livejournal.com

    You named for me something I’d been dealing with for years. I’ve got a post on limerence coming up that I’ll be linking to you in.

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