Alain de Botton on Marriage, Happiness, and Compatibility

Alain de Botton is one of my favorite modern-day writers/philosophers. This week, he has an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” Alain de Botton is incredibly perceptive in his interpretations and unravelings of love and happiness:

But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.

This paragraph resonates with me especially:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Alain de Botton’s other writings, I highly suggest checking out The Consolations of Philosophy and his novel, On Love. I’m looking forward to reading his latest novel, The Course of Love, when it comes out in June 2016.

Amazing Missed Connection in Boston

This is an incredible missed connection posted to the Boston arm of Craigslist. The writing is beautiful and the story is powerful and uplifting. In case the link is brought down or expires, here is the full text for posterity:

I met you in the rain on the last day of 1972, the same day I resolved to kill myself.

One week prior, at the behest of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, I’d flown four B-52 sorties over Hanoi. I dropped forty-eight bombs. How many homes I destroyed, how many lives I ended, I’ll never know. But in the eyes of my superiors, I had served my country honorably, and I was thusly discharged with such distinction.

And so on the morning of that New Year’s Eve, I found myself in a barren studio apartment on Beacon and Hereford with a fifth of Tennessee rye and the pang of shame permeating the recesses of my soul. When the bottle was empty, I made for the door and vowed, upon returning, that I would retrieve the Smith & Wesson Model 15 from the closet and give myself the discharge I deserved.

I walked for hours. I looped around the Fenway before snaking back past Symphony Hall and up to Trinity Church. Then I roamed through the Common, scaled the hill with its golden dome, and meandered into that charming labyrinth divided by Hanover Street. By the time I reached the waterfront, a charcoal sky had opened and a drizzle became a shower. That shower soon gave way to a deluge. While the other pedestrians darted for awnings and lobbies, I trudged into the rain. I suppose I thought, or rather hoped, that it might wash away the patina of guilt that had coagulated around my heart. It didn’t, of course, so I started back to the apartment.

And then I saw you.

You’d taken shelter under the balcony of the Old State House. You were wearing a teal ball gown, which appeared to me both regal and ridiculous. Your brown hair was matted to the right side of your face, and a galaxy of freckles dusted your shoulders. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

When I joined you under the balcony, you looked at me with your big green eyes, and I could tell that you’d been crying. I asked if you were okay. You said you’d been better. I asked if you’d like to have a cup of coffee. You said only if I would join you. Before I could smile, you snatched my hand and led me on a dash through Downtown Crossing and into Neisner’s.

We sat at the counter of that five and dime and talked like old friends. We laughed as easily as we lamented, and you confessed over pecan pie that you were engaged to a man you didn’t love, a banker from some line of Boston nobility. A Cabot, or maybe a Chaffee. Either way, his parents were hosting a soirée to ring in the New Year, hence the dress.

For my part, I shared more of myself than I could have imagined possible at that time. I didn’t mention Vietnam, but I got the sense that you could see there was a war waging inside me. Still, your eyes offered no pity, and I loved you for it.

After an hour or so, I excused myself to use the restroom. I remember consulting my reflection in the mirror. Wondering if I should kiss you, if I should tell you what I’d done from the cockpit of that bomber a week before, if I should return to the Smith & Wesson that waited for me. I decided, ultimately, that I was unworthy of the resuscitation this stranger in the teal ball gown had given me, and to turn my back on such sweet serendipity would be the real disgrace.

On the way back to the counter, my heart thumped in my chest like an angry judge’s gavel, and a future — our future — flickered in my mind. But when I reached the stools, you were gone. No phone number. No note. Nothing.

As strangely as our union had begun, so too had it ended. I was devastated. I went back to Neisner’s every day for a year, but I never saw you again. Ironically, the torture of your abandonment seemed to swallow my self-loathing, and the prospect of suicide was suddenly less appealing than the prospect of discovering what had happened in that restaurant. The truth is I never really stopped wondering.

I’m an old man now, and only recently did I recount this story to someone for the first time, a friend from the VFW. He suggested I look for you on Facebook. I told him I didn’t know anything about Facebook, and all I knew about you was your first name and that you had lived in Boston once. And even if by some miracle I happened upon your profile, I’m not sure I would recognize you. Time is cruel that way.

This same friend has a particularly sentimental daughter. She’s the one who led me here to Craigslist and these Missed Connections. But as I cast this virtual coin into the wishing well of the cosmos, it occurs to me, after a million what-ifs and a lifetime of lost sleep, that our connection wasn’t missed at all.

You see, in these intervening forty-two years I’ve lived a good life. I’ve loved a good woman. I’ve raised a good man. I’ve seen the world. And I’ve forgiven myself. And you were the source of all of it. You breathed your spirit into my lungs one rainy afternoon, and you can’t possibly imagine my gratitude.

I have hard days, too. My wife passed four years ago. My son, the year after. I cry a lot. Sometimes from the loneliness, sometimes I don’t know why. Sometimes I can still smell the smoke over Hanoi. And then, a few dozen times a year, I’ll receive a gift. The sky will glower, and the clouds will hide the sun, and the rain will begin to fall. And I’ll remember.

So wherever you’ve been, wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, know this: you’re with me still.

If you have doubts about the authenticity of the missed connection, I think it’s fascinating as an avenue of people sharing short works of fiction at a medium such a Craigslist.

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Related: previously, one of the best missed connections published on Craigslist.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew on Being Adrift, Searching for a Navigator

Writing in The New York Times, Leah Vincent reflects on her upbringing as one of eleven children in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and finding romance on the Q train:

I had been raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. As a girl, my life had revolved around modesty, obedience and dreams of an arranged marriage at 18, followed by a dozen children. Popular movies were irrelevant and forbidden.

But it had been six years since my parents ostracized me for having written letters to a boy, wanting to go to college, complaining when my father, a prominent rabbi, used a slur to describe an African-American person, and wearing an immodest sweater that highlighted my curves. Six years of wrestling with my forbidden desires.

I had finally given up on God and decided I would allow myself to be liberated from the confines of my faith. Now I was catching up on what I had missed.

I loved this paragraph:

Luke was different from those random flings. We talked like old friends about books, Brooklyn, our lives. The next morning, when we hugged goodbye, it felt as if we had already shed a layer of defenses that usually took months to peel away. Our connection seemed deep and profound. On my way home, I let myself imagine what it might be like to wake up every morning with him. I tried on his last name. I wondered what kind of father he might be.

There’s a twist in the story that I wasn’t expecting, but I liked the optimism of her final sentence.

If you enjoyed the piece, you might want to purchase Vincent’s upcoming book: Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.

Forty Years Later, a Missed Connection

I believe this amazing missed connection is genuine, and someone should be able to recognize the lady described in the text below.

Grand Central – November 1973 – m4w – 58 (Midtown)

In the fall of 1973 I was studying as a freshman at NYU, and after failing to make my initial train home to Maine, I was rushing through Grand Central on the evening before Thanksgiving 1973 when I spotted you, emerging from one of the railways, with a look of utter confusion on your face. You had the blondest hair I had ever seen, and a plaid dress. I had never seen a plaid dress before.

I was, in those days, terribly shy, and if I am honest with myself, I’ve never shook that stubborn sense of timidity or loneliness in crowds. To this day, trying to explain the uncharacteristic courageousness that seized me in that moment, and inspired me to walk up to you and say “are you lost?” is almost completely beyond me.

You were studying at Oberlin, and on your way to spend Thanksgiving with your aunt in Jersey City. After explaining to you where you could get a bus, I asked, in spite of knowing it would mean sacrificing my last chance to spend the holiday with my family (and likely infuriate my over-protective mother), if you wanted to get a drink and you said yes.

We walked out into a rainy Manhattan street and ducked into the first (cheap) bar we saw, where I ordered us two bottles of beer. Now in my 50’s, when with any luck a man might finally begin to acquire that elusive thing called wisdom, I know that there is nothing more exciting yet rare in life than making a true connection with someone. I have always been too sentimental for my own good, but in all honesty, I have never felt more at ease with anyone than I did laughing and talking to you that dimly lit midtown bar.

When I confessed that I purposefully missed my train to keep talking to you, you smiled slyly and said “well I guess it’s only fair that I miss my bus.” With no money for a cab, we walked to my Lower East Side dorm room, which was deserted aside from my German classmate Franklin, who kindly gave us a half-finished bottle of red wine.

We made love that night, and in the morning coached one another through shaky phone calls to our angry relatives back home. With the November cold turning the night’s rain into a dreary wintery mix, we stayed in bed all day, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes, discussing politics and philosophy. You told me you had never felt “so New York before.”

That evening, you took a bus to Jersey City. A few weeks later I received a letter from California. You sent no return address, and I never saw you again.

I have been married twice since then – once divorced, and once widowed. I have had a successful career as an English professor, and am a proud father. My life has known its share of triumphs and heartaches, of love and loss. Against my better judgement, I haven’t forgotten that day – and, at least once a year, while mowing the lawn, or reading a newspaper, the details come back to me.

Perhaps, if life’s strange circumstances can permit it, we can have a second drink.

Are you a sucker for sentimental stories like this? If so, don’t miss this one from earlier this year.

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(via Gawker)

A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen

This personal essay in The New York Times struck a chord with me because I had two separate conversations over the last two days on these two themes: work-life balance and the definition of feminism.

Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you. Even if you have never felt stronger and more truly yourself. Even if you love them.

Because of my history, I know how much the mundane care of children matters. That is why I stop work when the school day ends and greet my daughter with a hug. I may be tired, stressed out or grumpy; I may bemoan the confinement, the repetition, the career limits. But I do it anyway. I pull away from paid pursuits and open myself to the opportunity to delight in my daughter.

My delight comes freely, inspired by a leggy girl with rich brown eyes who has just come home. But our time together is about more than delight. When I hand her a snack and look into her face, seeking the stories of her day, I intend for her to feel how much she matters. She matters more to me right then than anything I could be doing without her. And we will not have these afternoons forever.

When she told me on Mother’s Day that she loves what I do in the kitchen, I realized why I love it, too. For as I stir and chop and bake while she studies, sings, draws, chatters, rides a scooter and does an exceptional job of being young, I am drinking in some of the pleasures I missed.

Worth reading.

A Craigslist Missed Connection for the Ages

This is one of the best Craigslist missed connections I’ve ever read. It starts out rather ordinarily: on the Q train headed into Manhattan. But if you keep on reading, it’s like a love’s labor lost, sixty years in the making (or losing, depending on your perspective). Presented in its entirety:

I saw you on the Manhattan-bound Brooklyn Q train. 

I was wearing a blue-striped t-shirt and a pair of maroon pants. You were wearing a vintage red skirt and a smart white blouse. We both wore glasses. I guess we still do.

You got on at DeKalb and sat across from me and we made eye contact, briefly. I fell in love with you a little bit, in that stupid way where you completely make up a fictional version of the person you’re looking at and fall in love with that person. But still I think there was something there.

Several times we looked at each other and then looked away. I tried to think of something to say to you — maybe pretend I didn’t know where I was going and ask you for directions or say something nice about your boot-shaped earrings, or just say, “Hot day.” It all seemed so stupid.

At one point, I caught you staring at me and you immediately averted your eyes. You pulled a book out of your bag and started reading it — a biography of Lyndon Johnson — but I noticed you never once turned a page.

My stop was Union Square, but at Union Square I decided to stay on, rationalizing that I could just as easily transfer to the 7 at 42nd Street, but then I didn’t get off at 42nd Street either. You must have missed your stop as well, because when we got all the way to the end of the line at Ditmars, we both just sat there in the car, waiting.

I cocked my head at you inquisitively. You shrugged and held up your book as if that was the reason.

Still I said nothing.

We took the train all the way back down — down through Astoria, across the East River, weaving through midtown, from Times Square to Herald Square to Union Square, under SoHo and Chinatown, up across the bridge back into Brooklyn, past Barclays and Prospect Park, past Flatbush and Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, all the way to Coney Island. And when we got to Coney Island, I knew I had to say something.

Still I said nothing.

And so we went back up.

Up and down the Q line, over and over. We caught the rush hour crowds and then saw them thin out again. We watched the sun set over Manhattan as we crossed the East River. I gave myself deadlines: I’ll talk to her before Newkirk; I’ll talk to her before Canal. Still I remained silent.

For months we sat on the train saying nothing to each other. We survived on bags of skittles sold to us by kids raising money for their basketball teams. We must have heard a million mariachi bands, had our faces nearly kicked in by a hundred thousand break dancers. I gave money to the beggars until I ran out of singles. When the train went above ground I’d get text messages and voicemails (“Where are you? What happened? Are you okay?”) until my phone ran out of battery.

I’ll talk to her before daybreak; I’ll talk to her before Tuesday. The longer I waited, the harder it got. What could I possibly say to you now, now that we’ve passed this same station for the hundredth time? Maybe if I could go back to the first time the Q switched over to the local R line for the weekend, I could have said, “Well, this is inconvenient,” but I couldn’t very well say it now, could I? I would kick myself for days after every time you sneezed — why hadn’t I said “Bless You”? That tiny gesture could have been enough to pivot us into a conversation, but here in stupid silence still we sat.

There were nights when we were the only two souls in the car, perhaps even on the whole train, and even then I felt self-conscious about bothering you. She’s reading her book, I thought, she doesn’t want to talk to me. Still, there were moments when I felt a connection. Someone would shout something crazy about Jesus and we’d immediately look at each other to register our reactions. A couple of teenagers would exit, holding hands, and we’d both think: Young Love.

For sixty years, we sat in that car, just barely pretending not to notice each other. I got to know you so well, if only peripherally. I memorized the folds of your body, the contours of your face, the patterns of your breath. I saw you cry once after you’d glanced at a neighbor’s newspaper. I wondered if you were crying about something specific, or just the general passage of time, so unnoticeable until suddenly noticeable. I wanted to comfort you, wrap my arms around you, assure you I knew everything would be fine, but it felt too familiar; I stayed glued to my seat.

One day, in the middle of the afternoon, you stood up as the train pulled into Queensboro Plaza. It was difficult for you, this simple task of standing up, you hadn’t done it in sixty years. Holding onto the rails, you managed to get yourself to the door. You hesitated briefly there, perhaps waiting for me to say something, giving me one last chance to stop you, but rather than spit out a lifetime of suppressed almost-conversations I said nothing, and I watched you slip out between the closing sliding doors.

It took me a few more stops before I realized you were really gone. I kept waiting for you to reenter the subway car, sit down next to me, rest your head on my shoulder. Nothing would be said. Nothing would need to be said.

When the train returned to Queensboro Plaza, I craned my neck as we entered the station. Perhaps you were there, on the platform, still waiting. Perhaps I would see you, smiling and bright, your long gray hair waving in the wind from the oncoming train.

But no, you were gone. And I realized most likely I would never see you again. And I thought about how amazing it is that you can know somebody for sixty years and yet still not really know that person at all.

I stayed on the train until it got to Union Square, at which point I got off and transferred to the L.

Spectacular. I wonder if the author of this masterpiece will come forward and get a book deal or something.

Karen Cheng on Discipline and Quitting

I profiled how Karen Cheng learned to dance in 365 days in an earlier post. She’s now published a super piece on trying and learning that it’s okay to quit:

Try everything. Be curious, ask questions. Let yourself be pulled in weird and interesting directions. Let your friends drag you to that thing you’re not so sure about. Go to a real bookstore. Sign up for an art class, a cycling class, an improv class. Bring a friend. When your friend bails, show up to class anyway.

I’ve tried a lot of things–and quit just about as many. Piano. GuitarSinging. Cello. My band. My job at Microsoft. Juggling. Card tricks. Unicycling. Programming. Tae Kwon Do. Judo. Swimming. Origami.

Dancing was just another thing I tried. It stuck because I loved it the most.

Think about your job or hobby. Are you doing it because you really, truly love it? Or because it’s what you’ve always known?

What if you can’t afford to quit?

Okay, so you can quit your hobby. But what if you can’t afford to quit your job?

I felt that way at my old job. Two years into working at Microsoft Excel, I realized I was in the wrong career. I didn’t want to project manage anymore–I wanted to be a designer. But I had no design skills, and I didn’t want to go back to school. Going $100,000 in debt was not feasible, and three years is too long to wait for your dream.

So I taught myself–every day I would do my day job in record time and rush home to learn design. I hacked together my piecemeal design education in six months. I did not feel ready but I started the job search anyway. I was a lot less experienced than others, so I had to get creative to set myself apart. After getting rejected a few times, I got the job as Exec’s designer.

This is really great advice. I recommend reading the entire post and checking all the links.

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Also see: Cal Newport’s advice on not necessarily doing what you love.