If you are an OKCupid user, you have probably come across this question:
“How would you describe hopeless, unrequited love? A.) Romantic B.) Foolish C.) Creepy”
There’s another option that OKCupid’s creators didn’t consider because it’s unlikely that they’ve ever thought of it: perfect. In our culture, we tend to think that unrequited love is pathetic, but this is not a universally-held belief. According to Reza Aslan’s book, No god but God, Sufi Muslims believe unrequited love is ideal:
“The Sufi conception of love…is a love that must remain unfulfilled…One cannot begin the Way expecting to complete it; only a handful of individuals will reach the final destination and achieve unity with God. For this reason, the Sufi is often compared to the bride who sits on her marriage bed, ‘roses strewn on the cushions,’ yearning for the arrival of the Bridegroom, though she knows he may never come. And yet, the bride waits; she will wait forever, ‘dying from love,’ aching for the beloved, crying out with every breath, ‘Come to me! Come to me!’ until she ceases to exist as a separate entity and becomes nothing more than a lover loving the Beloved in perfect union.”
Aslan also describes this love as “passionate, all-consuming, humiliating, self-denying love.” That sounds like an accurate characterization of unrequited love to me—especially the “humiliating” part.
Now, I’m no Sufi. I’m not even a dabbler, not in Sufism or any other form of mysticism. But the Sufi concept of love intrigues me, because I do consider myself a master of the art of unrequited love. I’ve had more than my fair share of brushes with unrequited love—more on that later. And, until I read Alsan’s book, I thought it meant there was something wrong with me. Until then, I had no idea that unrequited love was worth celebrating, but it is, and here’s why: The essence of the love experience is the love you feel for the other person, not in the love you receive. Pursuing the other person, or worrying whether or not he feels the same way about you can get in the way of that experience. But if, like the Sufi bride, you accept that he may never come, you let go of those worries and experience only the love.
The Legend of Majnun and Layla
I’ve had many experiences with unrequited love in my life, but there is one that still makes me tear up when I think about it, and I don’t let myself think about it very often.
When I was 21, I traveled through Europe. At a hotel in Paris, I met Hanine, an Algerian student who tended bar in the hotel. Hanine had shimmering dark eyes, wavy black hair, and a broken front tooth. We danced to “Dragostea din Tei”, which was popular in Europe that year. Being close to him made my heart race. And then when he kissed me…it was the first time someone I’d found really attractive was attracted to me too. I could hardly believe it. I wanted him more than I had ever wanted anyone. But there was one problem. I was a virgin.
I stayed in Paris for a week. On the second to last night, I told Hanine I was a virgin. With the help of a French-to-English dictionary, we discussed condoms and trust. We went upstairs and we had sex. And I fell hopelessly in love.
The next day, I left Paris. Hanine took me to the train station. He held me while I cried. I got on a train bound for Milan, and we said our goodbyes.
For the next week and a half, I traveled around Italy, alone and feeling incredibly sad. Probably because on some level, I knew what would come next.
One night, I boarded an overnight train in Naples. Confused by the numbers on my ticket, I asked a man in a uniform if I was in the right place. He said I was, and guided me to an empty compartment. He was a caterer, and had a little pushcart full of sodas. He sat in the compartment with me for a while and chatted. He seemed nice enough. He told me his name was Giovanni. Then, he took his cart and went to peddle his drinks.
For a few hours, I was alone in the compartment. I lay down and tried to sleep. At 2 a.m., the caterer entered the compartment. He pulled his cart in with him, so that it blocked the door. He put his feet on the bench where I lay, and I felt his feet rubbing against my stomach. A bluish light streamed into the dark compartment and cut across his face as I looked up and caught him staring at me with a smile on his face.
Nervous, I sat up. He continued to talk. He groped my calves and licked the back of my hand. I wished he would leave. I held the souvenir pocket-watch I bought in Paris tightly in my hand until it left a tiny impression of the Eiffel tower my palm. Finally, it was time for him to serve coffee and he left me alone. After the train pulled into the station, I wandered around in a daze, scenes from the previous night flashing in my mind. I felt violated..
I made a police report, and did the only thing that made sense: I went back to Paris to be with Hanine. With the language barrier, it was difficult to explain to him what happened. To this day I have no idea if he really understood. What is clear is that though I was in love with him, he never had any feelings for me at all. Between my leaving Paris and returning two it—in a span of less than two weeks—he had already found a new girlfriend.
“You love me,” he said, “and it is impossible.”
To say that I was heartbroken doesn’t really describe it. I was just broken. For months after that, I pretended he never said that he had no feelings for me. I gained eighty pounds.
I wish I would’ve been able to have that fling without getting attached. Or that I could have loved him without attachment—without needing him to love me back. Maybe if I had, those memories wouldn’t haunt me to this day. I could have romantic, pleasant-to-look-back-on memories that are not tinged with darkness.
In my most recent bout of unrequited love, I can honestly say that, though there were some agonizing moments, I was able to experience the feelings I had for this person, and enjoy them, without falling apart. And now that those feelings have faded (well, mostly) I can say that I got something out of that experience. I experienced love, even though I knew it would never be returned.
I don’t mean to idealize unrequited love. It can be painful (obviously). But that pain wouldn’t be there without the love. And I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to find someone who loves you back. That’s great, if you can find it. But not everyone finds intense, mutually-shared love with another person. You can say, “You’ll find someone when you’re not looking,” or “there’s someone out there for everyone,” but face it—the world is too big and chaotic to abide by such simple rules. Some people do spend their lives alone.
By deriding unrequited love, are we telling those people that they don’t get to experience love at all?