April 2013


Written by ELLE HUNT

A twenty-something navigates heartbreak by Schopenhauer.

"Almost all of our sorrows spring out of our relations with other people," wrote Schopenhauer in an essay called 'Lebensweisheit' – 'Worldly Wisdoms' – in 1851.

If I didn't know better, I'd say it sounds like Schopenhauer liked someone who didn't like him back.

There are few feelings worse than unrequited love. I should know: my own experience was as drawn-out and painful as they come, and threw me for the best part of two years. I cared for him in a way that he didn't for me. It sounds simple enough, but it's only in the past few months that I've had the revelation, as bracing as cold water in its clarity, that a relationship (at least in the aspirational sense of the word) was never on the table.

The experience has taught me this: that ever-open lines of communication, widely understood to be a key component of successful relationships, are even more  important in the lead-up to a potential union, when both unions are circling each other and smelling the air and asking "What are we?" At that juncture, it's crucial that both sides are on the same page – because it's easier for someone whose powers of deduction have been diminished by unrequited love to be told "No" than it is for them to infer it from even the most obvious of hints.

In short, people in love aren't rational, and those whose feelings are not returned, even less so. They can't be expected to expose empty promises and white lies for what they are, or have the presence of mind to gracefully extract themselves from the ambiguity in which they are mired. They are like drunk people, or horses, or dogs: you've got to really spell it out.

A special kind of senselessness is reserved for those in the throes of unrequited love, and if we are to minimise the sorrows that spring from this most thankless kind of relationship, we need to be honest with them. If, at any point over the 18 months I spent in a love-struck limbo, I had been told "Not now, not ever", my own unhappiness would never have reached the apex it did. Instead, my hope was kept alive by circumstantial excuses – about our friends, our jobs, our living situations – and vague references to "some time in the future".

I recognise those now as an exercise in "letting her down gently", perhaps borne of empathy, that had the opposite effect of prolonging a situation that needed to be ended quickly, cleanly, and kindly. Even though no formal commitment had been breached, I'd argue that in cases of unrequited love, the person who doesn't reciprocate feeling – being in full command of their emotional capacities and thus in the position of power – has a moral obligation to the vulnerable party to put them out of their misery. And take it from me, "misery" is not too strong a word.

At a recent gathering of friends, a philosophy student put to us the question of Robert Nozick's experience machine: could we ever be content with the illusion of lived experience, as generated by the machine, or would we rather real life with no guarantee of happiness? Most agreed that they'd live in the machine, but at the time I was adamant I'd rather the authentic than artifice, no matter how painful. Since my experience with unrequited love, I'm ready to change my mind.

In fact, Nozick's machine is just the thing I'd like to plug into before I start dating again: with no chance of history repeating, I'd happily sign up for any number of inauthentic encounters that were at least guaranteed to be enjoyable. Never before have I so wholeheartedly subscribed to Schopenhauer's philosophy that the pursuit of love is, in essence, futile.

So, in the meantime, I am learning to be alone – to have, as Schopenhauer said, "so much in yourself that you don't need a companion." A lot of my strategies reflect his belief that art alleviates the pain intrinsic to human desire, though it's not known whether he would have counted trashy television and pop music as "art". In the weeks after I was disillusioned about love, I watched all six seasons of Sex & The City and one of the two truly dreadful films in too short a timeframe to be advisable. But as a ploy to keep my mind on others' romantic unhappiness and off my own, it worked.

Music, too, takes on a new poignancy for the heartbroken. I've heard significance in even the most formulaic of Top 40 hits. It's as though Taylor Swift wrote her songs for me and me alone (that being said, the experience of one 20-something woman is very likely much like another's); the navelgazing hip-hop star Drake is my Poet Laureate.

I have also taken up volunteering at my local branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the organisation that Schopenhauer praised the establishment of in London in 1841. He was devoted to animals, particularly his pet poodles, and criticised other philosophers' views that they existed purely for the satisfaction of humans. I myself find pleasure in the companionship of the dogs I walk for the SPCA, even if I am just borrowing them for half-hours at a time.

But there's a difference between spending time by myself, which I have never had a problem with, and being alone. Having jumped from long-term relationship to long-term relationship before this most recent illfated union, I struggle with the realisation that I am answerable to and responsible for no one but myself; that I am not part of a team, staring down the day together; that, beyond the interest and concern of good friends, I have no one's hopes, dreams, fears and secrets to share in, and no one to share mine. And the fact that I know such a union exist – that two individuals can combine to form something bigger and better and stronger than themselves – can exist seems to be the difference between  Schopenhauer and me. No matter how "#dark" I seem now, I know my disillusionment is only temporary, while he seemed something of a bitter old git – a fact recognised in more politically-correct terms by other outlets' descriptions of him as a "gloomy and thorough-going pessimist". One of his most oft-repeated pearls of wisdom is that if one ate a toad first thing in the morning, one could be sure of not meeting with anything more repellent in the day ahead. It's hard to fault his logic.

But though I feel, as Schopenhauer did, that "the peace of our mind, which is the most essential element of our happiness besides our health ... can't exist without a significant amount of solitude", I don't agree that it "will be endangered by any kind of companion." He believed that he was only himself when he was alone, and the search for love was therefore futile – but just as almost all of my sorrows have sprung out of one failed relationship, perhaps Schopenhauer hadn't found the right person. And, with this thought, I remain a romantic at heart, with one foot out of Nozick's machine.