Almost every love relationship could be called "hopeless" at one time or another, but here we're talking about love that's really hopeless: An infatuation for someone you've never met, or someone who's happily married, or someone who's not even slightly interested in you. (I did it in my college years when I fell desperately in love from afar with actor Richard Burton.)
Hopeless love is an exceedingly common and painful experience. If we're teenagers, we suspect that we're providing a great deal of amusement for others who are watching us wallow in our pain. And if we're adults, we may be wracked with guilt about our disloyalty to the real-life partner who has been eclipsed by our fantasy romance.
Even worse, we're likely to be told that we're a textbook case of some psychological syndrome (as when we fall for a therapist, teacher, or minister--a phenomenon that psychologists call transference). "It's all projections" is a standard piece of advice. Or we might be told that "It's just something temporary that everyone goes through."
So why does it feel so real?
A recent novel called I Think I Love You got me thinking about the deeper meanings of hopeless love. Author Allison Pearson tells the story of 13-year-old Petra's obsession with singer David Cassidy back in 1974. Eventually the book fast-forwards to today, when a grown-up Petra begins to realize that her infatuation with Cassidy was much more than a teen-aged fantasy. Hearing Petra reminisce about it, an adult friend tells her, "it was a wonderful love story, and you told it to yourself with all your heart, and you made it true."
I began thinking about the Richard Burton scrapbooks I'd made years ago and the things he'd unknowingly inspired me to do: I learned Hamlet (which I saw him do live) so well that I impressed a graduate-school professor decades later. I made two trips to Wales, where Burton grew up, and I took a course in Early Welsh Poetry at Harvard one summer. In some foolish but wonderful ways I indeed had "made it true."
Depth psychology views hopeless love from a compassionate and respectful vantage point that's very different from the "Get over it!" advice we might hear from a self-help expert. If we really listen to our hearts, hopeless love can teach us lessons about life, love, and our destiny that we might never learn anywhere else. Here are some of them:
Hidden within our unfulfilled yearnings is the discovery that we are important--even if it's only to ourselves--and capable of loving another person--even if the current object of our desires doesn't know we're alive.
By its very nature, hopeless love has to change over time. It can't settle into a routine the way two real-life lovers sometimes do. Hidden from our awareness, the truths we discovered continue to evolve and to shape our lives as the years go by. It may be true that much of what we honor in our grown-up selves was first learned while we felt helplessly entrapped by the fiery and unfulfilled passions of hopeless love.
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