Note: Often I feel like a dual personality—one day entirely jazzed about an Outfits of the Week post, the next day disgusted by its flippancy and longing to, instead, break my heart open in an essay like the one to follow. I feel confused about how to resolve these two seemingly conflicted brains. But they are both me, and I haven’t written something like this in a while, so here it is.
In high school my calculus teacher was one of those passionate types who’d quote historic figures and tell personal anecdotes worthy of multiple teenage eye rolls—in fact, in hindsight, he is alarmingly like The Man, also a teacher, in his commitment to do anything to get students interested in his class.
One day, in the throws of some unrelated tangent (alas, a calculus pun), he spoke about the ultimate thing people long for in their many-times doomed quest for happiness.
“Beyond food, water, and basic shelter,” his sermon started, “what is it you think humans crave most?”
“Love!” some girls chimed.
“Respect!” the boys yelled.
“No, those aren’t quite it.” He added a pause for dramatic effect, quite like I’m doing now.
“What people crave most is appreciation. To hear someone say, Thank you. I appreciate you. I value you.”
In retrospect, appreciation is in many ways strongly related to genuine love and respect, perhaps just with a little effort mixed in, but at the time, I felt something move inside my 17-year-old heart. Not so much at the revelation he was suggesting—but at the thought that we are all meandering around this earth, all us humans with all our proclaimed individualities and differences, seeking the same thing.
In my early, hopeless-romantic years, I would’ve touted that we are all seeking love, which I now see as embarrassingly inadequate. I had meant romantic love, too—silly child. I was fascinated with the idea that there was only one person out there for the lucky few of us, and that the stars would align to bring us together, fireworks in tow, and all would be right with the world. Happily ever after. I would then make my way in assumptions of what love might look and act like, mostly in terms of societal expectations, which would only ever let me down in painful ways.
Recently, on a drive home from a late-night rehearsal, I was listening to Damien Rice’s melodramatic crooning of “The Greatest Bastard.” I was tired and the streetlights blurred with the rain starting to sprinkle and my mind began to drift. And then these heartbreaking lyrics brought me back to the present: I never meant to let you down.
Something broke, deep inside of me. Light raindrops fell on the windshield and tears deluged my cheeks—those kinds of hearty sobs that reach so far downward that they begin to circle back up again, mimicking laughter. The fatigue—which went beyond a full day of work and a full evening of singing and dancing, reaching down to a whole lifetime of a fatigue I couldn’t quite place—sank its fangs into my chest as the revelation occurred: I never meant to let you down.
There is a recurring theme in almost every religion and spiritual teaching: a concept of forgiveness, being wiped clean, getting to start over with a blank slate. It’s a wonderful feeling of unconditional love that mimics that of a parent opening her arms to a child. These religions also tout treating others like the Supreme Being treats us—offering our fellow humans that same forgiveness and unconditional love. “I am here for you. All is okay. You are taken care of, no matter what you’ve done.”
In that weird, delirious drive home from the theater, 10 years after that calculus class, I concluded that my teacher was wrong. Appreciation isn’t the cure-all, and it isn’t love or respect, either. There is no cure-all. We are constantly going to be hurt and disappointed, by those who don’t even know we exist as well as by those closest to us.
There is a psychological trend called the hedonic treadmill—the human tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major life events, whether positive or negative—and because of it, one can’t afford to assume that love, respect or even appreciation is the cure-all for our hearts’ deepest desires and wounds. Honeymoon phases pass, a millionaire seeks his first billion, the iPhone 99 is released… we’re never satisfied and we’re always conned into thinking we will be with the next big thing on the horizon. Happiness by way of love, respect, or even appreciation is short-term and temporary. I’d argue that it’s a deep, inner peace and contentment, ease with ourselves, that we’re really seeking.
What we crave most is a chance to forgive our grievances. We need to hear those words said genuinely: I never meant to let you down. From our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, our brothers, ourselves. From our country, our society, its expectations, its delusions, its shame. The point isn’t that it fixes the pain. It just acknowledges the pain, and acknowledging pain paradoxically reduces the likelihood of perpetuating it to others.
There’s a reason it’s called heartbreak, and there’s a reason for the term “emotional flooding.” When we have moments like I did listening to that song on the drive home, something breaks open. Our hearts open the doors to the rooms we locked so long ago and to which we’ve thrown away the key. We finally allow ourselves to long for the apology, to long for that need that was never met, to crave the acknowledgement of our wounds. When we lock them away deep inside of us, convincing ourselves we don’t need the acknowledgement, the pain keeps festering like a disease, waiting to make us pounce on another person or circumstance to recreate its pain, so that we might allow it to come out again, to really feel it this time around.
We need to say it, too. I never meant to let you down. We need to finally redefine what strength means for men, for women, for children, to practice acknowledging the pain we’ve received and the pain we’ve inflicted. Take ownership of our blunders, so that we can simultaneously ask for forgiveness and more easily understand when it’s our turn to forgive. It’s a kind of equation, although one much less predictable than calculus. When you let the pain sit for a while, an equal amount of it is released. When you lock the pain away, it multiplies and then divides itself among all the people you let down along the way.
Imagine it being said to you by all the people who’ve hurt you, directly, indirectly. Imagine it being said to those people by the ones who hurt them. Imagine saying it to those you hurt because of it. I never meant to let you down.