Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Myth of True Love

[This article originally appeared in The Rising Wind magazine.]

Myth is a fascinating word. In common usage, it means a falsehood--a belief that, though widely held, is patently false. We Pagans of course have a deeper meaning for the word. To us, a myth is a story that, though not factual, contains some deeper truth; a truth so fundamental that it shapes our lives and cannot be clearly expressed in mere literal speech. That kind of truth requires a story, an image captured in words.

So which meaning do I invoke when I title this piece “The Myth of True Love”? I’ll leave that conclusion for later.

When I studied classical mythology in college, my professor had a fantastic ability for telling stories, and he often held us breathless for the entire hour with his renditions of the great myths. One of those tales I have repeated many times, for it speaks of the nature of true love. It goes like this:

In the beginning, before the first stroke of time and the first dawn of day, there dwelt a race of wondrous beings. Each had a body, consisting like ours of two arms, two legs, and a trunk. But unlike us, each of these beings had two heads, though each pair of heads shared a single soul. Also unlike us, these two-headed souls lived in complete bliss, never wanting for anything, never lonely, never sad; for each of these beings was complete in itself. Longing was utterly unknown.

Then the gods decreed that time must begin and the first day must dawn. And in that great sundering, each of the double-headed souls was split into two, each half-being inheriting but half a soul. These half-beings were then spread throughout all times and all lands to be incarnated as the human race. Thus each human half-soul feels incomplete, longing for its lost soulmate. Some happy few meet that special person and regain the lost bliss of completeness.

Isn’t that a beautiful myth? If you happen to be in love at this moment, you know exactly that feeling of completion, that sense of having known your partner before this life. If you are in that state right now as you are reading this, you might not want to hear what I will say next.

Here it is: The myth I related above, though beautiful and moving as all myths about true love are, is utterly false and dangerous.

Sure, it seems wonderful on the surface, but do we want to structure our lives around a belief that cruel? Certainly, if we are with someone, the myth gives us a sense of cosmic destiny, and if we are alone, it grants us magnificent tragedy. Honestly, though, the odds of finding your one true love in that scenario are quite slim. What if your soulmate was born in another time, or halfway around the globe? What is beautiful about a myth that condemns most of the human race to misery?

Remember as you read this that our beliefs shape our realities, and the myths we choose serve as blueprints and floorplans. Just as a floorplan might look beautiful but be ultimately difficult to live with, the myth of true love leads most often to heartbreak and despair.

Why does the myth resonate then? Why do all of us know that feeling of being a half a soul, longing for completion? The reason is simple. Most of us are not whole. We long for reconnection with the Divine wholeness we once knew. But it is in ourselves, not others, that we must seek that wholeness. If we do not regain completion within ourselves, we will never find it with another. Connecting with another person can never take the place of connecting with the Divine.

Having arrived at this realization, we can see how harmful the true love myth is. Let’s look at a typical romance. Boy meets girl, and being heterosexual, he falls in love with her. (Note: For simplicity, I’m telling this story from a heterosexual viewpoint, but of course homosexuals have similar experiences.) They both feel that sense of completeness; when they are together, the earth shakes and the stars sing, at least to their perception. But with time, that feeling fades. Both of them, naturally, look at other people; the habits each found endearing in the other start to grate. Now, to someone who subscribes to the true love myth—as those who have just fallen in love are likely to—this is a tragedy of cosmic proportion, a realization that what each thought was true love was actually false. Each expects something that the other cannot give, and so their relationship is doomed. Worse yet, after their bitter break-up, they continue on their roller-coaster of ecstasy and tragedy, always expecting more than their partners can provide.

If on the other hand these two don’t subscribe to the true love myth, they can recognize that they are sharing something wonderful and beautiful, even if turns out to be temporary. When they have feelings for other people, they can recognize that those feelings don’t diminish the love they feel for each other. When they fight—as all couples do—they can recognize that it is just that: a disagreement between two humans, not a tragedy of cosmic proportions. And if they part, they can cherish what they enjoyed and think honestly about what they did not. Once alone, they can seek new partners, aware that there are many people with whom they can share happiness.

Is my view of love as exciting as the myth of true love? Probably not. But many things that are exciting—car crashes, avalanches, sudden falls—are dangerous to those caught up in them. They are also, thankfully, very brief. The path to happiness is not a car crash. It is a long, peaceful ride, undertaken alone—or with someone who is willing to share the driving.

It is unkind to demolish a myth without replacing it, so I would like to conclude with a myth that expresses the nature of love more accurately:

A long time ago, there lived a young man in the forest. For all his days, the youth had tasted only meat and vegetables, but never fruit. Though these sustained him, he always felt that there was something more. One day as he was hunting, he found that which he had always lacked. Before him stood a tree, and upon the tree’s limb hung a single apple, gleaming red in the midday sun. He had never seen a thing so beautiful.

Reaching out, he took the apple in his hands and tasted it. Such ecstasy! Here was the sweetness he half-remembered from his mother’s milk, here was the nectar of the eternal gods! Eagerly, he drank in each bite, reveling in the bliss the apple gave him. At last, he had found that which had eluded him, and he would never know sorrow again.

Then, as suddenly as he had found the apple, he found that it was nearly gone. All of its bright red skin was consumed; all of its tender flesh taken. Yet he chewed on, startled by the bitterness at its core.

“False apple!” he cried. “How could I have ever thought you sweet!” Tears ran down his cheeks. “I shall never know such joy again! How could you have not lasted forever?”

Then through his tears he saw that the limb bore many apples, and that the tree had many limbs. With his hands shaking, he reached for a second apple, as beautiful as the first. In it, he tasted once more the sweetness of his mother’s milk; but this time, he cherished each bite slowly, and when he was done, he set down the core very gently, thanking the apple for all it had given him.

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