Be attentive! Be intelligent! Be reasonable! Be responsible! Be in love!
This list on my philosophy professor's office door intrigued me. The first four are straightforward enough—not easy, but straightforward—though a tad dull. The last, "Be in love!" is far juicier, yet more mysterious. I've been thinking about it ever since.
I supposed it meant 'Be in love with the world,' which is a nice concept especially if you are a terribly fabulous old woman who says dahling a lot, or if you're someone who dwells in a secluded natural setting and your only task of the day is to marvel at a singing creek from a mountaintop.
It's a trickier concept when your days have gotten a bit humdrum, or busy, or when you're not getting what you want from the world so you're close to turning your back on it in spite. I know such afflictions, and I also know that falling out of love with the world means I'm going to put less energy into it. It's hard to care about a place you've decided you don't like.
So, I try to practice being in love with the world as a daily discipline, especially when it's impossible. We're in a long-term relationship, and not caring isn't an option.
The discipline really boils down to one task: learning to appreciate the world's flaws.
I’m obviously not talking about learning to love the world’s brokenness and its evils; we are called to collectively name and transform those at every turn.
I mean, the world is like anyone we have an intimate, interdependent relationship with. The more we get to know it, the more we notice its idiosyncrasies and its annoyingness and its finicky moods and the way it rains at inopportune times or doesn’t always show up at other times or doesn't give us what we asked for (its most egregious flaw).
It's easy to get discouraged by all that, and assume in our naturally self-centered little ways that the world is somehow out to get us for not being precisely what we would have ordered if it were a build-your-own burrito bar instead of a planet. How to be in love with such a place?
It probably looks a bit like my dear friend somehow finding tenderness in her heart for my most dreaded facial adornment:
“I'm love with the wrinkle above your eyebrow. I'm obsessed. It's amazing!”
I had to laugh in utter horror: The first thing I scrutinize in photos of me, the thing I’m always trying to pretend doesn’t exist, is that thing she was, quote, “in love with.” While others have unhelpfully suggested, “You can get that fixed, you know,” this sweet soul insisted that it was a gift to my face.
I can understand this when it comes to other people; I will play a game with myself on the subway where I look around at others and think, “If I were in love with this person, what would I love about them?” And it’s always the unusual features that give them character: their overwhelming freckle, their sharp teeth, their hair piled so high that it falls sideways.
But my forehead line? I always thought that was more of an "I love you in spite of this" rather than an "I love you because of this" kind of situation.
See also: my moodiness, my envy, my hatred of doing the dishes, my lavishly horrible attitude toward being at the airport. Could I be somehow loved for those too? Could they be appreciated as a part of the package deal?
I'm now insistent on embracing these personal blemishes because I know that rejecting flaws in myself makes me reject flaws in other people, and in the world around me. I've seen what happens to folks who refuse to graciously host their own imperfections: "If I can't love myself, I'm not going to let anyone else love themselves," their motto seems to be.
The way to avoid that: seeing yourself as your own beloved. How might someone who is in love with you see your forehead wrinkle or the anxious way you get when you're running late? They might get annoyed sometimes! Okay a lot of times! But they're also much more likely to embrace those details as a part of a living, breathing, beautiful whole.
As Saint Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting, “People call those imperfections, but no, that’s the good stuff.”
We're not going to be in love with the world if we can't also learn to tolerate and perhaps even value its difficulties, as we would wish for ourselves.
Let’s get this straight: the world is an extremely inconvenient place to live. You're not doing anything wrong if that's your reality, though advertising might tell you otherwise. Inconvenience doesn’t imply poor decision-making; it’s actually a healthy sign that life is being fully lived in a very interesting place. Embracing inconvenience rather than avoiding it is a sure way to deepen into your own existence. If that’s your thing.
A lovely reader recently wrote in and asked me how to find magic in the mundane: How do you find something special every day?
The answer is going to involve some (a lot of) inconvenience. When I think about “the good stuff” in the world, it all involves some greatly annoying aspects. Think: jet lag, crying babies, rocky trails, brave conversations, and, oh, dealing with humanity.
Just like being in love with a person, you cannot demand specialness and magic from the world but expect to avoid the challenges. Your loved ones aren't perfect, nor would you want them to be, unless you'd prefer a relationship with a Diptyque jasmine candle instead of a person. Likewise, if you want to fall in love with the world and experience its full menu of wonders and wilds, you're going to have to get cozy with being inconvenienced.
This isn't a bad thing. Oliver Burkeman has written beautifully about the Pitfalls of Convenience: 'Convenience makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context.'
'The food delivery service Seamless has even run advertisements—tongue-in-cheek ones, but still—boasting that it lets you avoid the agony of talking to a flesh-and-blood restaurant worker; instead, you need only to commune with a screen. It's true that everything runs more smoothly this way. But smoothness, it turns out, is a dubious virtue, since it’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it livable, helping nurture the relationships that are crucial for mental and physical health, and for the resilience of our communities.'
I love that phrase, "the unsmoothed textures of life," reminding me of all the reasons I actually choose inconvenience because it gives my day a more satisfying texture:
I sometimes opt for the slight inconvenience of using a yellow cab over Uber because taxi drivers are masterful in their craft. Navigating New York's streets without GPS is equal parts art and science, and it's an opportunity to marvel at something that I could never ever do.
During lockdown I sorely missed live theatre, which is a great example of learning to love life's flaws because opportunity for unpleasantness abounds on Broadway. The immediacy of the theatre means that the evening is full of potential: for unpredictable emotion, unreliable energy, probable discomfort, and possible mistakes. There is the very real chance that I’ll be seated next to a gum chewer. There is going to be awkward shuffling around, a bathroom line, a crack in an actor’s voice.
But that's stuff I missed. That's the good stuff.
As we can't heal from being human, the world can't heal from being the world. The society I live in supports a highly individualistic narrative that we need to perfect ourselves with tons of therapy and self-help before we can fully show up in relationship. But intimate relationships will inevitably reveal our most ghastly traits over time no matter what. We do it anyway because we know that imperfections—mine, yours, and the world's—are all a part of the good stuff.
We are in relationship with the world; this is a two-way street. If we want to show up fully as our flawed, easily-rattled, sometimes-annoying selves, we should probably lend some grace toward the very inconvenient, always-changing, often-flaky, disappointing world.
And with grace for inconvenience, we'll love world enough to demand better of it, reimagine it, ask for more of it. I'm reminded of a great line from The Last Black Man in San Francisco:
"You don't get to hate San Francisco. You don't get to hate it unless you love it."
I don't get to hate the world unless I love it, unless I am in love with it on a daily basis. That means treasuring its totality while challenging it to grow, the way I hope it offers compassion for my flaws in the form of the occasional sunset show from a subway window: a surprise to slice the mundane with pure magic.