The Actual Dance is a love story. I like to say it is about “what love really means.” In the play, there is this line: “At 20 years old I don’t think we understood what love really meant.” The reference is to Susan Simon, my wife of now 51 years, and me when we got married in 1966. We of course thought we were in love, but what really did two twenty-year old kids know about love?
What I have come to understand is that love is a process made up of intimate, existential moments together. Two people discovering an eternal bond that connects not mind but soul.
This comes up because of an opinion piece in the Sunday, September 10th, New York Times titled: “How to Fix the Person You Love,” by Eli J. Finkel. It turns out that this is preview (marketing) piece for a forthcoming book titled: “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.”
Let’s start with the fatal flaw in the book. It is impossible for the authors to know how the “Beset Marriages Work” because we – Susan and I – were not interviewed.
Second, and more seriously, judged by the opinion-piece, the measure applied to “Best Marriages” has not thing to do with love, but rather the external-relationship between two people. The idea the authors seem to wrestle with is can you live with what I will call a “life coach.” Or in the author’s words: “…. some marriages can do it all. . .. [A]ffectionate partners can indeed play a critical role in determining each other’s success in reach their goals.”
What does this mean? Hard to know exactly without reading the entire book, but the hint is pretty clear: “[R]eceiving such support can be brutal.”
Perhaps the real cue here is the reference to “affectionate partners” to describe the two people in a marital relationship. I sort of get their point and perspective. The external process of supporting and “pushing” a spouse to be the best they can be at their chosen vocation can be brutal.
I however don’t think that has anything to do with love. I prefer Jacob Needleman’s approach in his book: “The Wisdom of Love: Toward a Shared Inner Life.” I have written about this before. Needleman describes marriage not as a living arrangement of “affectionate partners” but instead is of a fabric of connection between two souls on a single journey together. Rather as a quality of connectiveness that is at a spiritual level not readily understood or experienced except upon continued commitment to a journey and the relationship.
The Actual Dance is a case study in that discovery, in that journey. The “brutality” of this journey isn’t getting unbearable pressure from one’s partner to be the “best we can be.” The brutality is in achieving the state of near perfect empathy. Needleman says it this way: “We fail to realize that in certain rare moments – for example where we come face to face with death – we touch a completely unknown capacity of love within us.”
To be in love, he argues, and I do paraphrase, is to be in relationship with a person to be capable of such love in any situation in life. That is: “To be toward another person in a way that supports (their) struggle is the full meaning of … love.” “To be in this way toward the man or woman with whom we are sharing our life is to approach a transcendent purpose with the sometimes wondrous and sometimes agonizing round of joy and sorrow that makes up all of our lives together no matter how they may be judged according to the standards of society.”
And so, in The Actual Dance as I journey toward that anticipated moment of Susan’s last breath, I begin to understand:
“I am the other half of that which makes us, Susan and me, complete. When else in our lives is it more important to be whole than when our body is badly broken.”
What love then “really means” in my book is that we become “an equal half” of a single whole – the relationship itself. We are one. What it doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean me berating her (or vice versa) to be the best whatever we can be in the rough and tumble life a dog-eat-dog, race to the top of anything. Perhaps I overreact to the example chosen by Eli J. Finkel for his New York Times piece: The relationship between Katinka Hosszu and Shane Tusup, where Tusup becomes her Olympic coach and trains her to gold medals. That is NOT what love really means, doing that and staying married may be a fete, but it isn’t the meaning of love.