On “near-universal”

March 4, 2013 | By | 1 Comment

When you’re a debut author, there are a few things that you do compulsively: obsess over that one word on page 125 that wasn’t quite right, obsess over the three sentences in the entire book that really didn’t hit the nail on the head, check your sales data on Amazon every day even though you know it’s only updated weekly and not remotely an indication of sales overall, and visit your reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to see if there might be one more review there that you haven’t yet parsed. (Honestly, I read those with the attention of a lovelorn soul examining an email from someone who may or may not interested. What did really he mean by that? And that? And THAT?)

But a couple of days a review popped up that really made me happy, not because it stroked my ego, but because it touched on a subtlety that fascinates me: that heartbreak is near-universal. Here’s some of what the reviewer said:

I received this book as a goodreads giveaway and really enjoyed it even though I couldn’t ever recall having had my heart broken…
I was able to look back at some of my own and my peers’ behavior during high school and college in a whole new light…As for me, I finally have a better perspective on human behavior that will make me generally a more understanding person…

Elsewhere in this review, this person said that they didn’t know much about literature or music, that they were really far more into science. So naturally I assumed that this reader is a man, sexist creature that I am. But when I looked at the reader’s other reviews, I realized that a) said reader is a woman and b) based on her reviews alone, I find her kind of fascinating. She’s a runner. She dries her clothes on a clothesline. She has two children, makes spaetzle, and reads to her children while they wait for the bus.

But more to the point, I found myself wondering why she’s never experienced heartbreak. My guess is that she falls into one of the two categories of people I have constructed that have never had their hearts broken: People who meet the love of their lives at a very young age, have their love returned, get married, and never look back, not to mention sideways. Personally, I don’t personally know a single person who fits this description, but I’ve heard that they are out there. And I honestly wonder what’s it’s like. Does it make you, as she suggests, less understanding of others’ romantic misfortunes? Does the lack of breakup drama EVER, stunt empathy? Are people in this category somehow less predisposed to wondering “what if” than the rest of us? What’s it like to go through life without romantic regret? Isn’t romantic disappointment, indeed heartbreak, one of the ingredients for an interesting life? I honestly don’t know.

But then there’s the second category in the pool of those who have never had their hearts broken: those who have never fallen in love, an often over-looked population.  While I’m sure there are tons of folks who fall into this category for different reasons, the most obvious one that occurs to me is those whose brains aren’t wired for romantic attachment. A few years ago when I was reading a lot about Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist/author whose work has transformed livestock slaughtering practices, I was so struck by the fact that she simply doesn’t “get” romantic attachment between people; she’s famously said that Shakespeare, particularly “Romeo and Juliet” (I think) does nothing for her. Then when I did a story for Salon awhile back about men who have relationships with love dolls (to the exclusion of relationships with real women), it struck me that some of them just might sit somewhere on the autism spectrum. Some of them had never had “real” relationships and had never fallen in, or out of, love. One in particular had experienced anger at a woman who didn’t want to be his girlfriend, but in our conversations about that episode, he never indicated anything that would suggest the agony of heartbreak. Frustrated desire, yes, but manifested only as anger, and heartbreak is so much more complicated than that. Another doll lover I spoke to said to me, about “real” relationships, “I just want to know how does it happen?” He honestly had no idea, on an emotional level, how one gets from point A to point B to point C in a relationship. It was as if he was asking me how a car engine starts, not about one of the greatest wonders and mysteries of human life.

In our love-obsessed culture, we’re so quick to assume that EVERYONE falls in and out of love, just like everyone is born and dies. But no, birth and death are the only absolutes. Think for a moment about what it must be to live in this world, in this culture, and never have had your heartbroken. I try to catch myself and always say, “near-universal” when I’m talking about heartbreak, but sometimes I slip up, and “near” drifts far away. But thinking this hard about it will keep me honest, and by all means, please let me know about anyone you know who has never experienced it so I can better put my money where my mouth is.


Filed in: The Little Book of Heartbreak

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Comments (1)

  1. Ken Ferris

    “The first gift is life. The second is love. The third is understanding.” Got that from a book I just finished, but I’m pretty sure it’s a quote from the Torah.

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