The words that stuck with me
The last thing I expected
One of the most memorable parts of visiting the Rubin Museum of Art a month ago wasn’t the Himalayan and Buddhist art, but rather a few lines I read in a book I found at the gift shop. Unlike other art museum gift shops, this shop sold books that discussed various topics in Buddhism ranging from yoga to mindfulness. There were also a couple of surprising and amusing titles that I encountered, like Chinese Erotic Poems. But the three books that stood out to me had pretty ordinary titles and covers: How to Love, How to Relax, and How to Cook.
They were all part of a self-help book collection called Mindfulness Essentials, written by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The pocket-sized nature of the books made me think that I could carry them with me whenever I wanted some sort of guidance. I didn’t plan to purchase them, but I still wanted to flip through the pages in the hopes of gaining wisdom and inspiration. I decided to randomly open How to Love and landed on a page titled “Distractions.”
When I first read the title, I was puzzled. What did distractions have to do with love? I was expecting a title with words like “heart,” “love,” or “compassion.” I don’t believe in destiny or a higher being, but I think there’s a good reason fate made me land on that page considering on my circumstances at the time. The author wrote the following:
Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.
Reading this short paragraph took my breath away. Nhat Hanh didn’t need complicated metaphors to describe the underlying reasons we get crushes. He used everyday language and still got his point across effectively. I found some beauty in the way this compassionate sage viewed love as if he had an outsider’s perspective from years of experience. These eloquent sentences were unlike the rosy and optimistic ones I encountered in romance novels and movies.
Despite this appreciation, the voice I imagined reading these words to me was blunt. What I read felt like a slap to the cheek and a warm hug at the same time. My initial reactions also felt inconsistent and conflicting. The passage motivated me to prioritize loving myself first, yet I was also angry. If I couldn’t even be kind and compassionate to myself, then how could I love anyone unconditionally? Wasn’t this obvious?
I wondered what took me so long to come across these words of wisdom. I knew that ruminating about this was pointless, but my train of thought didn’t stop there. I imagined an alternate universe where I knew about this quote in middle school. I wouldn’t have to feel so disillusioned after my infatuation ended, and I would have saved myself from a lot of embarrassment. I would probably still develop a crush, but at least I would have a greater awareness of the insecurities that made me have a crush. Why couldn’t I figure this out myself? Why did I need a random page in a book found in a random museum to tell me something so simple yet so obvious?
The first sentence of the quote was nothing new, yet reading it made that fact even more explicit. I felt embarrassed. Of course I didn’t truly love and understand him. I barely talked to him. I went for months without texting him. Yet I somehow still obsessed over him for more than a year.
The part that followed regarding distraction and suffering, however, was not so straightforward. What was this suffering that I didn’t want to face? What caused me to develop this crush as a distraction? At that moment, the best answer I could come up with was that my suffering involved not enjoying the present moment and wanting to escape from the constant anxieties of the pandemic and college application season back in my senior year of high school. Having this crush was a way to imagine a brighter future that included me being with him, even though the chance of such a thing happening was nil.
But this hypothesis was unsatisfying and still left me hanging. The unanswered question was still in my brain days after visiting the museum, floating around in the sea of many thoughts I had about love, a concept I barely understood. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I searched this quote and related ones that all the puzzle pieces started to come together.
Finding a lengthier passage from Thict Nhat Hanh about the constant feeling of emptiness as the cause of developing crushes not only provided greater clarity about my emotional state, but also about the universal struggle of wanting to be loved. I was amazed that Nhat Hanh had all the words to explain the fundamental causes of finding an object of love, which was something that I overlooked in the past and had trouble pinpointing. While I still believe that my initial idea as to why I developed a crush was not wrong, I think a more direct and better reason is that deep down, I feel empty. Having never really loved myself, I want someone else to love me as some form of approval. As proof that I am good enough and worthy of love. I have a family who loves me and friends who support me, but why isn’t that enough? Each question only seems to raise more questions.
Weeks have passed and I still think about these words. Given that the majority of people have crushes, does that mean most of us are distracting ourselves from our suffering? Although the meaning of “suffering” in the Buddhist context has to do with dissatisfaction, the thought is still quite depressing. If I continue to follow this logic, then that means most of us don’t even know ourselves that well.
As I write and consider the assumption I just made, I develop a newfound sympathy for my classmates around me. If we look beyond the surface of everything, we will notice that most, if not all, of us, are fighting the same inner battle of trying to love and understand ourselves. It sounds easy to live by these principles of self love, but in reality it is hard. We may appear to have everything (amazing awards, coveted internship positions, stellar resumes), but deep down we still have vulnerabilities that we try so hard to ignore.
I find it difficult to embrace Nhat Hanh’s quote together with passages about love from my favorite book, Call Me By Your Name. In the past year, I enjoyed rereading the monologue from the book about the importance of letting ourselves feel, even though these feelings of heartbreak and loss are unpleasant. Although I didn’t experience a breakup or rejection, I clung to the author’s philosophy of embracing one’s emotions so tightly, justifying letting this crush occupy most of my headspace.
The problem is that having this new knowledge of crushes as a source of distraction makes me not know how to reconcile the two beliefs. If I analyze the monologue from the perspective of Nhat Hanh, wouldn’t embracing emotion only exacerbate the situation and make me even more distracted? Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t that the monologue is wrong, but rather that my situation of having a crush was different from the situation that the monologue described, which had to do with the end of a relationship. At the same time, couldn’t I make the argument that my crush was different from what Nhat Hanh described?
At the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t matter which belief is right or wrong. Both are different and valid in their particular ways. That is not to say I wrote an entire article only to end up refuting what I said earlier about the necessity of truly loving ourselves to truly love another person. Maybe I shouldn’t expect myself to know the answer at the age of 18. As much as I like empirical formulas and theories that govern life, there is no instruction manual on how to love.
I am unsatisfied with the fact that reflecting upon crushes and love did not make me more confident about how I should approach this topic. But I am glad that I had a new and unexpected realization that despite being surrounded by classmates of different personalities and backgrounds, one thing that we have in common is the constant ache of emptiness. Ironically, it is acknowledging this fact that makes me feel less lonely.