Perspectives on The Age of Innocence

I love to read classic books, especially ones written by female authors. I just recently finished reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This book was, not surprisingly, absolutely heart-wrenching like many other classic novels. It seems like none of the great works of literature ever seem to have a happy ending. Yet somehow that makes them all the more poignant and real. It allows you to empathize and relate to the characters in a powerful, emotional way. When you read a good book, it almost feels like you’re making new friends. Which makes it all the more painful when things don’t turn out as you had hoped for them.

This particular book struck me in a way that a book hasn’t in a long time. I was so moved by this great work of literature that I just had to write about my thoughts. So here is your official spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read it. While I found this book simply heart-breaking, I understand that not everyone may see it the same way. I found myself swaying back and forth between a couple different perspectives.

To me, this book was a tragedy. I desperately hoped that somehow, against all odds, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska would be together in the end. At the same time, I found myself feeling sorry for Archer’s wife, May. She was not the wicked woman some books may have written her as. She was a perfectly lovely, respectable woman that certainly didn’t deserve to be abandoned by Archer as I, nevertheless, hoped would happen. And in the end she isn’t. Although it could be argued that his love alone for another woman was a betrayal. Still, he remains faithful to her and their family until the end of May’s life.

Some may think this book did have a happy ending. Instead of cheating or leaving his wife, Archer did the “right” thing. He stayed. He did what society expected of him. He honored his commitments. But at what cost? He really had no good options. Either he abandoned his family and his wife to pursue passionate love, or he sacrificed that love for the sake of others and to live his life as a sham. In the end he chose the latter, and honestly, I’m not sure if that was the right decision or not. I can’t say what I would have chosen, myself. Perhaps his love for Ellen was only so passionate because it was forbidden and out of reach. Maybe if he had thrown everything away for her he would have found only disappointment and resentment rather than true love.

The most upsetting part of the story for me was that I saw my own life within it. It sounds wretched and narcissistic to say it out loud, but I saw myself as Ellen and my ex boyfriend as Archer. (Perhaps in a desperate attempt to console myself for not being the one he chose in the end.) My ex chose to stay with his new girlfriend, as I see it, primarily because they had an accidental child together. Even though he had expressed to me just how much less compatible they are than he and I were. Luckily for me, I’ve found someone else to love and be with. I’m not sure if Ellen ever did. However, my heart broke for Archer as it does now and then for my ex. What a wasted life. What a sad, phony existence, to have sacrificed such a love. I foresee him as an old man some day, filled with regrets and “what ifs.” Then again, who am I to say. Perhaps we are both better off this way.

The Age of Innocence | Book by Edith Wharton, Colm Toibin | Official  Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster

Attachment

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the feeling of absolute devastation when we lose someone that we love. Whether it be through death, divorce, distance, or any other circumstance it always seems unbearable. I am reluctant to even remember the many times I’ve lost someone in my life. These events led to some of my darkest moments. At times I even contemplated giving up all together. The lingering memories of that pain cause me to have great caution when forming new relationships. I am always trying to brace myself for the worst. Trying to keep just enough distance to keep my heart safe.

I remember recently being afraid for my sister in this regard. She has been living with her new boyfriend for around a year now. She was telling me how everything is okay now because she has him. While I was happy for her, I was also terrified to hear those words. I was afraid for her. What would happen if he decided to leave? I gently brought this to her attention, urged her to try to keep her heart and mind safe somehow. The thing is, we both knew that wasn’t really possible. You cannot ration your love for someone. You can’t plan to protect yourself from future pain, no matter how much you want to.

Even though I’ve only had a boyfriend again for a week, my mind is already flooded with future scenarios. Now that I’ve invested my feelings in another again, I am terrified of the wrenching pain that would ensue if he leaves me. To lose all of my newfound happiness and hope in one fell swoop. I don’t know if I could bear going through that type of pain again. But that is the price we pay for love. In order to experience it, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And to be vulnerable means risking being hurt, perhaps even ensuring that we will be hurt. We only have one decision to make: is it worth it?

I’m not going to allow the fear of the future to keep me from loving will all of my heart. Love is what this life is about after all. It’s always worth the risk. It’s always worth the pain. Even if I tried to lock my heart away, there will always be painful moments. After all, we all have to let go of everything in the end. What’s important is learning how to appreciate and be fully present with what we have while we have it. It’s okay to need other people. It’s also okay that they sometimes let us down. Both of these things are important parts of what it means to be human.

When my boyfriend comes over today, I am going to let all of these worries go. I am going to simply enjoy the time we have together right now. I am going to be present with him in every moment. I am going to be grateful for what we have today, even if it doesn’t last forever. I will no longer allow fear to close my heart. I will love with everything that I’ve got. And I’ll keep loving until the day I die, no matter the cost.

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Trading Pain for Pleasure

How much pain are you willing to put up with to keep someone close to you? I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time now. Some days I feel like I would sacrifice anything just to have that special connection. Other days I wonder if it’s really worth it, if I’m just addicted to reopening old wounds in a desperate attempt to feel something again. I can never decide what would truly be best for me. Should I try to protect myself and try to give up these feelings? Or should I follow what I feel no matter how painful the outcome? Can I really trust these feelings? Or am I deluding myself?

I always feel like there are two sides of me constantly arguing with each other. My brain, my logical self says, “Move on! You are being stupid. This is pathetic. You are romanticizing the past. There is nothing but suffering to be had by clinging to a memory.” But my heart, my emotional self says, “Nothing else makes me feel like this. Nothing else makes me feel anything. That has to mean something. I don’t know what, but I can’t ignore this pull. Everything else seems grey by comparison.” My brain interrupts in protest as I try to express this ineffable feeling, “You are a literal crazy person. You are one of those creepy, stalker, weirdos. You’ve lost sight of reality.” The shame and embarrassment of this likely conclusion usually halts me in my tracks, keeps me from acting, keeps me from even pondering the question anymore.

I am so terrified that any further attempts to reach out will only reinforce this idea in the mind of this other person. Is that how they see me already? Would they be right in seeing me that way? Maybe so. For the longest time, I felt cheated and insulted by the idea of mere friendship. Now I am horrified that I turned my nose up at such a generous offer. After all that I have done, I don’t really even deserve that. And maybe because of those past mistakes, those egregious, selfish acts, I should resign myself to this bond being forever severed.

I’ve genuinely never felt closer to anyone, never been known so deeply by anyone, never cared to know anyone else so deeply in return. But perhaps this fixation, this constant clinging, is what has been preventing me from developing any other significant relationships. Then again, I always come back to the question: Is it even up to me? Am I even able to truly let this go, even if I decided I wanted to? It seems like right now, the best I can manage to do is go numb, to not think about it. In fact, just writing this all out has left me emotionally exhausted. I think it’s about time to stop for now.

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Cycles

The older I get, the more I realize that everything in life is cyclical. Especially my thoughts. One of the cycles my mind goes through is particularly frustrating to me and I don’t know how to break out of it. Here I am writing about him once again. I don’t expect anyone to really follow what I’m saying since I’m always so vague about who this person is. These posts are just me talking to myself to try to come to some kind of conclusion.

After our last encounter a few months ago, I was ready to finally be done with him for good. Again. I really felt a firm resolve this time, at least at first. But then somehow he always weasels his way back into my daily thoughts. It makes me feel so pathetic. And I hate feeling this way. Maybe I’m just one of those crazy obsessive people. But I’ve never experienced anything close to this with anyone besides him. And that always makes me feel like it means something, that I should listen to these feelings.

I’ve started thinking that maybe I overreacted to his decision that he’d rather be friends than anything romantic. It still truly stings me to the quick to know that he feels that way. However, isn’t friends better than nothing at all if I truly do love him? Real love should be humble and expect nothing in return. It should be enough just to love him and have him in my life. Even though those feelings aren’t reciprocated.

It is difficult for me to refuse the chance to know him. I don’t know why, but nobody ever makes me really feel anything. There are very few instances when I am actually excited to talk to someone. But even thinking about him makes me feel instantly more alive. I feel engaged and present and happy. I just truly feel.

Maybe I am being selfish for wanting more than he’s willing to give me. I should be grateful he’d even want to be my friend. I’ve just never really had guy friends and I don’t understand how to do that exactly. I am so afraid that if I invite him back in I will only be setting myself up for more heartbreak. Yet at the same time I feel such a strong connection to him, and even if it isn’t the same for him, I cherish that feeling. It is one of the most real things I’ve ever experienced.

I guess in the end it comes down to what I am willing to risk. Is it worth it to risk intense pain for a soft, but deep pleasure? Will that pain slowly outweigh any happiness I could obtain? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I never do. And maybe that’s the point. I can’t know. But I still have to make a choice.

And that is the cycle I am currently trapped within. I hurt. I’m angry. I hate him. I’m done with him. I miss him. I love him. I should be grateful for whatever I’m given. I am able to choose something over nothing. I feel like that makes me a pathetic, desperate person. I’ll look like a fool. It will only cause me more pain I feel sorry for myself. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I move past this? I hurt. I’m angry. I hate him… And so it goes. Round and round in my head. I hope that one day it will stop and this devoted heart of mine will set me free. As for now I guess I’ll just keep letting it spin.