Discover more from Letters from a Luftmensch
Do not love half lovers
Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?
For as long as I can remember, my life has been a tug-of-war between dueling desires. Growing up, my parents — both engineers by trade — would warn of my demise if I did not study something “practical”: computer science, finance, business, medicine, law. Over dinner, they’d ask my younger brother, only half in jest, whether he would take me in if I became a broke writer, with nothing to my name but a mouth full of witticisms and a heart full of unrealized dreams.
For years, I tried to mold myself in the image of others’ ideals. In high school, I gritted my teeth and took more science than literature courses because they were perceived as more intellectually rigorous; in college, I switched my major half a dozen times in an attempt to find one that was sufficiently “pre-professional” but did not completely strangle my soul. Everything I loved — the stories and ideas and questions about humanity that tugged at my mind — seemed like frivolous indulgences that could not serve as the centerpiece of a serious life.
As I grew older, this conflict shifted internally. I wrestled with competing yearnings, caught in the vortex of a swirling, ambiguous ambition. I relished the realm of abstractions but also craved tangible action; I wanted to not merely study the world, but to be in it, to hold a sliver of reality in my hands and mold it to my liking.
I explored paths that satisfied bits and pieces of my longing: journalism, academia, startups. In each, I could envision a contented future. Yet there was a hunger for more, a gnawing urge to create something for which I did not yet have the vocabulary to describe.
“You seem to just hate practicality,” a friend once told me. But my desire for a life that felt true was not born out of a distaste for pragmatism, but a demand for wholeness. Every time I chose to disregard my inner knowing, I found it unbearable. For awhile, I wondered if this was evidence of moral frailty, my inability to withstand a compromised life that so many others seemed to shoulder with ease.
I sought solace in the words of poets who urged me to seek wholeness:
Do not love half lovers
Do not entertain half friends
Do not indulge in works of the half talented
Do not live half a life
and do not die a half death
To be great, be whole: nothing that's you Should you exaggerate or exclude. In each thing, be all. Give all you are In the least you ever do. The whole moon, because it rides so high, Is reflected in each pool.
Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life? While the soul, after all, is only a window, and the opening of the window no more difficult than the wakening from a little sleep Only last week I went out among the thorns and said to the wild roses: deny me not, but suffer my devotion. Then, all afternoon, I sat among them. Maybe I even heard a curl or tow of music, damp and rouge red, hurrying from their stubby buds, from their delicate watery bodies. For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters, caution and prudence? Fall in! Fall in!
It’s a privileged way to live, I know, and it comes with its tradeoffs. But I see it as merely choosing one flavor of pain over another. I can bear the uncertainty of chasing a gut feeling without knowing where it will lead, even if it seems futile and illogical to everyone, even myself. I can endure the pain of instability, of ridicule, of illegibility, of scorn, of isolation, of ostracism, of self-doubt, of countless I-told-you-so’s. I will work damn hard for any cause in which I’m a true believer.
But a life composed of meaningless drudgery, of “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau once wrote, is a pain that is far more difficult for me to endure. I would take self-immolation in pursuit of my own inchoate ideals over a life half-lived for others’ expectations for who I should become. I would rather be plunged into the depths of agony for a chance at ecstasy than subsist in the tepid middle ground of not-trying. I would choose to weather the storms of uncharted seas over huddling in a shelter on the shore, comfortable and dry but always gazing longingly at the horizon.
Perhaps I want too much. Perhaps I am just another Goldilocks, turning away one good-enough bowl of porridge after another in my pursuit of just-right. But I have never been one for moderation. I want to pour my entire being into worthy endeavors; I believe life is too precious to sacrifice half of it to something that chips away at my soul. A square peg can be sandpapered to fit into a round hole, but what would be left of it at the end?
Kierkegaard said that the greatest hazard of all is losing oneself — dangerous because it occurs so quietly. To be fully ourselves, then, is a thunderous feat. It is to resist the inertia of comfort and conformity and half-lived lives; to engage in the deliberate, demanding act of self-authorship rather than assuming a role that has already been written; to allow the muffled voices inside us to sing louder and louder, until our lives are suffused with song.
Be my pen pal. 💌
Thank you to Matthew, Jess, Nicole, and Patrick for conversations that inspired this piece.