For many, the holiday season is a season of longing. Whereas some long for time with loved ones, others long for loved ones to spend time with. Children and grown-up kids long for the coveted gift. Many long for a new life or new sense of self, hence New Year’s resolutions. Still others long for the holidays to end, with their traffic jams, long lines, and sometimes manufactured good cheer.
Longing runs deep in human nature. Both love’s companion and adulterer, longing points the way to the love we need, but also traps us in fantasies of perfect love and perfect lives that blind us to real possibilities. An exalted and at time treacherous force, longing draws lovers together against all odds and keeps love alive across the miles and years. Yet when love goes unrequited, longing can drive us to despair, if not desperation.
Across the millennia, the arts and humanities have recorded the power of longing for redemption as well as destruction. Despite the abundant evidence of the power of a longing heart, science has also been roped into the quest to tame love’s impact on our minds and hearts. If there ever was any doubt, human sciences have discovered love is as vital for our survival as food, air, and shelter—a basic need catalyzed by longing in the way hunger and thirst drives efforts to replenish the body. But modern science perhaps gives us more, revealing the role of longing for complicated grief, or how fantasy worlds, spawned by interminable longing, keep the emotionally neglected child alive to the possibility of love when love is absent, or at best, anorexic.
Longing is more a mood than an emotion. It has a way of sticking around, unperturbed as reality is unceremoniously pushed aside in favor of imagining the longed-for person, object, or experience. Too much longing often results in distress. Each of us has our own personal limit to the amount of distress our bodies and psyches can tolerate. Like the infant whose cries go unheeded and eventually collapses into a state of numbness, we adults eventually shut down too, often into a state of dissociation.
Having the capacity to dissociate is beneficial to survival. Mild to moderate levels of dissociation make possible continued functioning, albeit by ignoring emotional needs. The parts of us that dominate — thinking and rote interactions with the environment — benefit from a lesser-known advantage of dissociation: the release of feel-good endorphins. According to Peter Levine, author of Healing Trauma, dissociation, “’softens’ the pain of severe injury by secreting nature’s internal opium, the endorphins.” And really, what’s more painful than a broken heart?
For children who are emotionally neglected, longing for love is often the norm. And for a person grieving, longing for the deceased can also become a way of living. For both the neglected child and the mourner, there is no real-world solution to their longing. With no end in sight, it makes sense to resort to living more from the head and not the heart. Absorbed in thinking, we avoid emotions that might trigger longing and the painful recognition that the need for love goes unfulfilled.
By thinking, however, I don’t mean rational reflection on one’s internal states; though this can occur and lead to a way out of longing, or when judgmental in nature, a way into depression. Rather, I prefer John Dewey’s take on thinking:
“Daydreaming, building of castles in the air, that loose flux of casual and disconnected material that floats through our minds in relaxed moments are, in this random sense, thinking. More of our waking life than we should care to admit, even to ourselves, is likely to be whiled away in this inconsequential trifling with idle fancy and unsubstantial hope.”
With Dewey’s dynamic description of thinking, we witness the more creative side of human nature and why the expansion of the cortex—the thinking part of the brain—is believed to distinguish humans from all other life forms. Within us, we carry the possibility of inhabiting worlds of our own making, ignoring the conditions in which our bodies are embedded while nevertheless marginally functioning within them. When Dewey’s understanding of thinking is joined with what neuroscience has discovered about the relationship between dissociation and the release of endorphins, it is fairly easy to imagine how fantasies could become a comfortable hiding place from a seemingly loveless world. Fantasies certainly feel safer, and with endorphins swirling about, quite good, although I would venture to claim not as good as the real thing. Yet for a child who is emotionally neglected (and the adult that child eventually becomes), or for a person stuck in grief, trusting love can be a difficult thing to do.
I sometimes think all the distractions that characterize modern living — a zillion cable channels with round the clock programming, the Internet, the latest technology, the newest video game, the next best travel destination — are sometimes nothing more than a collective effort to keep longing out of awareness. In the United States, grief has turned into a short-term affair, something with stages that we supposedly go through, eventually reaching an endpoint, grief-free. In reality, grief is the continual act of remaking the relationship with the deceased as we go on living without them — a process that takes the length of our lives, although waxing and waning in its intensity over the lifespan. And emotional neglect is not an uncommon occurrence in our society. A majority of the population has histories of adverse childhood experiences, and broken homes are widespread, leaving children feeling unloved despite some parents’ best intentions. It’s not hard to see how a season of love like the holidays for many would feel more like a season of longing (and how a drive to profit off longing could be so lucrative).
The cure for longing is love. For many this requires a large measure of safety, someone reliable to meet them in relationship. To risk loving another person also involves acknowledging fantasies are a bridge to love and not the destination.
Trusting love is not easy, especially when fantasy has been a longtime companion and stand-in for the real thing. No wonder we are so drawn to films, media, and images that can serve as fodder for our personal fantasies of love, if not dreams of perfection.
The way out of longing also involves awareness, both to painful emotions residing within and to the beauty of the world around us. The idea is to feel about life as Emily Dickenson once wrote, “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Of course, advice is cheap when fantasy has become a well-worn suit of armor. But like any psychological defense, especially one used against the pain of grief or chronically feeling unloved, the remedy is found in regaining connection — to one’s soul, one’s body, others, and the environment. Just as longing is a natural experience, so too is healing from lost love, which is also potentially transformative, turning a season of longing into a season of joy.
Writtem By Laura K. Kerr, Ph.D
This post was adapted and revised from an earlier version, 12/2011.
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