Sarah Sharp discusses the way in which we so readily sacrifice parts of ourselves for a shot at love…
It’s a week from Valentine’s day and I am avoiding eye contact with heart-shaped chocolate because I have just been broken up with. I’m on my way to meet a friend for dinner, where I will dump my broken heart on the table and try to sort through the pieces. Again.
The thing is, I’m a jumper. I jump off cliffs for love, for a chance at love. I’ll bet against stacked odds and call bullshit on convention. Long distance? Bring it on. Irreconcilable plans for the future? I love a challenge! If it all falls apart, at least I know that I took the risk and fought for love. It will all be worth it in the end, I tell myself.
But it hasn’t paid off. Every time I jump, I end up shattered at the bottom of a canyon. I get up to dust myself off and I realize that I’m alone and all my limbs are broken and it’s blindingly painful. I have to reset my bones before I can climb out of this ravine, this dream of a person who didn’t show up to catch me. I am angry about this. I cry about it as I fumble around, searching half-heartedly for a way out.
My friends listen patiently as I continue to cry over a plate of tacos, or a plate of pasta, or a carafe of wine. They wrap me in gentle hugs, wary of my broken limbs, and I make increasingly dramatic exclamations, and ask increasingly dramatic questions: I took the risk for him! Why couldn’t he catch me? I jumped! Why? Dear God, why?!
I blame the men. I make wine-induced generalizations about the gender as a whole: They’re scared of commitment, of vulnerability, of me. (Sip) They’re scared of jumping! Sure, I jumped and got hurt, but at least I was brave enough to jump. (Sip) At least I’m not going to die alone on the edge of a cliff because I was too afraid to take the leap. Later, fresh out of tears and wine, I climb into my bathtub and say, “I am brave, I am brave, I am brave.”
I recover, but then a few months later, or a few years later, there I am again: face down in a ravine; back in the cycle of it all. Until a few months ago, I had never considered my hand in this pattern. But then, mindlessly scrolling through twitter, I found this article by Heather Havrilesky. She had some answers I was not exactly prepared for:
“You were in love and he wasn’t, and instead of admitting that…You asked him to play a role, to visit and show up and act like a star-crossed lover for you… You wanted to control reality, to turn water into wine. But you are not Jesus Christ. You couldn’t do it.”
I knew right away that I had done this to myself. I was jumping off cliffs when I knew damn well that no one was at the bottom to catch me. The cliffside was ignoring my calls and posting instagram pictures with everyone but me. The cliffside was screaming: “I can’t meet your needs!” “I am not invested in this!” But I couldn’t walk away.
Instead, I took those words and actions as a challenge. I tried to offset his disinterest with uncomfortably keen interest. I turned myself inside out with elaborate displays of commitment. I answered, “I can’t meet your needs” with, “Okay, I’ll get rid of them!” It was death by one million unanswered texts and vacant stares, and I was miserable, but I still couldn’t walk away. So I jumped. I gave one last, desperate and magnificent ultimatum: catch me or I will be very hurt. Love me, or I will be shattered. I wasn’t brave; I was terrified and out of options, jumping and praying he would show up at the last minute.
Sometimes, we want to be loved so badly that we will destroy ourselves. Why are we more willing to get hurt than we are to walk away, loveless and bruised, but intact?
It’s hard to accept these kinds of words — “I can’t meet your needs,” “This isn’t working.” They seem to translate to, “You are too needy. You tried your hardest to make it work, and it wasn’t enough because you are not enough. You are strange and awkward, you are not worthy.” But it’s never his voice saying those words, it’s ours.
Maybe the desire to jump comes from being unsure whether we actually deserve love; if we keep jumping, someone will catch us and prove us wrong. The ultimate gesture.
So what’s a girl to do? I know that if I just believed in my own worthiness, I wouldn’t jump in the first place. It seems obvious, now: be aware of your intrinsic, unshakable worth. I have to live by that belief, even when it means accepting words of rejection that I don’t want to hear, and walking away from love that I want.
As a young person, and a woman, I know that kind of steadfast worthiness is hard-won. Many of us have seen from a young age how a woman’s value is open for discussion and contingent on her appearance, or her performance, or any number of other traits. Many of us have internalized our cultural habit of critiquing women, and built our sense of self-worth on that same shaky ground. It’s uncomfortable to defy such deeply ingrained expectations, but to live bowed to the approval of others will have you running off cliffs your entire life.
I used to pretend that jumping off cliffs made me brave, but it doesn’t. The truly brave choice is taking the long hike for someone who will catch me. Until someone is ready to catch me, I can enjoy the walk; I deserve that.
Illustration: Mariel Abbene