The Piece of String – A Commentary On The Philosophy & Attitude To Modern Dating & Love
Dating. That word which instils dread in some, and excitement in others. It’s a word that insinuates fun and flirting, merriment and magic, stupor and sex. To have the company of the man or woman you feel endeared to – what other splendiferous activity might you choose that often costs you nothing but your time? To court with someone who infatuates you, to speak with them, hold them, laugh with them, maybe even love them – I see it as the innate expression of human companionship, an exchange of emotion and physicality which is as natural to us as eating and drinking.
I would think that by now, we’ve all been on a date at some point in our lives. Young or old, healthy or haggard, of that I’m sure. That means we all have a perspective on what it means to date. On what it means to fall in love.
There are differences in the experiences we’ve had whilst dating and loving of course. These stem from our pasts and our personas – something unique for every soul alive that can’t be helped. Then there are the cultural differences. This could mean one’s approach to dating. Maybe this is related to religion, ethics, race, or upbringing. Some cultures place differing emphasis on the roles of men and women. Who should make the first move? Who should pay for meals out? Who takes the lead?
Despite contrasting attitudes to dating in both the past and present, it’s easy to see that people have always liked other people. They always will. It’s natural after all. You, or indeed I, might feel the pull of another, and before we know it we’re looking them hard in the eyes and wondering why the butterflies are alive within the depths of our body. We’ll think about growing with them, what we can do for them, what life might be like as their partner. We’ll ask ourselves many questions, and we might not find the answers. But, we will feel their pull. One can only hope that they are feeling ours as well.
Nowadays there are changes in the dating world again. And no, I’m not only talking about the surging wave of online dating apps – the swiping revolution I’d call it – for that happened long ago. Dating today might still involve the odd swipe (think Hinge, Tinder, and Bumble) but it’s becoming something else. Something, which in my view, is perceived with a far more cynical eye than ever. Bouncing from person to person can seem the new norm. There’s a fear of too much investment or quality time. But how can we find the right person without it? I mean, that’s what dating is after all – right? We’re screening potential suitors, seeing if that spark is there, that magic moment, that chemical explosion. If only it held a place on the periodic table.
Other people – they’re on a perennial search – a search for the one. I’ll call them that for now. The one. It’s a search for love, unrequited. After all, if we’re being real, dating is in essence, one’s search for a long-term companion. Though plenty of folks are casual about this and make their intentions candidly known – “I just want casual sex,” they’ll say – perhaps the most realistic view one can take is that a person will either turn out to be a life partner (the supposed one) or a person who might shepherd you for a time before you break-up. And yes, this goes for the hook-up types too, because if you’re holding one another, you’re still shepherding one another.
I myself have definitely had a wander into the woods of the one. A lost explorer. No map. Head-scratching. I’d end up more than a little lost, asking myself where they might be and who they are. Its sometimes led me to revisit the past, whether in mind or in body. If I did that I’d end up feeling the knot of somebody’s string. The accidental lasso. Whatever you wonder about the past, there’s generally a good reason why your friends advise you not to go back. Searching in it didn’t help me find the one. Nostalgia is as beautiful as it is dangerous.
The notion of the one is an old motif. I’ll admit I find it a beautiful suggestion – that two humans – separated and not aware of one another for many years – might find each other and realise that they are soulmates. The movies we all know often precipitate this notion. I often think about Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy as a competitor for the most beautiful depiction; and then we also have all the books, and their fine, fine tales of love. I’m thinking Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Music too, has always glamorised this side of the human condition – finding love. Extreme – More Than Words anyone? Pop culture, and our appetite for storytelling it seems, only feed our beliefs in the one. Sometimes, when I date, I’ll sit there imagining the movie-like scenario that I inhabit. How do I create a beautiful moment? I’ll think. But actually what I’ve realised is the key really is to roll with it. Get to know that person and the magic might come. Sparks may fly or sparks might smoulder. Your life isn’t a book or a movie, but it is your story. I suppose dating is one small part of it, so live a dating life worthy of its own song.
I remember the first date I ever went on. She was from Putney. I had no idea what I was doing. But, I knew it was my first taste of chemistry. I’d met her on a Mediterranean holiday and asked for her phone number after she kissed me into the wee hours of a teenage morning. I remember her dusty brown hair and sweet youthful freckles. She was kissed by the sun. It was the end of summer. We shared a wander in one of London’s larger parks, sitting under trees, and perusing the outdoor galleries. I was seventeen and utterly clueless. She was seventeen and a little coy. Now, many years later, I remember little of the day’s conversations. Her significance has passed away, but I do recall how I felt in that youthful time. I beamed from ear to ear after kissing her good bye in a quiet corner of some western tube station, and she waved from the carriage while her train pulled away. It’s what all dating should be like. Happiness inducing. I walked to the other platform with a spring in my step. I couldn’t stop smiling. Now, whenever I’m with someone I like and we kiss good bye, I always walk away smiling with some raucous internal celebration. A tap dance of the mind. Life is too short not to celebrate it. Sometimes I wonder if other young men do the same, and if even years later, when the effect of this person has waned as a sunset does on a bright day, that they still remember the way it made them feel.
Fast forward eight years from that time and I was twenty-five. I’d had relationships by this point, sure, and perhaps I was a little less clueless, but still I remained eternally hopeful. Often naive, I bought heavily into the idea of gestures and massive emotional investment. I’m not saying an individual shouldn’t do this, but in the world of dating one must exercise a level of caution. Too much, too soon and all that. You risk hurting yourself and pushing your lover away (but maybe we should tell the rules to get lost?).
Even so, I think we should applaud each other, for don’t we all pour so much of ourselves out for those we like? It’s a chord that I reckon many reading this will harmonise with. That same act, over and over, investing your interest with that guy or girl. We’ve all done it a multitude of times. That meeting, a greeting, and the needing that follows. Needing each other. Seeing each other. Love-making. Chatting until the sun rises again. Introductions to loved ones. Maybe this lasts a while, maybe it doesn’t. Every time you’re giving a chunk of yourself – pouring out the essence of your soul for that person. Perhaps I sound cynical but I actually think it’s beautiful. What a wonder it is, that human beings are capable of loving again and again. Whilst we are made of innumerable flaws, we are compassionate to the end. And indeed, what is it to live, without having tried to love any way? Without bearing all and pouring out the truest of feelings that sit within; what a waste that would be. Dating is simply a step in that direction, even if you’ve done it before. It’s the first step across a road which can lead to greater things for you and that prospective love interest. What a loss it would be not to try again and again.
You know, in recent years I’ve began to think that in life one has to always try. Like Charles Bukowski said: “It’s the only good fight there is.” Be vulnerable. Be real. Don’t be afraid of being who you really are when you date. Someone out there will love you for it, so be unapologetically yourself.
Since my twenty-fifth year I’d been focusing on trying, perpetuating the need for the outpour I mention. Under midnight moons I played, and during sun baked days I laid. I spent eighteen months dialled into the idea of dating an ex-girlfriend. We courted, and then we didn’t, and then we courted again. Back and forth. Back and forth. Winning and losing. Losing and winning. A musing for the modern dating age, I pondered. I tell you – that piece of string was wrapped right around my waist.
“What’s she playing at?” I’d ask friends.
“Oh Sam…” They’d say, utterly perplexed, whilst other friends seemed more resigned to witnessing a fate I was putting myself through.
He’s lost, they thought.
Either way, I ignored them. What did I keep telling myself instead? It’s worth trying Sam. You have to go all the way. That was the Bukowski I’d so fanatically read in my ear. I was resolute. So try I did – to date her again. I guess I made a quest out of it. And good grief, whilst a quest is what it was, it isn’t something I would recommend to others. It did teach me a wedge about ones self though, and even though I wonder if it really is done, I tell myself that I’ve done enough for now. I tried, and it wasn’t right. One can allow oneself to live without regret that way. Dating, loving; it seems they can act as life lessons. Making mistakes, chasing the past, dating faux pas. Sometimes one has to do this to wake the hell up. I was done with my emotional outpouring for a while. Time to move on, I thought, and amongst everything else that makes up my life, I set about doing just that.
“Fellas I’m back!” I echoed through the halls of WhatsApp, and then they all asked me if I was okay. Good friends always look after your well-being.
Whether your friends do care for you or not however, what I would like to tell you is to learn from this petite tale. As an example it serves little but to illustrate that the past – whether you seek it out or it comes knocking – is rarely a solution for where you might want to take your dating woes. Ask yourself what you’re doing. Is it time to move on? Maybe it should be. Do you really love this person? Do I really love this person? Tough questions, but honest questions. Remember, dating is a game of honest emotion. Anything involving love has to be.
With that I’ve come to “moving on”. Moving on itself is an act that many individuals struggle with. In fact, I daren’t breach the topic without saying I’m hardly a move on guru myself. However, I do see it as being intrinsically linked with dating. Interestingly, dating more is often viewed as a solid method with which to “get over” the previous partner. Now you’ll need to indulge me here, but if you think about it this really is a little weird. Investing all your confused or sad emotions straight into someone else. It’s not the best recipe is it? Have you ever caught yourself doing it? I’ve caught myself doing it. Heck, I’ve had conversations with people who are telling me they’re doing it.
“Oh I’m only seeing her to get over my ex” they’ll say.
Or “I’m not interested in anything serious at the moment.”
“I don’t know what I want, so I’m just casually dating.”
“I think I still love my ex,” some will say.
“It’s not them mate, it’s me… I’m just not ready for anything serious.” Then they’ll tell me “I do wanna’ have sex though.”
The excuses hey, oh the excuses! Many have used them and many will continue the trend. But moving on doesn’t always need to cause others pain, as well as confusion for yourself. Dating is draining enough when you’re in it for the right reasons. Why make it worse by draining others too? We shouldn’t be so blasé with our emotions. If you’re stringing someone along, intentionally or not, remind yourself that we’re all of us in this mess together. It’s particularly pertinent in your mid to late twenties, I’ve found. Maybe this is the effect of a constantly connected Instagram obsessed world. I’m still working this one out.
Sometimes when I look around me I like to think how the piece of string might be wrapped around random people. What point are they at with their emotions? Maybe I’ll be somewhere, walking through a park, headphones in, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending colouring my ears, and I’ll be away in my imagination. I’ll think about one woman who’s sitting in a bar, three friends surrounding her, all laughing. She could be suffering internally for all I know – the pull of an old lover. The truth is in the eyes. The eyes tell all. Sadness, happiness, worry. It’s all in the eyes. And it’s in the eyes of this woman at the bar. If you ever love someone, look at their eyes – you’ll get a gauge on how they might feel. After this, I’m on the tube, and I see a man with his head hung low, dark eyes, darker suit. Perhaps he’s worried about the hasty break-up he just initiated. He gets his phone out to text her, yanking on the string. Remember that you seldom know what a potential partner is going through when you first meet them, or even what they’ve just been through. We all have baggage.
As a result of this baggage, it might be that dating sometimes feels a little off. Maybe that person you like is still snagged in another’s hook, the piece of string unfurled behind them. Have you considered that? Maybe you’re going to become the person that they finally move on with, or the one who helps them for a spell – their love shepherd, so to speak. There are no answers of total certainty. The only thing I will say is that through all the excuses, the “it’s not right” moments, and the awkward silences, is that you keep going. Keep going, but don’t expect. The only person you can truly expect anything from is yourself. In dating, I found that once I cut the string and moved on, I had no need for excuses. I could be myself. Free even, to try and love again.
Another story. I was sitting in a pub with a date once. I’m not sure how many dates we’d been on, but our rapport was still fresh, so it was exciting. I’d liken it to the dawn of a new day in a new country. Fragrant winds, and the warm touch of the sun. A beautiful view – one that hangs on the mind, the horizon fading blue. You’re excited to explore it, and get to know it. That’s what she was like, with pearly eyes and yellow hair, plus a personality so very fair. With all this I was finally thinking: this dating business is actually alright! I realised I was finally moving on from the past. I looked at her, hoping she was thinking that I was more than alright. I felt a warmth in my stomach which threaded its way down my body and out of my toes, and a tingle as the hair on my forearms stood on end. I like this girl, I thought.
When that evening got sweeter, we laughed, and we kissed under a late blackened sky. And, when there were other nights like this; nights where I lay and I looked right through her, when I think back, I know I kissed her as you kiss someone when you care. It’s how dating ought to be. A fleeting chance of love, or maybe a mirage, the perfect summary for a lot of the modern dating I have experienced. Either way I was happy, and there wasn’t a sight of that pesky tether, for the tether was long gone as well.
They’ll be other people who’ve experienced this sense of euphoria whilst dating. I realise that it’s tough to keep our emotions in check when we’re crazy about someone. Modern dating seems to demand that we do keep them in check however. It all goes back to that “too much too soon” business. “Don’t do that or they’ll run scared!” I’ve been told. It might sound like nonsense, but sometimes it’s rather pertinent advice. Maybe this notion is why I hear the euphoria of dating discussed with a lack of frequency amongst peers. So often it seems that it’s the negativity that people choose to focus on. Or, maybe they’re divulging information about the amount of men/ women they’re dating at once. The games they’re playing, how they’re keeping that guy on girl on their toes. This is interesting to me. It harkens back to the societal shift and cultural nuance I alluded to at the start of this article. Thirty or forty years ago when many of our parents will have met, they didn’t have the internet, a wealth of apps or such readily available avenues for sexual freedom that my generation has. Sure, free love and promiscuity were around, but one had to seek it out a little more. Nowadays you can find an advert for it on your favourite porn site, or you can scroll in an endless app-made void. People of the previous generations were better at commitment.
Our society is one where people are addicted to the quickest of pleasures. The social media on their phones, fast fashion, drugs. The result is that dating is more casually regarded than ever. People are frivolous with other people. They invest in many, scared of what they might get back. Think many eggs into many baskets, rather than all eggs into one. We inhabit a world of infinite possibilities, but dating isn’t a game with infinite outcomes, is it? I think the shotgun approach inhibits ones search for a partner that an individual might have truly amazing chemistry with. People thwart themselves, and before they know it they’re talking to friends about how their dating luck is down. There may well be a level of anxiety and defeat within them then, and between the lights of the dance floor and the musk of dingy bars they’ll lose themselves – a line in the dark – a drink between tables – and all will seem swell again. I’ve observed it in London so often that at times, I’ve wondered if most of my fellow twenty-somethings are simply tired of dating and its unwritten rules, or the constant faffing, the “ghosting”, and the disappointing people. Most people are disappointing. It’s a reason for trying though. A reason to roll with it. At some point you’ll end up totally blown away.
Coming to the end of another period of dating back in March (and indeed now the conclusion of this article), I do admit that I have made myself feel a little downtrodden. Still I keep hold of my optimism though. I suppose I feel I might even be a man who has some kind of level view on this whole topic, given the past few years of my life. It’s why I wrote this whole spiel; to tell you that in spite of society, nobody is to blame for how your dating life is going – it’s just people being people. It’s just the modern world getting modern, always ahead of us, never the same for any one generation to keep up.
With that, and with some hesitation, I enclose this final anecdote.
You are going to date people, and it won’t work out with them. This can be in spite of how it might appear. The last girl I dated said I was one of the most considerate and calm men she had ever spent time with. She said I was kind and sweet. She even told me her friends had nicknamed me. High praise is what she gave me, sure, and I liked her. But in the end what does it matter? I believed she might grow to love me. I believed I would eventually love her. It seemed logical. But, we didn’t work out, as will happen with a lot of dates that we’ll all go on in our lives. And saying all this now sounds completely crazy, because we simply weren’t right. But that’s the mind for you – it’s a little bonkers. Dating and loving simply isn’t logical after all anyways, and that’s okay. It’s not going to work out with them all.
There’s another reason I’m telling you this though. You, just like me, will be complimented by a plethora of men and women as you go through life. I know I get most excited when it’s a girl I like who pays me the comment, but don’t do what I’ve done and only allow yourself to extract value from the people who infatuate you. There will be many of these people, but most aren’t going to be constant. You are amazing because you are you. Dating and the love that we receive from others can’t define this. It’s not always going to work. Through all the outpouring, again and again, we live and learn that when dating doesn’t work out, whilst it may hurt, we will date again. From this, we will get butterflies again. We will kiss again. We will have sex again. We will even fall in love again. We’ll wonder how we ever got so hung up on all those who we dated in the past. We may even cringe at our past actions, but we will have learnt from them.
I’m telling you that someone out there will find you amazing, and you won’t have to play any games when that happens. The compliments you pay each other will be mutual. You’ll bounce off one another with spectacular ease. You’ll connect on a deep level within hours. It won’t matter either way though, because you wont need to hear it. You’ll be just right for each other. It’ll be like some bizarre cosmic moment that you can’t point a telescope at. It’ll be beautiful, like fluorescent dust in a distant galaxy. Some of you reading this might have already experienced it. I mean – I often ask myself if it’s something I’ve already experienced.
During late nights I tell myself that it doesn’t matter who I’ve had and lost. That’s dating. Echoing Pablo Neruda’s poetry, I could write the saddest lines. Lines about those I loved and lost. Hell, I’ve done it. Now however, that’s done. I’ll pour bits of myself out again and again until I meet the right woman, and I’d advise you to do the same for your future endeavours too.
Now all that’s left, is that we all cut our pieces of string, and dive back into dating. Nobody is to blame for your dating life, unless you simply aren’t partaking in the first place. So what are you waiting for? If we can’t keep up with the world, we’ll just have to chase it. Love may just come to us anyway.
~ Sam Hodges, drafted in February 2020, London, rewritten June 2020, London