06 November 1994

Young Love

Love is the most fun you can have without laughing. - Anonymous
When I was in junior high I realized, after the initial rebuffs, that it was going to be years — an eternity to a thirteen year old — before I got laid. When I got old I would have a son, and I would tell him what I went through, so that it might go a little better for him. I even kept a diary. Now I'm not your father, and you're not my son. My diary I'll keep to myself. In its place I substitute my thirtysomething thoughts on my teenaged days.

As a teenager I was a human becoming more than a human being. This fact, this launching of myself toward adulthood, conditioned all my relationships, intense or casual. Falling in love under those conditions was like trying to move into an apartment in a skyscraper before the floors were poured — lots of pitfalls and construction noise. In choosing a girlfriend I was choosing a self to try to be — developing a sense of self that was genuine because it was mine, rather than my parents'. I was also measuring my self-worth — seeing what kind of girl I could trade myself for. With the young ladies' help I was doing the urgent and creative work that all teenagers must do — I was creating me. And I loved whom I wanted or needed my girlfriends to be more than who they were, or were becoming. Those who did not reject me reciprocated in kind.

Thus my first criticism of high-school romance: the emotions are intense because the hormone levels are high and the psychological needs are great, but real intimacy under such circumstances is nearly impossible. And my first praise of it: by finding out how difficult it is to achieve intimacy, I came to value it and to understand what I was willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice for it.

Besides love, intimacy, and a sense of self, high school romance is largely about sex, whether or not the desire is acted upon. In my experience of this phenomenon (through my own escapades or those of my friends and acquaintances) we used our sexuality to experiment with new behaviors (Did you get to first base?), to assert our emotional independence from our parents (What's the matter, are you afraid?), to gain social status (He can't be a fag — he's dating someone!), and self-confidence (Whatever she wants, I can handle it.).

All of this emotional loading may heighten the intensity of sexuality but tends to diminish its other qualities, an idea which may be lost on adolescents, who rarely appreciate that sexuality has dimensions other than intensity. The quest for intensity often leads teenagers into relationships that are emotionally — and occasionally physically — abusive. There is nothing quite like "first love," especially when one is in love with a beautiful or handsome emotional roller coaster jockey.

And what if despite all odds, the teenager makes some fleeting contact with the real person, the "inner child" of the other? Sometimes one finds the love of one's life. My relationships followed the far more usual course, ending because we were growing teenagers who grew apart. And then, because I had been changing so fast at that age, there was no normal state of being for me to return to. I couldn't go back to being the old me, because the old me was a kid. In that sense, I never "got over" my teenage romances. I just moved on after a couple of years, when I realized that the state I was in was as normal as I was going to get.

I don't know what of this you might say to your teenagers, in addition to the usual drug, pregnancy, and venereal disease information. Maybe that, despite the message of popular culture, they might look to God for the affirming love they often seek from each other. Maybe just that it might do them more good to look for a close friend rather than a lover. But teenagers tend to talk more than they listen, and to do risky things because they need to prove themselves and because they're too young to appreciate how risky they are. That's why they're used as soldiers.

Oh, well. As Jimmy Durante used to say, "God bless you, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." Or was it just "Good night?"

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