In “Hang the DJ,” the fourth episode of the fourth season of the British TV series Black Mirror, its premise takes on an expedient approach to speed dating. In its world those who seek true love are placed in a simulation called the System, in which they find themselves paired off with seemingly random people. Embarking on a relationship of sorts, they each then try to get to know one another within a certain period of time (lasting anywhere between a few minutes to short of a year), after which they each go their separate ways to be then paired off with their next match. These couples are not always smitten with each other; some relationships are purely sexual and superficial. The System’s algorithm tries, through collection of personal data from each relationship, to match their users with his or her perfect mate—or in the case of the episode’s protagonist, his 99.8% match.
Written by Charlie Brooker, the whole premise makes for an interesting hour of television, not to mention an apt commentary in the age of Tinder and social media. But isn’t that how it really is in real life? With each failed relationship you gain a little more insight about yourself, what you really want and what you need. Through the process of trial and error you learn what your tastes and preferences really are. You understand yourself a little better. And in turn, you get a clearer picture of what you want out of a relationship, out of a partner.
At first I didn’t understand why this episode in particular lingered in my imagination long after I’ve seen it, and not in that peculiar and oppressive way that most episodes of Black Mirror linger in one’s mind. This one was different, a nagging familiarity that knocks on the mind’s door and begs inquiry. Now it seems to me that the reason why I find myself so drawn to “Hang the DJ” in the first place is because, for most of my young adult life and even now that I am pushing toward twenty seven, I feel not unlike being in the System myself.
They say you have three loves in your life: the young love, the hard love, and the love you don’t quite expect.
It was very recently that I have been able to reconcile myself with the fact that perhaps all unsuccessful relationships in my life were not necessarily failures in themselves, neither on my nor on the other party’s part; instead they’re stepping stones to someone better, detours that would take me to the right direction, to my 99.8%.
Let me paint you a better picture.
My first ever romantic relationship has always seemed to me a waste of time, too much time. But perhaps it wasn’t entirely so, for although I suspect I did not truly love him, and I stayed only because he was the first person who showed me real intimacy, I needed to learn what commitment meant. I needed to understand that when you devote yourself to another, you stick with them through the good, the bad and the ugly, through tough days and rough times and make it a point to work things out, to not give up, to nurture and care for each other even when they seem undeserving of it—especially when they are undeserving of it. I think everyone deserves to experience what young love is—its grandiosity, its expectations, its impossible idealism and misplaced romanticism—and in the end be disillusioned by it, because more than anything young love pushes you to a deeper understanding of what love truly means, the maturity required to sustain it, and the many compromise that any partnership entails.
There is the kind of love that makes you understand on a visceral level what Wuthering Heights truly is about: that love can be obsessive, destructive, cyclical.
There is also merit in engaging in relationships that on the surface offer you the very things that you believe you want—only for you to realize later on that you actually want quite another. I understood this when I committed myself to someone who on paper seemed to have everything I wanted out of a partner: more money than he knew how to spend, unremarkable good looks, an appreciation for art and considerable prowess in bed. This was a particularly troubled time, and caused me more anguish than I had anticipated, because quite simply, I did not then like myself, and placed so much of my value on the other person. I had needed, more than anything else at that point in my life, a deeper connection with myself, and no amount of affection and extravagance and material gain could ever fill that void. I learned early on that my happiness is a very personal thing, and it has nothing to do with anyone else.
And then there is the kind of love that makes you understand on a visceral level what Wuthering Heights truly is about: that love, however pure, can be obsessive, destructive, cyclical. They say you have three loves in your life: the young love, the hard love, and the love you don’t quite expect. Although it is never that linear, that precise, I believe this was my hard love. It was intense and passionate and fervid, so much so that there are days when I still have to convince myself it had actually happened, that it hadn’t been a fever dream after all. The most transformative and meaningful of my adult relationships, this love taught me important life lessons the hard way, taught me more about myself and the world than perhaps all the years of my life combined. As you could clearly tell, it was not the healthiest of relationships because he simply did not love me with the same depth that I loved him, but none of this matters when you’re in the middle of it; I felt more alive than I had previously felt during this time: every color was bright, every interaction charged, everything heard and seen and felt was suffused with what seems to be the essence of life itself. It was the love that drove me to move across continents and live in a foreign land and learn a foreign tongue, the love that could have pushed me to do anything just to see that love through. “Now when [it] comes back to me it comes in hallucinatory flashes, so clinically detailed that I sometimes wish that memory would effect the distortion with which it is commonly credited,” Joan Didion says about living in New York as a young woman, but this is how that period of my life feels to me. I remember it all. The things said in the throes of passion. The promises made to each other thinking we had all the time and all of the chances in the world. Even the smell of cigarette smoke and cool perfume that lingered in his clothes, even those little things come back to me. That force of that love was so massive that when it ended it left me for many months despondent to the point of impairment. But the biggest heartaches yield the biggest lessons, and what I learned is this: love should make you feel grateful to be alive, and love is supposed to push you to your very limits, but love should never be painful; it may sometimes be uncomfortable, and often uneasy, but it should never hurt. Because that relationship meant and still does mean a lot to me, I occasionally catch myself grieving its loss. But I no longer feel bitter about it, and have since learned to honor that experience, and of course the man who showed me what love has the potential to be.
Even short and seemingly insignificant liaisons can be a revelatory experience if you stop long enough to consider them. I don’t think I really understood the importance of kindness until I found myself drawn to someone who embodied it. He was in Berlin among the first people with whom I connected, and in the short time that we were together I was humbled by his humility and generosity and tenderness of heart, and he proved to me that Germans do have the capacity for deep kindness and empathy. When he moved away from the city I took that lesson close to my heart and started looking for his kindness in everyone I meet. More than that, his leaving made me realize that I would no longer settle for anyone who has not the guts to fight for me.
Reeling from a relationship gone haywire, he lives uneasily in the present, perpetually held captive by the siren lure of a past love.
Quite recently I met someone who I believed briefly to be my soul mate for the simple reason that we are in many ways similar, in taste and life experiences, and more important, we seem to share the same brand of humor and could appreciate each other’s without much effort. Although we had a grand time in each other’s company, in the end it failed to work between us because he lacked the ability to let me in. Reeling from a relationship gone haywire, he lives uneasily in the present, perpetually held captive by the siren lure of a past love. In brief, I had lost to a ghost of a former lover, and that is basically all there is to it. That I should invest in men who are emotionally available, emotionally stable, and emotionally mature should be the one take away to be had from the whole ordeal, but there is another, more important moral to the story, and it sits I think at the core of what I have been trying to say all along.
People can only give that which they already have. It is not a question of willingness, or of desire, or even of love. You cannot expect anyone to love you if they simply do not love themselves. I think Lisa Nichols said it best in her book No Matter What when she says that people “can only forgive and embrace you to the capacity that they are able to forgive and embrace themselves. They can only give you what they have the capacity to give. You may think that you deserve more, and you may be correct. But that means nothing if a person simply doesn’t have the ability to give it to you.” Knowing who you are and what you want is well and good, and in fact should be encouraged, but it is imperative that we do lose sight of the fact that love and loving is as much about one’s self as it is about another. If we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise, we will easily fall in love with the next person who shows us the tiniest bit of attention and think they’re the one.