In Defense of Young Love
For years I’ve joked about writing a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye...And it French Kissed Me Back. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian culture in which Joshua Harris’ 1997 I Kissed Dating Goodbye was the sacred text of soul-patched youth ministers everywhere. I can’t summarize Harris’ treatise better than Wikipedia: “The book focuses on Harris' disenchantment with the contemporary secular dating scene.”
So soured with the “secular,” in fact, he gave it a smooch farewell.
Christian culture gravitates toward going-steady abstinence, but society at-large tends to snub young love too. There’s a prevailing dismissive attitude toward the romantic affections and relationships humans have in their adolescence. Our movies and TV sensationalize homecoming dances and high school infatuation to the point of parody. To sell movie tickets and promote television shows, first kisses and loves-at-first sight are flippantly exploited.
I wanted to write a book about how dating French kissed me back not because I did a lot of French kissing, but because I felt -- still feel -- young love is underrated, diminished. Love is the deepest grace we get in this world, so why do we disregard it just because it’s back there in our younger years?
One theory: we downplay the feelings and experiences of love in our youth not because we think they’re silly, but because we don’t know what to do with them. Our views about time and life are so staunchly chronological and steeped in the idea of progress that we have a tendency to observe our departed (and especially young) experiences as stepping stones instead of legitimate facets of our being. Our first kiss or freshman year of college fling aren’t accepted as a worthy part of our history, but as fumbling accidents, or maybe even mistakes.
Another theory: young love can prove awkward. If you’re in a committed relationship, it might be unsettling or provocative to acknowledge previous loves. And often, there’s a reason our prior affections don’t exist in the present: they didn’t work out, and there’s pain in that space.
I’m not Rust Cohle -- I don’t believe time is a flat circle or buy Nietzche’s “Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence,” which hypothesizes that all material existence happens over and over again in an infinite loop. I do believe a holistic life--a living existence that acknowledges each of our breaths, hours, and choices as interconnected, as having to do with and affecting one another-- is the only real way to engage in a sturdy and significant life. The singer-songwriter Jason Isbell has a song in which he says “Man is a product of all the people that he’s ever loved,” and I think that’s not only right, but inescapable.
How we love is profoundly consequential to how we live, for better or for worse. And so many of us learn how to love, although awkwardly, in our youth through sweaty handholds, awkward parent introductions, and long night drives listening to Dashboard Confessional trying to build up enough courage to initiate a kiss. Through young love we learn to deal with the tensions of desire and acceptance; we discover how to navigate hope and rejection. More tangibly, we attempt risk. We take chances with our hearts (and isn’t that all we’ve got?) as collateral. When we love in our youth ,we are learning to be human.
Some neuropsychology: the part of the brain associated with risky behavior, the prefrontal cortex, doesn’t fully form until sometime around age 25. That’s the reason teens are more likely to do precious things, like binge-drink Smirnoff Ices or trespass in abandoned buildings to take dope photos.
But I think another kind of risk-taking behavior we lose as we get older is emotional: vulnerability. As the prefrontal cortex grows we hopefully stop vaping and Tokyo drifting around “Dead Man’s Curve” with reckless abandon. But, unfortunately, we lose some of our awareness and willingness to take emotional risks, like freely and creatively loving. Like putting it all on the line. It’s not bad we grow wiser and learn to chill out. But maturity shouldn’t cost us the short-breathed beauty of romantic impulses. Letting the memories of our past relationships -- the mistakes, regrets, euphoria, epiphanies, and risks -- dwell in our soul can nourish a part of us we need.
Don’t kiss dating goodbye, and don’t toss the romantic memories of your youth into your brain’s attic. Don’t dismiss young love. The past speaks to us because the past is us. I’ll defend young love, even if part of my defense requires me to browse through old prom photos and relive the terrible haircut (an ironic mullet) I had my junior year. I’ll defend young love even if it’s painful, because love is love no matter how young it is or far away it seems, and because we need as much love as we can saturate our souls with to keep loving more wherever we’re at now, wherever we go.