This Is What Traveling Taught Me About Love


I cry in churches and mosques and stupas and I might cry in a synagogue when I eventually visit one. I think it has to do with this crazy big thing called love.

I feel it in these places, it surrounds and enfolds me the minute I enter Catholic cathedrals in Spain and Buddhist temples in Asia, though I practice no religion. Shouldn’t all love come this easily if all it takes is merely crossing a threshold? Well not quite. These places are relics of a long history of love. Their walls have absorbed thousands of years of worship and devotion. And they’ve likely endured unfair demands, anger and resentment when such acts of love fail to sustain faith. Such is the case with any kind of love.

I recently spent a couple of days in Champasak, Laos drifting from one ancient temple to another, bowing awkwardly in front of the Buddha, offering the only prayer I know: simple gratitude. I ran my hands over the warm stones of ruins, climbed the piles of rubble, sat and stared into space and balled my eyes out. Quiet, fragile tears and then fat heaving sobs. Unabashed relief. Like rain after a drought. Like making love after years without a touch.

Between bouts of tears I admired the alms left there, the simple objects placed in front of the Buddha to create a humble shrine of faith.

And I thought a lot about love. The love of family. The love between friends. The love of lovers. The love of the lucky ones, of soulmates. The love of and for the Divine. Self love. And the persistence and perseverance that it requires.

Why is some love such hard work and other love just appears at your doorstep, gentle and unassuming?

Every once in a while someone enters our lives, wraps us up in a big hug, accepts who we are and loves us anyway, without agenda or useless words. They see us through every black hole in our lives, every rotten part of our hearts. These are the people who teach us a little bit about how to love ourselves and a lot about how to love another person. And then there are people who love us but leave us like it’s the easiest thing in the world. They can teach us just as much, if we’re paying attention.

Who and what we choose to love and the love we accept has a lot to do with how we love ourselves.

Like the the eastern sky at sunset and the warm stones of those crumbling civilisations, love, like the sun, affects everything. And it’s a choice. Loving someone involves first loving ourselves, we know that. Secure your own mask first right? But I think there’s more to it than that.

Why do we accept some love so easily and reject others?

I read somewhere once that just because someone doesn’t love you the way you want them to that doesn’t mean they don’t love you with all they have. True indeed. But sometimes love delivers us incomprehensible but necessary bullshit, like the right person at the wrong time.

And some love just fits because its expression mirrors our own. Sometimes the love before us is unfamiliar, we can’t make sense of it and so we think it is selfish, or that perhaps that it is not love at all. It seems egocentric, unintentionally ignorant or immature. Maybe it just speaks a language we don’t understand and therefore can’t wholeheartedly trust, though it is no less real or valid.

I know this: When you love something you give it what you have, meagre or grand. The alms, or offerings at these temples I visited ranged from hand-rolled cigarettes to tacky Christmas decor to sticky rice. It didn’t matter what, the point was to give. Those kitschy tokens were beautiful because someone put them there, those 10 cent foil hearts and sticks of incense. A coalescence of devotion.

Like flowers left on a grave that whither and die over time, the flowers aren’t the point, it’s what the flowers represent. That however small it seems in this enormous world, love exists without needing hard evidence that it is real or requited. Because love isn’t rational, nor does it care about time. And it doesn’t know equality. But it knows devotion, they are hardly separable.

To place those objects before a crumbled mass of ancient stones tucked far away from the city and the greedy eyes of tourists, to worship something so humble and unimpressive is perhaps the most impressive love of all. I envy those who have that, who can give and receive it without any promise or expectation of return. Every part of me craves to feel such devotion. But it’s a struggle that I am perhaps not prepared to endure, a choice I’m not ready to make. And I stomp my feet like a spoilt child over this. Why can’t it just be handed to me, gently and covertly, as one of the lucky ones?

Maybe love isn’t grandiose and flashy, wrapped beautifully and had easily in this material world.

Perhaps it is as ordinary as a ticking clock and a bowl of sticky rice in Asia. And because of this it can survive, it can endure time. Like lovers in the smallest hours of the night, trading secret stories that nobody else cares about. It’s extraordinary in its simplicity. Perhaps it is right before my eyes. In the river’s flow. In the trees reaching for the sun’s light. In the stillness of the night sky and all that sleeps beneath it.

Search for it and it will continue to evade us. Expect from it and it will never give us what we want. Try to change it and we will stamp it out. Try to live without it and we will fall apart. Invite it into our lives and we will fall apart.

Like weeds that grow between the piles of ancient stone, imagine what can happen when we just let love be whatever it is. Let those ruins remain as they are. A pile of rubble overgrown with weeds or a magnificent creation. Objective beauty, objective love are illusions. The only love that matters is yours. And things are beautiful if you love them.