I love your advice column. I am a 64 year-old man who has been single for the past five years. My most recent romantic relationship lasted ten years—eight of which were wonderful. My ex had four adult children and three grandchildren. I liked her children a lot and I loved her grandkids. The year after our relationship ended was the most painful time of my life. (This from a man who lost his father in high school, spent a year in Vietnam, and watched another lover die of cancer.)
To survive my heartbreak, I started to do lots of community volunteer work. In the past four years, I’ve been involved with hospice, I’ve served on the board of directors of a nonprofit agency that provides services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, I’ve tutored students at a middle school, and I’ve worked at an AIDS hotline. During this time, I’ve had a few dates with women I’ve met via internet dating services, and found one good friend among them, but no romance. I’ve had one sexual encounter since my ex and I broke up, which I paid for. It wasn’t very satisfying. I miss sex a lot but I also miss having someone to talk with over a meal or coffee.
There’s a new volunteer coordinator at the AIDS hotline where I volunteer and she’s wonderful. She is so exciting that I overcame my fears and asked her out to see a play with me. She said she couldn’t go because she had a friend visiting from out of town. I believed that. I know I should ask her out again since she seemed willing, but one of my fears is that I am old enough to be her father. I don’t want to be a dirty old man!
My counselor said just be light at first—start easy and be funny. Be Cary Grant! she said. But I don’t know if I can do that, Sugar.
I give to lots of people, but I have emotional needs too. I want sex, affection, and emotional closeness. I want someone to care about me. I know people do care about me already, but I want someone special. I want to be loved and to receive love; to have someone there for me. My hunger for this is so great that I fear it’s too much to ask anyone for. I’m afraid that if the volunteer coordinator did go out with me, I’d share all this with her at once and though she’d be compassionate, she’d be scared off because she’d perceive me as needy. Of course I know that even if the volunteer coordinator and I did start seeing each other she may not be the person for me, or I the person for her.
But I want to take that chance and see. I don’t want my fear to get in the way. What do you think, Sugar?
Fear of Asking Too Much
Dear Fear of Asking Too Much,
Of course you want someone special to love you, sweet pea. Approximately 68% of the people who write to me inquire about how they can get the same thing. Some are “hot, smart and 25,” others are “42, a bit chubby, but lots of fun,” and others “awesome, but in a muddle.” Many are teens and early twentysomethings whose hearts have just been seriously broken for the first time and they are quite convinced they’ll never find a love like that again. A few are seasoned, experienced, grown-ups like you whose faith in the prospect is waning. Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.
It’s hard to answer those letters because I’m an advice columnist, not a fortune teller. I have words instead of a crystal ball. I can’t say when you’ll get love or how you’ll find it or even promise that you will. I can only say you are worthy of it and that it’s never too much to ask for it and that it’s not crazy to fear you’ll never have it again, even though your fears are probably wrong. Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. It’s worthy of all the hullabaloo.
It seems to me that you’re doing everything right, darling. I plucked your letter out of the enormous how-do-I-get-love pile because I was struck by the integrity with which you describe your situation. You’re looking for love, not letting that keep you from living your life. In the face of your most recent (and considerable) heartbreak, you opted not to wallow. Instead, you gave generously of yourself by committing to work that’s meaningful to you and important to your community. It’s no surprise to me that it was in the course of that work you’ve met someone who genuinely sparks your interest.
So let’s talk about her. The “exciting” volunteer coordinator. I agree with you that you shouldn’t let your fears get in the way of asking her out. Just don’t allow yourself to take it too personally if she says no. I can think of two reasons she might turn you down. One is your significant age difference—many women will date outside their age bracket, but some won’t. The other is your status as a volunteer for the agency that employs her—she may be constrained by workplace policies that prohibit her from dating you or she may have a personal boundary about doing so (she does, after all, hold a position of professional authority in relation to you).
You won’t know either until you find out. I suggest you ask her on a date without specifying the day or time or occasion, so you can avoid the uncertainty of another impossible-to-interpret “I’d love to but…” scenario. Just tell her that you think she’s great and you wonder if she’d like to go out with you sometime. She’ll either say yes or no or okay, but only as friends.
I agree with your counselor that light and easy is the way to begin—with her and with any woman you ask out—even if you have to fake it for a while.
Which happens to be precisely what Cary Grant did.
He wasn’t born a suave and bedazzling movie star. He wasn’t even born Cary Grant. He was a lonely kid whose depressed mother was sent to a madhouse without his knowledge when he was nine or ten. His father told him she’d gone on an extended vacation. He didn’t know what became of her until he was well into his thirties, when he discovered her still institutionalized, but alive. He was kicked out of school in England at 14 and by 16 he was traveling across the United States, performing as a stilt-walker and acrobat and mime. Eventually he found his calling as an actor and changed his name to the one we know him by—the name your counselor invoked because it’s synonymous with male charisma and charm and fabulousness, but he was always still that boy inside. Of himself Grant said, “I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person. Or he became me. Or we met at some point.”
I suggest you take that approach, honey bun. It’s not about becoming a movie star. It’s about the down-in-the-dirt art of inhabiting the person you aspire to be while carrying on your shoulder the uncertain and hungry man you know you are. Your longing for love is only one part of you. I know that it feels gigantic when you’re all alone writing to me, or when you imagine going out on that first date with a woman you desire. But don’t let your need be the only thing you show. It will scare people off. It will misrepresent how much you have to offer. We have to be whole people to find whole love, even if we have to make it up for a while.
I remembered a younger version of myself as I pondered your letter, FOATM. I recalled a time fifteen years ago, when I was sitting in a café with Mr. Sugar. We’d only been lovers for a month, but we were already in deep, thick in the thrall of the you-tell-me-everything-and-I’ll-tell-you-everything-because-I-love-you-so-madly stage, and on this particular afternoon I was telling him the harrowing tale of how I’d gotten pregnant by a heroin addict the year before and how I’d felt so angry and sad and self-destructive over having an abortion that I’d intentionally sliced a shallow line in my arm with a knife, even though I’d never done that before. When I got to the part about cutting myself, Mr. Sugar stopped me. He said, “Don’t get me wrong. I want to hear everything about your life. But I want you to know that you don’t need to tell me this to get me to love you. You don’t have to be broken for me.”
I remember that moment precisely—where he was sitting in relation to where I was sitting, the expression on his face when he spoke, the coat I was wearing—because when he said what he said it felt like he’d scooped a hunk of my insides out and shown it to me in the palm of his hand. It wasn’t a good feeling. It had never before occurred to me that I thought in order to get a man to love me I had to appear to be broken for him. And yet when he said it, I recognized it—immediately, humiliatingly—as true. Like truly-uly true. Like how could I have not known this about myself before true. Like what hole can I go and die in now true. Because here was a man—a good, strong, sexy, kind, astounding, miraculous man—finally calling my bluff.
You don’t have to be broken for me.
I didn’t have to be broken for him, even though parts of me were. I could be every piece of myself and he’d love me still. My appeal did not rely on my weakness or my need. It relied on everything I was and wanted to be.
Yours does too, sweet pea. Bring your needy self when you go on that next date with a potential lover, but bring all your other selves too. The strong one. The generous one. The one who became fatherless too young and survived a war and lost one lover to cancer and another to the challenges of a decade together, but came out wiser and more tender for it. Bring the man you aspire to be, the one who already has the love he longs for. Play every piece of yourself and play it with all you’ve got until you’re not playing anymore.
That’s what Cary Grant did. The lonely boy who lost his mom in the fog of his father’s deceit found himself in the magic of wanting to be. His name was Archibald Leach.
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