“I think there’s a difference between loving the idea of someone and actually loving who they really are.”
– Elizabeth Burke, White Collar
Season 1, Episode 14, “Out of the Box”
It being the month of Valentines, what better time for talking about love, eh?
When Elizabeth says this, she is talking to her friend, a dashing young rogue with a silver tongue, quite popular with the ladies. She has a stable, lasting marriage with a wonderful man, while he has rarely ever known anything stable in his life, especially in a romantic relationship. Due props, though, he spends the entire first season of the show pursuing one girl whom he cares for deeply, wanting to protect her and run away with her. However, now that he has what seems to be a golden opportunity to do just that, he calls Elizabeth and asks how she knew about her and her now-husband. What was it that told her, “this is the man to marry,” out of all the men out there?
This quote is her answer, and it is very wise.
The indication here is that she didn’t fall for the idea she had in her head of the man she married. She fell for the man himself, both his strengths and weaknesses, his virtues and flaws alike. She came to know him as he really was, which, as the man is a paragon of simple sincerity, was probably not too difficult.
As for her friend, who wants to run away with the girl of his dreams, there is an element there that something about her still is a dream, still something in his head that isn’t quite real, and will always be beyond his grasp. That is soon proven in the most tragic of ways, and for the rest of the series he is unable obtain, or become, much more than a dream with any of the women around him. The last romantic interest he has, especially, is entirely built upon ideas that hide who the woman really is.
I could probably write an essay on the contrast between ideas and reality in White Collar, but to stay on point here, I see something particularly profound and relevant in what Elizabeth says.
How many times has it happened that someone has not been who we thought they were? How many times has it happened that a son or daughter or friend has been someone entirely different for a long time, something worse that we have failed to see? How many times has it happened that a man has spoken charming words, whispered honeyed flattery into a girl’s ear, and turned out to be a monster beneath a mask? How many times has a woman been idolized and pursued by many, only to be revealed as some vain, shallow, vicious creature? Heck, take your pick for how many idols and celebrities have been admired, even adored, by so many from afar, but have actually been terrible people beneath a shiny, thin veneer.
My point is, it is an entirely common mistake for us to make, to have this idea of a person in our heads, but for the actual person to be very, very different from that idea. We confuse the two and become devoted to who we think they are without actually seeing them.
To care about them, to love them, rather than some ideal image of them, requires keeping our eyes and our minds open. It requires time and communication. It requires actually getting to know them as they truly are, both the good and the bad alike, without excuse or exaggeration. And all of that requires looking past all the excitement that someone might make us feel, be they a celebrity, a son or daughter, or someone we find especially attractive.
Speaking personally, I have not that much experience with love and romance. I do, however, have some experience with choosing poorly. I cared very much for a woman who was not who I thought she was, and I ignored every warning sign to that effect. Looking back, I can hardly believe I was so stupid, but I was. I had an idea of this woman in my head, and I wanted that idea so badly that I blinded myself to the truth.
By same token, I think I have also been the one who was poorly chosen. That was by a different girl, and the last thing I would ever want is to be the wrong guy for a genuinely wonderful young lady, but it seems that I was. She liked me, a lot, but I failed to be what she needed, and what she already thought I was. My only comfort is that this was a fairly brief relationship, from which I believe she moved on and found much more happiness. I am glad for that.
So I suppose what this all boils down to, a week before Valentine’s Day, is just a bit of advice:
Be certain your Valentine is a person, rather than the idea of that person.
Be sure, as sure as you can be, that it’s real.