Freedom Without Fervor

January 10, 2022 / Elain Yao

There is maturity and growth to be found in both independence and vulnerability.

To hold your own pen above a blank page hurts, especially when it’s always felt as if someone else has been writing for you since birth. In my pages, scrawled in his handwriting, were lessons told to me by my father. These truths became the building blocks of my moral compass, and for the majority of my childhood, I accepted my father’s advice without protest. However, out of years’ worth of parables and personal experiences uttered to me in car rides home and at dining tables, there was one lesson in particular that never stuck:
Love exists, but don’t depend on it.

At the age of 17, I nearly believed my father’s words. Spring had left me rancorously heartbroken by a boy who lied through his teeth and paid little mind to others, and I soon entered a busy summer with a bitter and guarded heart. My desire for a relationship appeared to vanish completely, but during one humid evening at a research camp hours away from home, it found me. Love in the form of a towering dark-haired boy. Although we had already known each other from high school, it was the first time that we engaged in deep conversation. Under the night sky and its blanket of stars, I noticed his kind and receptive nature towards everyone, including those closest to me. His gentle giggles and tender smile seemed to warm my increasingly cold demeanor. Out of fear of being hurt once again, I despised him at first, but with each laughter-filled conversation and stolen glance during the morning hours in a dining hall or a coffee shop, a part of me softened in a way that it hadn’t before. It came unexpectedly, and slowly, then all at once, I fell at its feet.

Our friendship blossomed into a long-distance summer love. We spent countless nights talking until 4 a.m., and despite the miles that stretched between our homes, our infatuation with each other flourished this way.

Love exists.

I’d only had the chance to see him once more before reuniting for our final year within the brick walls of our high school. Suddenly, time no longer slipped by just for us. Responsibilities and prying eyes poured into our daily schedules like flooding water into a sinking ship, and I began to feel the weight of my future forcing me out of my ethereal affair. Aside from the lunches at school and never-ending conversations at home that I enjoyed with him, I spent many evenings avoiding the clutter on my desk and the pileup of tasks in the back of my mind. Lying on my bed without bothering to change out of the clothes I wore earlier each day, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much I’d changed since that spring.

Before my first heartbreak, I was happier and more confident. Nothing seemed to scare me back then, but now, things were different. Something in me shifted, and I was sure it had been for the worst. Despite the assurance my boyfriend gave me about our relationship, I was still terrified that he’d turn out like the boy before him. I was also fearful about whether or not our romance would interfere with my academics. While everyone seemed to have everything figured out for themselves, from college majors to careers, I was struggling. No one around me seemed to experience the same internal conflict.

Even during the lively Friday nights spent with those closest to me, I felt out of place. All of our views on love tremendously differed. Where one friend did not mind the idea of becoming a single mom later in her life, another was completely uninterested in committing to something long-term. Both prioritized their careers and education above all. I often found myself searching for consolation in my boyfriend but stopped as soon as I remembered that this battle was not his to fight.

— but don’t depend on it.

The concept of love had always been explored only within the shelter of my what-if fantasies. Loving a real person was different. With every argument made over petty comments or my insecurities about our relationship, doubt crawled underneath my skin. I pondered what life would be like if I just called it quits. Many times, I replayed my father’s words over and over, using them as a reminder that maybe this was not the right time for love. I convinced myself that I had full control over when I could finally embrace romance and that I was wasting my time by not choosing to end our relationship as soon as possible.

But beneath the heaps of my father’s parables, and my own sour experiences, I could not seem to end things. A part of me felt unashamed of embracing passion and encouraged me to move along in pursuit of a balance between my future aspirations and my relationship. Although my anxieties surrounding love constantly overwhelmed me, I knew that I could not avoid it forever. What happens when you open the door and hang up your coat after a long day of work? It whispered to me at night. Who will greet you when you crave a world outside of your career?

With a leap of faith, I made it to where I am now: someone who ventures more confidently through life — and is still with her gentle giant. Although I have yet to learn how to fully embrace the duality of being career-driven and relationship-focused, the past two years have shown me that there’s power to be found in trusting my own decisions. If anything, love has anchored the parts of myself that I could not on my own.

If you asked me if there is freedom without fervor, my answer would be no.

But freedom within? Definitely. ■

by: Elain Yao

layout: Jaycee Jamison

photographer: Kim Pagtama

stylists: Eileen Wang & Livia Blackburn

hmua: Zimei Chang

models: Jane Liu & Kristy Thai
Elain Yao
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