Talk to me #4: Vincent Lam

Feb 4, 2016 by

Talk to me #4: Vincent Lam

Where you learned to love. I first learned about love as a child from my own parents, before my earliest memories. I am still learning as a husband, a parent, and as part of a family. While the word ‘love’ may make people think of romance, and that is one important dimension of it, love is intrinsically linked with safety, acceptance, and care. We learn about it from the moment we are born.

Your first cut – was it the deepest? In high school, I often cycled in the Gatineau hills near Ottawa with a few classmates, including a girl whom I had a crush on since junior high. Following a beautiful girl on a bicycle has a powerful effect upon the male adolescent psyche. I was pretty fast on my first road bike, a yellow Bianchi, but she explained to me that she considered me a ‘close friend.’ She was dating a guy who was in college, who drove a Ford Bronco. I graduated from high school and got over it.

Your love who got away. No one who mattered got away. On my first date with the woman who is now my wife, we went to hear the Toronto Children’s Chorus, and I knew I wanted to marry her. I told her this shortly afterwards, probably on the second date. She found this assertion intimidating. It took me several years to convince her that this was actually a good idea, but she didn’t get away.

Your “type” – and why. I am drawn to a woman who is intelligent, strong in her convictions and actions, and who is both brave and kind enough to be within a relationship with an open heart. My ‘type’ is a woman who is multilingual and comfortable in many cultures, is intellectually curious, reads novels as well as non-fiction, rides a bicycle, is a smarter doctor than I am, a more patient parent than I will ever be, is willing to learn to downhill ski as an adult for my sake, and is better looking than me. This is asking a lot. It’s lucky I found her.

Your favourite literary romance. The Lover – Marguerite Duras.

Your thoughts on friends being lovers. This is the only possibility for lasting intimacy. I am married to my best friend, who is also the most wonderful lover I have ever had.

Your thoughts on the net amounts of pleasure and pain. These are both powerful sensations. Superficially, it would seem that human beings seek pleasure and avoid pain. Pleasure is good and pain is bad. It turns out that it’s not so simple. Pain cannot always be avoided, whether in life or in love. Pleasure can prove shallow, and in this it may contain its own flavor of sadness. Pain can lead to insight, acceptance, and forgiveness. Pleasure does not always provide the deeper human satisfaction that we need as soulful beings. Agency is important. I sometimes choose to ride my bicycle until my entire body hurts, inviting the pain of this experience for its intensity, and its completeness within the moment. Some people do this in sex, and I understand that impulse. Pleasure, if it is simply taken, can be hollow – while pleasure that is offered with love, can be transcendent. So there is no net amount in my view. These are dynamic forces.

Your story about unrequited love. See above. I have been left with an aversion to Ford Broncos.

Your favourite author/artist on love. Gustav Klimpt.

Your reconciliation of the domestic and the erotic. It is important to schedule the erotic, otherwise the quicksand of the domestic takes over. Scheduling in advance also builds anticipation, which is hot. Candles are good – firstly, because they cast a soft light and warmth, and secondly, because they offer little enough light that one can ignore the chaotic state of one’s home.

Your thoughts on marriage. I only know about my own marriage. For my wife and I, marriage was an expression of our love, and we were very excited about getting married. However, in retrospect, I don’t think it changed things between us to any huge degree. We met when we were fairly young, grew into adulthood together through our 20’s, and within that time we became married. We got married because our relationship had certain qualities, not in order to transform the relationship. To be married was to make the implicit into the explicit.

Love changes when you have children. Having children challenged everything I knew about love. As a childless, married couple neither my wife nor I ever felt particularly disrupted in terms of our daily existence. We were two autonomous beings sharing a life. You don’t have to give up much to be married to a wonderful person. The arrival of a baby smashed the simple teeter totter of our life as two adults. Time, energy, attention, and personal freedom were strained. Each partner’s actions or lack of action as a parent impacted the other parent. Allowing one’s partner to have a degree of independence suddenly meant doing child care. Caring for a child can be an expression of love for the parent and love for the partner, but also a source of resentment towards both if one gives up too much of one’s own freedom and sense of one’s self as an adult.

With a child, love becomes a triangular mess. The best possibility is if the parents can come together and engage in parenting as an act of shared love, creating a domestic environment together that nurtures their growing children. This sounds nice and cozy, doesn’t it? It is quite hard to achieve.

It is not all bad. There is a territory of human knowledge that I believe comes only from being a parent, and is one of life’s greatest gifts. As a parent, one builds the framework of love that one’s children will inhabit for the rest of their lives. It is as small children that we all develop our beliefs regarding the extent to which we are worthy of love, and under what conditions. These pre-conditions, largely acquired unconsciously in a time before our earliest memories, dictate much of our own search for affection in our adult lives. If children do not learn that they are worthy of love, they may shut it out for a lifetime. It may feel safer to reject the possibility of emotional harm that comes with emotional openness, if one acquired the deep belief as a child that one is not deserving of love.

As a parent, one travels into new layers of understanding of one’s partner, of shared love’s imperfections and its depths. One only understands the love of one’s own parents, once one has brought children into the world. The flip side to the disaster of generational trauma is the generational nourishment of love.

Your thoughts on resisting temptation. Temptation is a strange thing. It grows stronger with resistance. It may also do so with the fulfilment of its demands. So, better to neither resist, nor fulfil temptation. To do either is to give it the importance of a compass when it is more truly like the wind. Acknowledge it, and find a better guide.

Your advice on breaking up. I don’t know much about it.

Your lessons from love. Imagination is key. Imagination, as infatuation, propels people towards love. Imagination, with its close sibling curiosity, causes two people to explore one another. Imagination, as empathy, is at the core of forgiveness. Imagination, of the beloved as one’s true home, allows for distances to be bridged. Imagination, as hope, allows two people to be brave enough to build a life together. Here’s a practical tip: When you are upset with your partner, imagine them as a small child. Not the late night tantrum throwing version. Imagine them as the being which remains at each of our core from the moment of our arrival onto this planet until our death; a child vulnerable, watchfully expectant, seeking a place in this world.

Your greatest regret in love. There have been times when I took it for granted. There were times when I did not realize the great gift which I was being given. I have been guilty of being distracted by the world – by work, money, ambition, and other distractions. There have been moments when I failed to recognize how quickly time passes, and how crucial it is to be engaged in the present, and with the love with which one is blessed. Life passes quickly, and love is one of its best parts.

Your thoughts on infidelity – one night stand, fling, or affair. I think that infidelity often comes out of a person’s desire to escape a conflict, disappointment, or empty space within their life. The fantasy of infidelity is that an erotic connection outside of ‘real life’ will compensate for these negative emotions. It doesn’t work out. The most intimate quality between partners is trust. Infidelity involves the deception of the actual partner. Deception compromises trust. So, infidelity usually has a way of looping back and leaving a person more empty, conflicted, and disappointed with themselves than at the start.

Your feelings about the existence of a soulmate. For a pair of people who start with some compatibility and are willing to travel together through joy, love, and pain, I think it is possible to grow ever closer towards being soulmates. The notion that there are pre-destined soulmates who will immediately fit one another perfectly, like two pieces of a puzzle that have simply been separated, is false. It is also a tragic fantasy. Someone who believes that the perfect person is ‘out there’ and all that is required is to find this pre-ordained person, may discard one relationship after another, always in search of this perfect, pre-formed match. In doing so they will not be able to travel the real and sometimes treacherous journey with the person who could with time, effort, and mutual risk-taking become closer and closer to being their real soulmate. A gap between human beings always exists, but with effort two people can always grow closer.

Your ideal love: madness or redemption? My ideal love is recognition: of the other, of oneself. To seek only the madness of infatuation, although it is intoxicating and exhilarating, is to never progress into the deep, meaningful love that can come from recognizing the humanity of one’s partner. Redemption is a tricky word. I do not subscribe to the notion that one person can supply another with a compensatory element to make up for losses, regrets, and pain. However, recognizing another person as being worthy of love along with their blemishes and flaws, and being recognized through love as the messy amalgam of beauty and frailty which I think describes most of us, can be profoundly nourishing. I would prefer to call it recognition than redemption.

Your advice on making love last. Again, imagination. To me, the most important form of imagination is empathy. The most challenging application of that is forgiveness. It is comparatively easy to make a relationship work when there is attraction, shared adventure, and mutual support. It is far more difficult if there is conflict, inattentiveness, or betrayal. When you are both having a great time, it can be a lot of fun even if each person doesn’t bother to imagine the other person’s perspective. It is when things are rotten, that the ability to view a situation through the lens of another person’s emotions becomes crucial. It may be really difficult to be empathic if one’s partner is the focus of one’s own pain. This is a key for making love last.

Imagination also means taking in and including the other person’s dreams, challenges, and successes in one’s own priorities. It means trying to figure out how to live one’s own life as part of someone else’s. It means imagining what one might do to help them, and to make them feel cared for. It means asking for what one wants, and taking the risk of imagining that one’s partner will be willing to listen. It means being grateful for small kindnesses, embracing moments, offering love without conditions, and taking the leap of faith that all of this matters. It means day by day, figuring it out.

If it sounds as if I ‘know’ all of this, do not be fooled. Let me assure you: when it comes to love, working on it is the normal state of affairs. More important than thinking is the doing. I am still figuring it out and trying my best.


Interview with Vincent Lam. Copyright © Vincent Lam 2016, used by permission of the Wylie Agency (UK) Limited. 

Learn more about Vincent on his website here.

Dr. Vincent Lam is the winner of the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the author of The Headmaster’s Wager.

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