The joy and pain of longing

Elio (Timotheé Chalamet) gets angsty in ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ — film still

Maybe it was the news of Luke Perry dying at 52, or this never-ending goddamn winter, but I’ve been overcome recently with a desire to do something drastic, frivolous, adventurous. I feel an urge to escape the discomfort of my body, the constant thinking, the routine, anything unpleasant and say, “Fuck it! I’m bustin’ out of these chains.”

I confronted these feelings at an all-day silent meditation retreat I attended as part of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course I’m taking at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Spending quality time with your thoughts can be far from cozy. “Just be with the discomfort, Natalie,” a part of me said, while another part chimed in, “Screw this; who wants ice cream?” and another chided, “There’s nowhere to go from these thoughts, Nat, settle in.”

I channeled my feelings of unease towards an obsessive interest in a movie I recently saw, 2017’s Call Me By Your Name. I picked up the book that inspired the Oscar-nominated film and promptly read it in a day. It caused me to contemplate longing and obsession, the excruciating and electrifying discomfort of wanting someone or something so badly you don’t know what to do with yourself.

Call Me By Your Name is the third feature in director Luca Guadagnino’s Desire Trilogy (which also includes I Am Love and A Bigger Splash). The film follows teenage Elio (played by Timothée Chalamet), who falls in love with Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate assistant who has come to study with Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) at his family’s Italian villa in the 1980s. The film’s lush landscape, quiet pacing and palpable sexual tension between the main characters captures the beautiful pain of first love. (Some spoilers to follow.)

Elio watches Oliver dance with more than a little interest in ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ — film still

Elio spends much of Call Me By Your Name in emotional purgatory, consumed by his desire for Oliver yet paralyzed by the fear of what might happen if he acts on it. “… Sleep would not come,” Elio narrates in André Aciman’s novel, “and sure enough not one but two troubling thoughts, like paired specters materializing out of the fog of sleep, stood watch over me: desire and shame, the longing to throw open my window and, without thinking, run into [Oliver’s] room stark-naked, and, on the other hand, my repeated inability to take the slightest risk to bring any of this about.”

How do we absolve the pain of longing when the thing we long for has no guarantee of consummation or resolution? What if we can’t even name the thing we yearn for? There’s desire at the heart of longing, of course, but also vulnerability, the fear of what might happen if we act on that all-consuming, inconvenient craving.

Elio and Oliver have a months-long courtship, rife with flirtation, denial, fear, pride, jealousy and, finally, resignation to their mutual attraction. “We wasted so many days,” Elio bemoans after he and Oliver finally get together. Their relationship is everything they had hoped for and more, and yet Elio remains besotted with anxiety. Oliver must return to the States in a few short weeks; there is no hope for a happily ever after. No amount of sweeping romantic kisses in the countryside, dips in the ocean, drinks in the city and, um, peaches can quell Elio’s longing to really be with Oliver, to take their love beyond a fling.

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ — film still

One need not be a teenager to feel Elio’s pain. Repressed desire sometimes become so overwhelming we blow up our lives to recapture a feeling of freedom we miss from our youth, or some alternative, unexamined life. We might avoid, numb or resist the feelings of longing until they bursts free in ways we may not have intended, such as an affair, substance abuse or other risk-taking behavior. Both acting on and resisting desire can have a major impact on our mental health.

Mindfulness may hold the answer. The mindfulness course I’ve taken over the past several weeks (it’s brilliant, and if you have the means and time, I highly recommend enrolling), taught by Beverly Klug, has helped me work through feelings of discomfort. Simply put, it’s our natural human tendency to move away from pain and toward pleasure. But the reality of life is such that we are met with many things both pleasant and unpleasant, and I, for one, avoid discomfort like the plague.

Mindfulness is not about striving to be somewhere other than where you are right in this moment. It is about being with what is, nonjudgmentally. I’ve learned to shift from thinking to feeling, and to understand the patterns of my mind, the attachments I have to the past or present. I can sit with discomfort and know it will not last forever. With a curious mind, I learn to accept that I can’t choose everything that happens to me, or the thoughts or feelings that follow, but I can choose how to respond. I learn to discern, instead of react impulsively or habitually. I learn to stay, even when it sucks (or at least that I perceive it sucks).

Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) has a talk with his heartbroken son in ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ — film still

Elio’s lesson in mindfulness comes from his father, who sits him down for a refreshingly frank and open-minded discussion of Elio’s feelings for Oliver after Oliver leaves. He instructs his son to lean into his pain and nurse it, rather than “snuff it out.” The speech Stuhlbarg delivers deserves to be included in its near-entirety (it was adapted almost word-for-word from the novel):

When you least expect it, Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot. Just remember: I am here. Right now you may not want to feel anything. Perhaps you never wished to feel anything. And perhaps it’s not to me that you’ll want to speak about these things. But feel something you obviously did.

You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship. And I envy you. In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, to pray that their sons land on their feet. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it. And if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out. Don’t be brutal with it. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste! … Right now there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you felt.

A willingness to experience, not repress, our emotions helps us know ourselves, and know who we bring to our relationships. The final, breathtaking scene in Call Me By Your Name is a simple one: Elio, after saying a final farewell to Oliver over the phone, tearfully reflects on their romance, the camera lingering on his face for an uninterrupted three and a half minutes. Without words — but with the aid of Chalamet’s exceptional acting talent — we see him welcome and accept the pain and the joy of his desire, and be with it all.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 260.