"What is the meaning of life?"
"What is truth?"
"Is there a God?"
"Am I single because of bad timing, or do I just suck?"
That last one is frequently phrased as "destiny or free will?" but we all know what they meant.
And I don't have an answer for you. I studied computer science, not philosophy. I think it is possible that all philosophical questions basically boil down to questions about love, and I can't answer any of them. My algorithms are useless here.
When in doubt, fall back on math. In a philosophy of love I'm just playing the odds: if it is all a matter of time then I don't need to do anything; if it is all up to me then I better get to work. Making my self somehow more awesome wouldn't stop fate, so just in case I could find something that I'm not entirely awesome at and improve.
For example, flirting. The other day, at the bus stop, there was this cute guy I really wanted to talk to.
Bus stop guy: Good morning!
Bus stop guy: Pardon?
Jen: (laughs awkwardly)
Bus stop guy: Lovely weather we are having, isn't it?
Jen: Oh, yeah.
No, really. That's exactly what I sounded like.
I was trying to be all witty and articulate, but while I was talking there was this whole tape running in the back of my head with a second-by-second critique, plus at the same time the thirteen-year-old girl inside of me was squealing, "OMG he's so cuuuuuuute!" The end results was me saying everything simultaneously.
Mmm, yeah. A possible area for improvement.
So just in case my eventual marriage hinges on me actually exhibiting some social skills, I headed to the nearest bookstore chain and made a beeline to the Love and Relationships aisle. I was ready to solve this problem like the foxy-hot geek I am. By throwing books at it.
There were more than enough options, including three about "rules", a series involving increments of time ("Get married in 90 seconds or less"), several titles including the word "secret", and one requiring that I exhibit "radiant purity".
It's an opportunity for science!
I picked a dozen books, read them in a weekend, highlighted the important parts, used color-coded sticky notes to flag the themes across the collection, and wrote up a summary for myself. I considered laminating it, but decided that would be overkill.
The upshot of my research was this: there were lots of logical, simple things I could do to be better at talking to guys. So many things, in fact, that if I tried to do all of them at once my head would surely explode. But no problem: I can handle this.
I chose one behavior that all of the books mentioned: people like you more when you smile at them when you greet them. Makes perfect sense. Well within my current capabilities. It was just a matter of demonstrating the behavior with greater consistency.
I decided on a plan: while walking my dog after dinner that night, every time I walked past someone, it didn't matter who, I'd smile at them. If they responded in kind, I might follow up with some socially appropriate vague comment about the weather, an item of their clothing, or a local sports team. At the end of the walk, which would take approximately 20 minutes, I'd analyze whether I thought smiling had influenced how the subjects had reacted to me. Perfectly reasonable. If it did work, I might extend it to other, more demanding situations like parties, or even dates.
With scientific inquiry on my side, off the dog and I went, and frankly I was a little nervous. I normally consider myself a confident person, so naturally when I am having a non-confident moment I berate myself until I'm hiding under the table.
Oh, crap. First subject. A woman walking a Chihuahua. I decide as a warm-up, I'll smile at the dog instead of her. The dog seems unperturbed, so I count this as a success.
Second subject. Deep breath. An older man walking slowly. As we approach, I watch him, make eye contact, and…smile. He looks a little surprised, but smiles back. Hey, that wasn't so bad! Plus I probably made a lonely old man's day, since he looked so surprised to be treated with kindness by a stranger.
Third subject. A woman about my age, listening to her iPod. I adopt a casual manner, as if I'm just walking down the street with my dog, then as she comes in range…eye contact…smile…success! She smiles back as well, with a gleam of delight in her eyes, if I do say so myself. This is going great! I'm a natural!
Fourth subject. A man in a Mariner's jersey proclaiming him to be Ichiro. (I'm fairly sure he isn't actually Ichiro.) I'll up the ante here and actually speak. Coming in range…eye contact…smile…"Ichiro!" I say, giving a thumbs up. He laughs and gives me a thumbs up as well, "Yeah!"
Clearly, I'm awesome at this. The rest of the walk continues to be one stellar encounter after another. Kid on a skateboard. Smile. Woman with twins. Smile. Couple taking their lattes for a walk. Smile and smile.
Then I see, headed toward me on the sidewalk, a truly demanding test-case: a guy, my age, who is totally my type. I can do it. I can do it. I will make eye contact. I will smile at him. I will speak to him about the fact that we are wearing the same t-shirt. It's fate! I can do it. I can do it. "Heyyyyy," I say, "Nice shirt!"
The universe holds its breath, then…the guy smiles. Ear to ear no less, with a bit of a chuckle.
I am a rock star of social interaction! I could write these silly books! I'll have a boyfriend by the end of the week with these skills!
I practically skip the rest of the way home. The dog can hardly keep up with me. By the time we unlock the door, I am nearly glowing with pride at my heretofore unknown prowess in winning over the masses. This dating thing will be easier this time. With a little practice, I'll get better and better. My own little self-improvement project. I'm in such a good mood that I leave the dog at home and head off to the grocery store, where I decide I'll continue to Smile For Science. Smile at the guy who plays harmonica for spare change. Smile at the girl restocking the flowers. Smile at the deli clerk.
"Hey, Jen," I hear behind me.
"Hey! How are you?!" I say. It's an ex-coworker of mine that I haven't seen in a few years. I'd always thought he maybe didn't like me much, but there he was: talking to me in front of the deli cold case for twenty minutes. About his job, his new bike, my garden, my dog. Perhaps we'd always been friends and his standoffishness was just my imagination, born of a lack of self-confidence. Perhaps I'd always been good at this, but had only been doubting myself.
Self-improvement, indeed. Here I was, thinking that I needed to read a dozen books on how to talk to guys, and my only problem was self-doubt. No secret here; this is a problem which, since it is all in my head, can be solved the instant I wish.
When I returned home from the grocery store, I had self-confidence like a philosophy major with straight As.
To give myself the benefit that everyone else was enjoying, I flip on the bathroom light and turn to the mirror to give myself a stunning smile. "Hey, there gorgeou--"
What. The. #%$*.
I lean in to the mirror, to make sure my eyes aren't deceiving me. Nope, no trick of the light.
One of my two front teeth is completely and entirely covered by a piece of spinach. I look like when Marcia and Carol Brady dressed up like hobos for the school talent show and blacked out strategic teeth to look picturesque. An entire tooth! In the middle of my smile!
Instantly, my brain runs a high-speed montage of every person who had smiled at me since dinner. Every shocked, amused, puzzled smile. I thought they were friendly, but they were really just surprised to see me look like a crack whore.
Oh, god! That cute guy in the t-shirt!
And, hey! Wait a minute! I talked to that coworker in front of the deli case for 20 minutes and he didn't say anything! Grrrr.
Well, let's review the experiment. I smiled at a dozen people. They all smiled back. It is unclear whether my smiling at them made them like me more, due to the influence of a leafy confounding variable. Experiment would need to be repeated at a later date.
And one thing I'm sure of: that guy in front of the deli case? Not a friend, no matter how friendly he'd seemed. Because forget dating-- I'll tell you my philosophy on how to be a friend. A friend would have shoved his pointy finger right in my face and shouted, "HOBO TOOTH! HOBO TOOTH!"
As for the question of love being controlled by fate or awesomeness, I'm not sure. But I suspect that brushing my teeth would help either way.