01.02.2004

Soulmates For Ever?

The belief that each one of us has a predestined soulmate is a sustaining rock for so many on our journey through life. an idea enshrined in Richard Bach's autobiographical novel The Bridge Across Forever. But as Christopher Kenworthy has discovered, unquestioning acceptance of a soulmate for life comes at a price.

The belief that each one of us has a predestinedsoulmate is a sustaining rock for so many on our journeythrough life. an idea enshrined in Richard Bach's autobiographicalnovel The Bridge Across Forever. But as ChristopherKenworthy has discovered, unquestioning acceptance ofa soulmate for life comes at a price.

If people believe in anything, they tend to believein soulmates. In an age when absolute beliefs are rare,this is quite surprising. If you ask people whetherthey believe in God these days, the most popular answerseems to be, "Well, I believe in something, not exactlyGod, or the man with the beard but some sort of natureprinciple. But I don't believe in Hell." Vague religioussensation is far more common than atheism. One belief,however, is rock solid in all segments of society. Askpeople what they think about soulmates, and an enormousnumber will reply, "Yes, I believe that. Everybody hassomebody."

There are many who don't believe in such a convenientlyhappy ideal, who may say, "I don't believe in perfectpeople, everybody has faults." This is certainly true,but those who believe in soulmates suggest there isn'ta perfect person, but somebody most perfect for you.Whether this is true or not, it's a comforting thought,which could explain the popularity of the belief.

It would be a cynic who suggested that the beliefin soulmates is only for the single. There are happymarriages (legal and otherwise), and it is possiblefor people to stay together in something that couldbe regarded as happiness. Is that destiny at work, oris it hard work that makes it your destiny? People insuccessful relationships rarely cite passion as thedriving force that makes them stay together. More oftenthey are likely to explain how compromise and considerationdo the trick. Importantly, though, they often do seepassion as an important ingredient. "It's fuel. Evenwhen the desperate feeling's gone, the fact that ithappened is important. If you were always just coolfriends, it wouldn't mean as much." So said a correspondentin an internet newsgroup describing her happy marriage.These newsgroups are replete with the lonely and thedisillusioned wondering, respectively, how to meet peopleor whether they should stay with somebody who mightbe 'wrong' for them. This, of course, is because mostpeople can't help but believe there's somebody meantjust for them.

If you study myths, particularly Western myths, yousee that romantic notions have been around for so longit would be impossible to summarise their origins withany hope of accuracy. In literature and art, the ideaof an ideal person has been unshakeable for centuries.

"Did you ever get the feeling you were missing somebodyyou'd never met?" Those words, on the back of RichardBach's autobiographical The Bridge Across Forever, ledmany people to hope that somewhere, a soulmate was waitingfor them. Even without Bach, the belief seems extremelywidespread, with films, books and songs paying homageto the romantic ideal of a perfect person. Bach's novel,though, was a guiding light, particularly for the NewAge community, almost a manual on how to find your soulmate.

A pilot-turned-author, Bach found himself an overnightmillionaire in the '70s, when word of mouth supportled to his novel, Jonathon Livingston Seagull becominga bestseller. He was still flying around in the AmericanMidWest on an extended holiday quite unaware of hissuccess, when he found out his bank account was overthe million mark. Jonathon is a fantasy, with mysticalovertones, which essentially says 'Find out what youwant to do, and do it no matter what'.

A few years later, he wrote Illusions which took theidea further, suggesting that whatever we hold in ourminds can be attracted to us. Bach took the myths ofNew Age culture, and made them seem real, by tellingstories. Despite his folksy writing style, his bookssold in huge numbers all over the world.

This popularity created an audience keen to receivehis wisdom, whatever the subject. The earlier booksessentially primed them for Bach's thoughts on love.The Bridge Across Forever has affected millions of readers.Just look at the reader reviews at Amazon.com, and yousee that people are not just inspired by his books;they are changed forever. Although The Bridge AcrossForever was sold as fiction, there were clear indicationsthat this was 'a love story', and many people assumedit was true. Bach has since said that it contained 'alot of non-fiction', and leaves it at that. For readersthough, it told a story they wanted to hear. Two people,feeling alone, misunderstood and on the verge of cynicism,discovered they were soulmates. In the early '80s, Bachmarried Leslie Parish (a minor American actress), andthe readers were overjoyed.

The book has inspired many because it is one of thevery few books to be so openly hopeful about somethingthat is so commonly felt. Everybody wants to believetheir soulmate is out there, and this book proves it!After reading it, you no longer feel such an idiot forharbouring such romantic notions.

Bach published a few more books, ostensibly cowrittenwith his wife, (although she wasn't credited on thecovers). In these were admissions that he and Leslieargued. At the time, readers felt this was a worthyconfession, rather than any indication of long-termproblems. Of course, even soulmates fight, and theyshould be able to deal with that better than anybody.Most readers assumed Richard and Leslie were livinghappily ever after. The bombshell came more recently,when Richard Bach announced on his (now defunct) website,that he and Leslie had divorced. After 21 years together,it was all over. Soulmates, we were now told, weren'tmeant to be together forever.

To millions of readers this was the most shockingnews they had ever heard. If this sounds like hyperbole,just look up the words 'Richard Bach divorce' on the'net, and you will see hundreds of miserable and confusedposts. A belief, close to a religious certainty, hadbeen shattered. The one love story that gave peoplereal hope had ended in divorce. Of course, there aremillions of love stories, but this one was supposedto be true, and it was a story about soulmates ratherthan mere relationships. I clearly recall a friend holdingthe book up at a dinner party, as evidence that hisbelief in soulmates was justifiable.

Following Bach's confession the internet went wildwith discussion and despair. In an attempt to calm thedisillusioned there were countless posts saying, "Bachisn't a Messiah, you don't have to follow him. It doesn'tmatter what happened to him." But there are hundredsmore in which people use the word 'confused' as muchas any other. "I'm with my husband because of that book.What are we to make of it now?" said one.

Understandably, many readers were annoyed to havebelieved him in the first place, and they respondedwith anger. This could be why Bach shut down his website.People said he had led them to believe a lie. They feltcheated. "How could he be so arrogant to make this claim,"one reader said. "He and Leslie even toured America,lecturing on soulmates, then they wrote a book, andnone of it was true."

Rather than making excuses, or even providing fullexplanations, Bach has simply said he and Leslie wanteddifferent futures. "When a marriage comes to an end,we're free to call it a failure. We're also free tocall it a graduation," he said, but that is little comfortto those who changed their lives because of his book.

There is an irony here, because despite Bach's insistencethat he not be worshipped - Illusions is a story aboutthe danger of taking people's claims too seriously -readers have tended to do just that and treat his ideasas gospel.

Even so, there came another shock when Bach announcedhis remarriage, within a couple of years of his divorce."It just reminds you that there's no certainty," saidone reader, posting on the internet. "You can't everassume that everything's OK anymore. We don't know whatwe're meant to believe."

This lament sheds light on why the belief in soulmatesis popular, and potentially destructive; it offers afaith in destiny that might preclude responsibility.If you believe somebody is destined to be with you,it might be easier to treat them badly, knowing theywon't leave. Or, you might be in a perfectly good relationship,but allow it to be damaged by doubts that it isn't 'theone', rather than making a positive effort to improvewhat you have.

Although this is true, it could be said that the beliefin soulmates is simply an idealised version of a reasonablehope, or at worst, a biological drive. Perhaps the bestthing we can learn from this episode is to trust ourown feelings. For some this means still believing inThe Bridge Across Forever, even if Bach no longer does.

"I liked that book because it resonated with whatI believed," said one correspondent wisely. "That doesn'tmake it a bible for soulmates. I'm sad for Richard,but it doesn't change anything for me. I hope one dayI meet somebody I like, and we'll go from there."

Perhaps the most positive news comes from anotherreader who says, "Soulmates never come along when you'relooking for them. It's one of those cosmic laws. Butgiving up is so difficult. Richard might just have madeit easier for us. And maybe now we'll concentrate moreon getting a relationship right, than trying to findout whether it is right."

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