I asked three questions to my favourite thinkers and they replied

Q.1 How should I approach an interesting woman?

Ghalib: There is no clarity in your question. It appears that you are idealizing the person from a distance which could be an infatuation or a pure sexual response. Idealization makes you see only what you want or hope to see in a person. There is a verse from the Ghazal no. 33 in my Urdu Diwan that says: ‘Bulbul ke kaarobar par khanda-haaye gul // kaihte hain jisko ishq khalal hai dimaag ka’ (The roses are smiling at the nightingales’ affair, what’s called love is mind’s fever, they would not gainsay). However, it is always astonishing to see how love can strike. Sometimes your eyes meet and the effect is electric and sometimes nothing happens. Therefore, in my poetry, I have defined love again and again, so that a whole collection of couplets may signify the complexity involved. So, approach her thinking that connection is not just about being a nice person, but about the mysterious forces that defy human comprehension.

John O’ Donohue: There is a lovely disarray that comes with the attraction. A person you never knew until recently has invaded your mind; every fibre of your being longs to be closer. Despite the thousands of years of human interaction, your approach begins all anew, as if for the first time, when two people are becoming familiar. What you encounter, recognize or discover depends on the beauty of your approach. Our world full of fast communication and social media seems to have lost all sense of reverence. We seldom use the word anymore. That has resulted in the lack of quality and beauty in our experience.
Reverence is more than the attitude of mind; reverence is also physical- a dignified attention of the body showing the sacred already here. It is not the stiff pious posture which remains frozen and lacks humor and play. Reverence is respecting her privacy and recognizing the sacred zone around her. Reverence is avoiding rushed heart that lacks gentleness and patience. When your actions are full of reverence, everything decides to trust you.

Seneca: It’s a fact that your clock has been triggered. You can neither pause nor put it back. You can neither accelerate nor decelerate time. Your power lies only in misusing it or making use of it. Remind yourself when you go to sleep: ‘you may not wake up,’ and when you wake up: ‘you may not ever sleep again’. If you develop the spirit to match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, you’ll make a move and talk to her without a second thought what others might think of you. Let’s behave like a traveler who has set out too late and wants to catch up time by speeding, and put in the spurs. Remember your approach should not appear random or absurd to her because if you don’t know to which port you are sailing, no wind would be favourable.

Tolstoy: We were created to long for each other. No matter how much self-control one claims, some desires are hard to overcome. My novel ‘Anna Karenina’ in a way is also a representation and exploration of desires. When Vronsky saw Anna for the first time and noticed the brightness of glance and her smile, Anna didn’t notice anything exceptional about him. However, Anna acknowledges her love for Vronsky in a matter of days, whereas Kitty takes years to accept her feelings for Levin despite the fact she was approached by Levin in the beginning. So, when you approach don’t assume that it is not going to affect her. Always remind yourself that there is only one time that is important — and that is now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most important person is the one you are with, for no human knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else. The most important thing to do is, to do good, because for that purpose alone you were sent into this life.

Q2. What if she rejects/ignores me?

Ghalib: When she loves you that is poetic and when she does not that is poetic too. Couplet from my Ghazal 191 says, ‘Ishq par zor nahin, hai ye wo aatish Ghalb! Ke lagaye na lage, awr bujhae na bane’ (Ghalib, love’s fire, over which there’s no control, it can’t be lit at will nor put out, by trying to do). Love is not just a fancy candlelight dinner or overwhelmingly positive experience. It is something that requires patience, vast amounts of time, and lots of hard work – not least because quite often, the beloved also isn’t clear themselves about what will fulfill them the most. Love hurts because there are times when we must let go of what we’ve loved most. I also said in Ghazal 89: ‘meharbaan ho kar bula lo mujhe, chaho jis waqt, main gaya waqt nahin hun, ke phir aa bhi na sakun.’ (remember to be kind, and call me, whomsoever you wish, I am not time past, you needn’t fear, I can’t come back again).

John O’Donohue: In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. We all feel the pain of exclusion about equally, no matter how sensitive or strong you are. It is the personality trait that influences how a person copes. Celtics believe that often secrets are not revealed in words, they lie concealed in the silence between the words or in the depth of what is unsayable between two people. In many areas of lives, the rich potential of friendship and love remain out of our reach because we push towards ‘connection’ rather than communion. You don’t need to see it as some sort of competition where rejection or ignorance is like losing the game. In addition, if you believe that someone you have emotionally invested in is knowingly, repeatedly, using silence as a mechanism, you need to ask yourself: ‘Is this good enough?’

Seneca: She was anyway not talking to you or interested in you so why bother? Don’t act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire. To feel ignored or rejected may not be the fun ride, but why inflict more distress on yourself? If she responds to you kindly you get provoked by her kindness and if she despises you, your pride gets inflamed. Philosophers have often investigated whether it is better to have moderate emotions or none. Men of our school reject them. I would not like to snatch from you any emotion that you wish to have. But withdraw from the slippery slope of emotional love. Don’t risk falling into a condition that is troubled, uncontrolled, enslaved to another and cheap in our own eyes.

Tolstoy: Variables are infinite for her ignorance or rejection but accept that the depth of her soul is closed to you. However, as a thinking man you should understand that if we could more accurately see the inner life of others, they wouldn’t appear to us in a normal cold and one dimensional way. In addition, I find the idea that there is just one person in the world who can effortlessly bring you to the pinnacle of emotional, sexual and spiritual fulfillment, as foolish, as the idea of you being ‘the one’ for someone else. For example, Vronsky’s marriage to Anna was the complete fulfillment of what he had so long desired. But he was not happy. He soon felt that the realization of his long-sought desire gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had anticipated. That realization showed him the eternal error men make by imagining that happiness consists in the fulfillment of their desires.

Q 3. So, am I going to be alone forever?

Ghalib: Another verse from the Ghazal no. 33 says: ‘Sau baar band-e Ishq se azad ham hue// par kya karein, dil hi aduu hai faraagh ka’ (I have escaped time and again, from the bonds of love, what can I do, my heart refuses thein freedom to say).
Instead of distressing about life without a soul mate- I think it’s more beneficial to recognize that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be alone forever. Marriage and relationships are social customs. I got married at thirteen and my poetry is enough to suggest that you may not share your whole life with just one person and would fall in love again and again.
What makes a poet different from the ordinary lover is what he or she makes out of their emotions. I am talking about anyone who knows how to make sweet melody out of their suffering in the Ghazal 71, ‘Na gul-e nagma hun, na parda-e saaz//mae hun apni shikast ki awaaz,’ (Neither the flowering of song, nor a melody flow, Of the shattering of my selfhood, I am the echo).

John O’ Donohue: It is strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you alone. A world lives within you. Try to engage with it, it can bring you freedom. I have a friend who told me about his battle with homesickness. He got desperately lonely, but instead of avoiding it, he decided to allow the loneliness to have its way. He sat down in the armchair and gave himself authorization to feel as lonely as he wanted. The loneliness poured through him, as soon as he gave that invitation to his soul, He felt like the most abandoned orphaned in the cosmos. He cried and cried. In a way, he was crying for all the loneliness that he had kept hidden. When he left the loneliness flow, let the dam burst within, something shifted in his relation to his own loneliness. So, there is no need for you to be afraid of loneliness. Allow all your worries and anxiety to be transfigured. May you be blessed with good friends! May you learn to be a good friend to yourself!

Seneca: There always seems to us something lacking, and will always seem so. It is the mind that creates anxiety and it is the mind that can relieve you of it. Therefore, joy does not come to anyone except the wise man. It is false when a poet suggests that “everything was settled in calm repose of night,” because only reason can help you to abandon your worries. Fill your life with people who will love you in a myriad of ways. No one can live happily if he only observes himself and turns everything towards his own advantage: you must live for someone else if you want to live for yourself. Those who lie around in a sluggish daze live in their home as if it were a burial
chamber. You might as well inscribe their name as an epitaph on their doorway since they have anticipated their own death. It is not years and days that make sure we have lived enough, but our state of mind. Keep Well!

Tolstoy: No man is an island – we were never meant to be on our own. The longing for the embrace of another person is part of what makes us human. When you have within you a desire to love, nothing could be stronger than that desire, because it is what men live by. The later years of my life should help you to understand that sometimes the worst loneliness of all comes when you’re in a relationship and feel utterly disconnected from your partner. The problem is that once you’ve been seduced by the idea of ‘the one’, it becomes hard to accept that you’d be happier with another one, or just no one.
I know the societal pressure to order your life per social norms but all of this might be wrong for you. Don’t spend your energy to impress people who never really liked you in the first place. Ivan Ilyich lived a life, that was ruled by social demands, by sensual gratification, by materialistic motives, and never by conscience. On his deathbed, he looked back over his life and atoned for its shallowness. His experience in death forces him to the realization that one must strive not for pleasure through self-seeking but for union through human pity and divine love. I want you to see his life as representative of all human potential if only you could wake up to it before it is too late.

Mirza Ghalib- Diwan-e Ghalib (Translation by Sarvat Rehman)
Aijaz Ahmad- Ghazals of Ghalib
John O’Donohue- Anam Cara: A book of Celtic Wisdom
John O’Donohue- Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
Seneca- Selected Letters (translation Elaine Fantham)
Seneca- On the Shortness of Life (Gareth D. Williams)
Leo Tolstoy- Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy- The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Leo Tolstoy- Three Questions, What Men Live By