I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
I’m having a hard time keeping track of the date and day of the week. The shape of my time has changed, and my life now feels uncomfortably uncontained. I no longer navigate by my old landmarks and routines.
I notice, as I intentionally reach out to friends, that our interactions no longer revolve around weekend plans, leisure activities and local events and opportunities. I want to hear their voices, talk with them, be with them, but I have no real news, nothing that seems exciting or interesting to say. We all have projects to help us feel productive and give ourselves something to focus on, but my projects don’t feel important enough to share in any detail. In fact, after the initial question, no longer a casual politeness, but THE question: How are you?—I don’t have any sparkling conversation to offer.
Not that I’m usually a sparkling conversationalist.
And what about that question? How to answer? Yes, I am well physically and grateful to be so. Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I despair. I don’t feel safe out in the world. I’m infuriated and appalled by conspiracy theories, protests, misinformation and willful ignorance. I’m anxious about the future. I’m loving being outdoors and having so much time to write. I’m horrified by the sense of inescapable slow-motion collapse that I have no power to stop or alleviate.
I love all this unstructured time.
I hate all this unstructured time.
How are you? Same, same. Same as you. Same as yesterday.
But not really.
Not really, because life is not a brightly colored video
game with music, sound effects, fast action and a replay button. We know that,
of course, but we forget that we know it as we move faster and faster, consume
more and more, racing to keep up. So many of us structure our time with various
kinds of instant gratifications, even if that’s just an alert that we’ve got a
text message or an e-mail.
Now, all of a sudden, the plug on our video game is pulled and we’re reintroduced into a slower, more natural flow and rhythm. Events unfold subtly and sometimes invisibly. Deep forces are at work that we can only intuit.
We were informed yesterday that one of our best local
long-term care facilities has a resident who has tested positive for COVID-19. Central
Maine, so far, has been comparatively lucky in terms of numbers of infections
and deaths, partly because we have a low population and are mostly rural, and
partly due to the dedicated teamwork of our governor and CDC representative. My
partner and I are very careful when we are in public, wearing masks and gloves
and observing social distancing. Many others are, as well.
Some are not.
During all those same, same days last week, coronavirus was
incubating, invisibly and silently, in that nursing home. It wasn’t identified
until yesterday, but it was there, replicating, infecting, and probably
spreading. We just didn’t know it yet.
Today, the whole facility, staff and patients, will be
tested. If there are several positive tests, we’ll have an outbreak and widespread
community transmission will have come to our small city.
I often have the thought, as I rake, help my partner stack firewood, plan for gardens, clean the bathroom, wash out a mask or cook a meal, that all this busyness is pointless. What’s it all for? Who’s it all for? What is the shape of the future?
Is there a future distinct from these times, or will we go on, same, same, day after day, until we grow old and die, or get sick with coronavirus, whichever comes first?
At this point in my thoughts, I find myself leaning on my rake, staring blankly at the next patch of ground to clear, or standing staring out the kitchen window with a soapy plate in my hands, and with a click time and I begin moving again.
I remind myself that of course there is a future. I simply can no longer predict the shape of it. I’m too small and too limited. Time, life, the cosmos, never stop. Change is always with us, but we’re not big enough to see or understand most of it, or it happens too slowly for us to discern, so we assume it’s not happening. We feel stuck in some unchanging, endless stasis.
There’s so much we don’t know. Sometimes all that we don’t
know terrifies me, and other times it comforts me.
And there are things I do know. Life is change. Change itself is neutral. We can welcome it and work with it, or we can resist and fear it, a chocolate or vanilla choice. The small choices we’re each making in this moment are shaping the future in ways we’ll never know about or understand. The future is literally built on this moment, and we all influence it.
Raking won’t fix coronavirus, or the economy, or the terrible damage our national leadership is inflicting. It won’t shape a future I can look forward to and invest in. It’s not fast and sexy and addictive; something I’ll post on Instagram or Facebook with a selfie and get “likes” or thumbs-ups or hearts. On the other hand, it makes me happy to be outside working on the land. It keeps me strong and healthy to be in the sun and fresh air. It satisfies me to be clearing the ground for mowing. It’s an activity that’s keeping me going right now, providing fuel for my love and creativity, the best offerings I can make to others and to life.
How are you, who are reading these words? Same, same, but
not really? I hope you’re well in mind, spirit and body. I hope you stay that
I’m raking and stacking firewood. I’m writing. I’m holding tight to my friends. I’m picking up seedlings, buying local eggs, transplanting a rose. I don’t know when I’m going back to work. I don’t know what work will look like when I do go back. I don’t know what my economic future looks like, or if we’ll be able to buy the food we need. I don’t know anything about the deep, invisible changes and currents that are always present in life and mostly hidden from my awareness. This day blurs into all the others since the day I stopped working. I have to look at the calendar to know the day of the week and date. I’m not even sure what time it is.
Outside my window, the wind is blowing, stirring the budding trees and buffeting against the house. Things are happening, visibly and invisibly, here at home, in the community, in the state, in the country, in the world. This day is different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be different again, in spite of this long, weary grind of being stuck at home and uncertain about everything. It looks the same as yesterday. It feels the same as yesterday. But it’s not the same.
I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.
One of the things I most appreciate about life is the
fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I
wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for
all my life.
I was wrong.
Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.
But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The
possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my
inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love
that others gave me.
You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.
Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.
In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a
manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices,
develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold
or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached
Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.
A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”
Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.
Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.
When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.
On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!
I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.
When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.
My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!
Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.
Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.
Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.
Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.
My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.
Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.
As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.
We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.