As I’ve said before, given that ‘love’ is in the title of my website, I’m kinda contractually obliged to write about the subject when the month of February rolls around. And it’s one I’ve written about a lot.
But I confess that it’s been a subject that’s been playing on my mind recently. One I’ve actively wrestled with over the last month.
I’m lucky; I know that I’m not the only one who struggles with this aspect of the human experience. I’m in the middle of reading Sharon Salzberg’s wonderful book Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. With its first section (Beyond the Cliché) on self-compassion and self love, its second (Love as a Verb) on connection in relationship, and its third and final section (The Wide Lens of Compassion) bringing love into how we engage with the world at large, it could have been written with me in mind.
And Robyn D Walser’s beautiful chapter “Love and the Human Condition” (in a different book, which explores the subject through the lens of positive psychology and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), has reminded me that love involves ‘staying with‘ in “places that are uncomfortable, not easily shared, tainted with shame, humiliation, or embarrassment, and perhaps filled with pain and fear.”
In her introduction to the second section of her book, Sharon Salzberg writes, “I had a dream once, and in it, someone asked me, “Why do we love people?” Still dreaming, I responded, “Because they see us”.” It is hard not to love someone when we feel they see us.
But sometimes the imperfect person we are called to love and see clearly feels the least deserving of such kindness: ourselves.
It is this ‘staying with’ that I am being called to practise right now.
. . .
When it comes to other people, I am very lucky that I am – for the most part – able to ‘be with’ them when they’re in the ‘places’ that shy away from another person’s gaze. Love has perhaps two definitions, and the virtue version of love – of kindness and compassion, of consideration and thoughtfulness towards others in a recognition of common humanity – is where I feel most at home.
(I mentioned making a delivery driver cry last summer with my random act of kindness, right? Did I tell you about scooping up my academic mentor when she arrived on my doorstep all hurt and embarrassed from tripping up on the way to my flat, despite it being only the second time I’d met her? Will it surprise you to hear that I have a strong relational need to express love? No, I sense it will not – and it’s possibly amplified by my being a highly sensitive person, with its emotional intensity etc.)
When those I care about share with me the secrets which burden them – be they challenges in their relationships or an absence of love, childhood traumas or present-day situations previously unspoken for lack of confidante – the amount of love I feel for them only increases. They expect me to reject them, for me to be disappointed: I feel only tenderness and a desire to embrace.
But love is more normally defined as a strong emotion of personal affection and strong attachment, of an affection and tenderness between lovers; the kind of connections that perhaps speak of romance (hello February, with your Valentine’s Day shenanigans).
And this kind of love, due perhaps to the attachment aspect, can feel a less benign experience. Where there is attachment, desired outcomes can come into play and, if an attachment is unstable, such desired outcomes may carry with them a greater weight of hopes and fears. Will this person encourage my adventures, or stifle my freedom? Will this person cherish my inner child, or abandon me when I reveal my needs? And if we hold trauma: Should I love them at all? Are they safe?
These hopes and fears may not be articulated, but they can still rule from the shadows in moments of pain and overwhelm. Despair is the dog that snaps at hope’s heels. Throw trauma into the mix and, despite all best efforts to prevent it, colliding realities – complete with collateral damage – can still ensue. Those in pain cause pain: hurt people hurt people.
When the unspoken becomes unattainable, the gripping hurt of despair, of shame, of feeling disrespected, unseen, unloveable, misled, rejected, etc, often has deeper roots than the immediate branches we find ourselves caught up in.
And this, perhaps, is when ‘staying with’ ourselves in those places tainted by fear, shame and pain is the most challenging. It’s far easier to blame the other party for the situation: How can they act in this way? How can they disrespect or mislead me? How can they misinterpret what has been so self-evident from the start?
Look closer, look gently, take anger’s hand and hold it tenderly to your breast; feel the grief that wants to hide itself in grievance. Anger is sad’s bodyguard, and what can make any of us feel more sad, more afraid, more alone, than having our worst fears confirmed?
When I find myself feeling hurt by another, I’m so used to knowing that my own hand also holds the blade that I no longer consciously follow Byron Katie’s phenomenally helpful process The Work (“Judge your neighbour, write it down, ask four questions, turn it around”).
It may take me a few days but I try to lower the weapon, hoping to free both hands that I may better hold myself and another with empathy and kindness, and the truths that will start appearing, along with my knowledge of an ‘authoring self’. I know that I hold multiple selves, that each has its own truth, that these truths can be in conflict, and that my ego wants to cling to any truths where I come out with less of another’s blood on my hands.
This kind of love, this process of being with, of staying with, asks, “Can I accept the aspects of myself that another finds unacceptable? Can I accept the aspects of myself that I find unacceptable? Is love available, even here, for the self who feels hurt, who fell apart on impact, whose fragments flew like shrapnel, and who has hurt or harmed another? Can I love myself and love them, too?”
It is a tall ask. As I say, it is easier to offload our pain and disappointment onto others – succumbing to the attribution bias that sees another’s mistakes as a reflection of their character, and our own failings as a reflection of our circumstances.
But this ‘staying with’ offers a path, a way of being with the hurt, the shame, the pain.
And eventually, quietly, allows a space for the knowledge that, after everything else is lost, only love remains.
Photo by Pixabay