For better or worse, we live our lives in tandem. Our culture demands we place others before us and insists that love is the coveted object, our reason for being, the only way we thrive.
Once we have it, we’d do almost anything to keep it. Hence the recipe of which we’ve been speaking, but love doesn’t have to be toxic. Relationships don’t have to fade to complacency. We don’t have to muddy the water with compromise or rip each other to pieces with needs unmet, desires unexpressed, truths untold, and power upsets. We can love with clarity, passion, and honesty if we try.
Unfortunately, we use the word love carelessly – attributing value to people, objects, and events as if the word made them something more – but love is not gold. It is not rare or ornamental. It is the stuff of bonds, the fabric of thrill, the conviction that we belong in this world. I can have love. I can be love. I can give love and receive it because love is both noun and verb. It is mountain and river. It is sun on the shore.
Love is what, why, and how for most of us. It keeps us going, keeps us breathing, keeps us aching and reaching and giving of ourselves. It skews our motives, realigns our priorities, and knocks us off balance because we’re taught to value it above all else. In consequence, we are easily confused, often misunderstood, and regularly lying to ourselves. For love to work, we must clear the air.
I consider myself a generous, caring person. In most instances, this is something of which I’m proud. However, my generosity is a character trait rooted in an upbringing not of my choice. Consequently, it can be obligatory or manipulative and that is a flaw.
I gave Steve a massage when he needed it. That felt good. I gave a felon a chance and he stole from me. I felt betrayed, but still glad of my action. I gave one of my sons a precious afternoon to be a sounding board and felt deeply fulfilled. I let another borrow money, even though he didn’t pay me back the last time, and felt ashamed and angry.
My generosity can’t be blind. I must question what I’m giving, to whom, and why. There are no wrong answers, but I need to understand my motives so I know what I’m giving to myself when giving to others. Are my actions truly generous, or are they toxic? Am I giving to get, to be liked, or because it brings me joy? Am I giving empathy, sympathy, or apathy and why do I make this choice?
In my business, I have a 100% return policy, no questions asked. This policy has served me well because it gives customers confidence to buy. Rarely, someone will abuse my policy and return something that has obviously been used or abused. I don’t bat an eye. My customers believe they have good reasons for returning something and often do. However, when they occasionally take advantage of me, they’re not happy, but feel it’s a necessity. Once, a customer suffered a financial setback and returned two items because she needed the money. The items had been washed, neatly folded, and placed in a bag with their tags as if brand new. She blushed returning them and apologized profusely. Later, when her finances stabilized, she came back and brought a friend. Together, they spent a lot of money.
I gave her a refund on items I couldn’t resell to cement her loyalty, but the gift was more than a financial decision. It was an acknowledgement of our mutual humanity. If I never saw her again, I would have been comfortable with my choice. The little bit of money I lost saved her shame, anger, and embarrassment. That alone made it worth it.
When I loaned my son money, however, I did us both a disservice. He is just learning to be an adult. By loaning the money, I enabled him to shirk his responsibilities. In addition, asking for and accepting money from mommy can be humiliating for grown children. In the short term, he needed it. In the long run, he resented me for it and I resented the fact that he didn’t pay me back again. I should have been stronger and held my ground, but when I really looked at my action, I realized I gave to him to stay important to him and that was wrong. Had I been honest upfront, I would have known that giving to him in that instance was disrespecting both of us.
I love my sons. I am thrilled with who they’ve become. And yet sometimes our relationships get stuck. It’s hard learning how to be adults together, hard to know the boundaries or how to behave when we haven’t seen each other in awhile. More, no matter how old they are, they’re always my babies and I’m always their mom. These are the love lines we know, blood-etched on hearts like acid etches stone.
So, when one of my sons needs something, I can create a mess. Give for joy or give to get? Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference. Still, there is no joy in solving someone else’s problem for them. The attempt is a power grab, a way to be important. Even when the situation seems dire, if they don’t fix it themselves they’ll repeat the pattern. I know this and yet I keep making the same mistake because Love, that big, capital L word, screws with me at least some of the time.
I love you.
I’ll do anything for you.
You are my world.
What you want, I want for you.
What you need, I’ll try to provide.
I’m here for you.
You can count on me.
We’re in it together.
I love you more than life.
Ah, the catch phrase, the lover’s sound bite. The deepest truth and boldest lie. We feel all the things we say, mean them even, but the action associated with the words dissolves everything for which we strive. Love is not a catchall or a sound bite. It is courage personified even as it evokes generosity and demands trust. For without courage, love can petrify. Brene Brown says, “Courage gives us a voice and compassion gives us an ear. Without both, there is no opportunity for empathy and connection.” Without empathy and connection there can be no generosity or trust. Understanding this, and acting upon it, is what keeps love alive.