“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. Always.”
The Dalai Lama
Last summer, I developed my personal “commandments,” as part of an exercise in exploring my own values and guiding principles in life. I set an intention for 2019 to be a year of aligning my spending with my values, so I think it is past time for a deeper exploration of each commandment and how it plays out in my life. Today, I’ll explore what I mean by “Choose Love.”
Of all my commandments, this is my most cliché , which makes it very difficult to write about in a meaningful way. Love is the most amazing, reverent, spiritual power in the universe, but it is also the basest of animal instinct and biological urges. The word is fraught with levels of meaning that often contradict each other.
The same word somehow conveys what a mother experiences as she smells her newborn’s head that is suckling milk from her own body, the idolatry of being a “fan” of something, the concept of forgiveness and kindness from a divine presence in a variety of religious traditions, and the sexual, adolescent urges leading to a spiritually pure transcendence of Shakespeare’s Juliet. That one idea serves for all these human experiences seems wrong. Yet, somehow, “love” remains the exactly correct word for all of these emotions and revelations.
For the first half of my life, I thought of love as a response to situations. This is not because I was particularly selfish and unloving–it is because I was a child. A child, while naturally loving, is best suited to receive love–from parents, teachers, and friends. In fact, if a child does not experience love, it might suffer for much longer than childhood. Love is a need for children. Thus, in my early, attention-seeking, need-driven years, I experienced great pain at the loss of love. I viewed it as something others must bestow upon me if I was worthy; that I felt unloved implied that I was unworthy.
And many adults view love in this same way, although perhaps more positively. How many people believe that love is something that happens to them? That it is simply a natural feeling, so there is no need to tend or care for it–simply to give it and to receive it. The problem is, especially for children who grew up feeling deprived of this need, is that it is not always so simple to give love or to receive it. That feeling of “unworthiness” persists in me, making it difficult to believe the loving gestures and comments given to me. Furthermore, there is a paradox where the more you give love away, the more you get in return; however, often the people who are most desperate for and needing of love cannot give it first.
As I became an adult, I began to view love more responsibly and more complexly. My students in my first year of teaching, who I loved deeply and who changed my life, told me that they thought I hated them. That was the first time I recognized that the impulse and feelings of love are not automatically sent to the recipient–that expression of love by the person who loved mattered just as much as feeling. I couldn’t just feel love for the people in my life–I had to show them I loved them through my words and actions.
I also began to understand how your mind can influence your feelings. I experienced severe depression from early high school through a few years after college, but one of the most effective treatments I found for myself was that acting as if I felt a particular way caused me to feel that way. For example, if I got a party invitation and told myself I didn’t want to go because I was too tired and anxious, I became tired and anxious so that even if I went to the party, I hated the experience. If I caught myself before I went down that path and told myself I enjoy parties and like to dance and my friends would be there, I went and had a great time. (I am by no means discounting therapy and medication as treatment for depression–both of which I have used multiple times in my treatment of my mental health.) I began to see through my romantic relationships that it wasn’t as simple as “falling” into and out of love–that love over time required a bit of mental olympics to convince yourself you still loved your partner on days you felt unloving. I think that’s what people mean when they talk about “work” in a marriage.
There is immense power in viewing love as something that is a decision to be made every day.
Choosing love matters the most in my most personal relationships–as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister. Because of my WASP-y upbringing, it is easiest to take the deepest love for granted and behave in unloving ways towards the people I love the most (criticizing them, ignoring them, disrespecting them). I work on this because it is cultural and not universal. Plenty of cultures find it easy to freely express affection and love for the people closest to them and to maintain thoughtful, loving attention with the people you feel safe around. I remind myself of this as often as I can and try to see the holiness in expressing love, giving love, and choosing loving feelings.
However, I also try to choose love in my life. I try to assume if someone treats me poorly that there is a reason for it I cannot understand, not just that the person is a “jerk.” If someone has a different opinion than I do, I try not to just assume they are “wrong,” but that they have come to that decision through their own experiences and understanding of the world. I try to learn from them, not just expose them to what experience/reading I think they “lack” to make the “right” decision. This is not easy. It is not easy for me to respond with love to men who equate (or even elevate) their fear of being accused falsely of sexual misconduct with the fear women experience of sexual assault. My experience as a woman and 25+ years of reading and research into this area tells me what is true, so the recent armchair politics on Facebook and Twitter to the contrary smart. Responding with love is a distinct choice, but it is vulnerable in precisely an area that makes me feel uncomfortable with vulnerability and exposed every day. I don’t judge people when they lash out under similar circumstances, but I try not to do so. That’s why love is not always a simple choice.
Love is also not simply letting other people do or say whatever they want. It’s not loving to be a doormat. Love is compassionate concern for another person. Elie Wiesel wrote that the opposite of love isn’t hate–it is indifference. That stuck with me.
One of the most difficult practices for me is to choose love for myself. Don’t get me wrong–I am often selfish and egocentric, as are all humans–but prioritizing yourself is not the same as loving yourself. Self-respect is not the same as self-esteem. I work on this every day.
Do you believe in choosing love? How do you practice love or lovingkindness? Do you think love is worthy and important? Start a discussion in the comments. Or just send love along to someone who needs to know you care.