What we got wrong about love

I don’t remember what game we were playing, or what this little boy was having a tough time with, but I remember like it was yesterday watching his father get more and more frustrated, eventually losing his temper and snapping at his sweet little boy. They were on a team and they were losing and the little boy wasn’t playing well enough–and this, apparently, was a big deal. That’s how it went in public, so you can imagine what the little boy heard every day about his worth at home. And now this little boy isn’t so little anymore, but he still says the word “sorry” constantly: any time there’s the teensiest chance that he’s disappointed anyone, made a mistake, or even just when he’s waiting for someone to be mad at him for no reason. He’s sorry for everything, because he knows–more deeply than he knows almost anything else–that who he is isn’t good enough for the people who “love” him.

 

I don’t know if you believe in a god, but I’m sure you believe in Love. I grew up believing that there is a god and that this god absolutely hates everything besides absolute perfection. Which is weird, because I also grew up reading a holy book that states, “god is love.”

This is not about whether I believe in that god anymore, or a different god, or no god.

I want to write about the impact my belief system had on my day-to-day notions of “love,” and the ripple effects that has had on each area of life.

I’m guessing I have lots of fellow humans whose unique worldview experiences or social experiences have led them to internalize similar notions about “love.” (I’ll try to sum up these love-notions a little later.) If you find that this speaks to your own experience, I’m writing this for you. And if you find that this sounds like the experience of someone you love, I’m writing this to help you understand and be with them.

What I learned about love, you can learn in lots of different ways:

You can learn it, like I did, from living in a world where everything has a specific spot somewhere between good and bad on a moral scale. We believed we had a very clear understanding of what was the holiest and most excellent way to do or say or believe–everything. It led to deep, guilty soul-searching episodes when someone would ask, “Is this the best use of your time?” Because it probably wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, you were probably disappointing god. “Best.” It’s why you had to sit with your family in church, not with your friends, because symbolically that was the most god-honoring way to do it (and, anyway, sitting with friends might corrupt you). It’s why we talked on our way home from church about how much we disapproved of those families who did let their kids go sit with their friends in church. It’s why we couldn’t play sports. It’s why we mocked people who worshiped with “shallow,” “worldly” contemporary music. It’s why I realized, as do many of the males who grow up in a similar worldview, that I was “called to be a pastor” (minister, if you’re not familiar), because even if we didn’t attach the word “best” to it, we would attach words like “highest calling.” I just know I got more attention and support for wanting to be a pastor someday than I did for wanting to play baseball. This was just the world we lived in. Doing and saying and pursuing and loving only the “best” or the “best way” was the obsession of our everyday lives.

You can also learn the same lessons about love from parents who are really mean to you. If you’re being constantly criticized, constantly yelled at, constantly mocked, constantly put down, constantly shamed–and especially constantly compared. Compared to your other siblings, compared to your parents, compared to your friends, compared to successful people on TV. Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I don’t know if he actually said that or something similar, and I know that “genius” has more than one definition, but do you sort of get it? There is a beauty and worth in every unique individual. But some of us grew up in homes or ended up in jobs where people were always mad at us because we couldn’t climb trees, but they didn’t bother to discover how well we could swim. Maybe you weren’t “smart” enough. Maybe you weren’t “athletic” enough. Maybe you weren’t “extroverted” enough. Maybe words like “klutzy” or “daydreamer” were used derogatorily about you a lot. Maybe you were happier just reading a book alone in your bed, so your family or friends called you “boring.” So you learned that you weren’t quite as worthy of love as someone smarter, more athletic, more extroverted, more fun, etc. The most deserving of love–the most lovable–are the ones who are most those-things: extroverted, smart, athletic, fun, funny, talented, “interesting.” (“Interesting” is a dangerous adjective when we use it to compare people.) Maybe you kept your version of you and you think it’s unlovable. Or maybe you fixed yourself by switching to the version of you that is all those better words like “smart” and “athletic” so that people will love you, but you don’t feel like you anymore, and now you’re training the next generation that only the “best” are worthy of love.

You can learn this dangerous version of love from being in a family or social circle that gets most of its pleasure from making fun, bullying, mocking, teasing-but-really-not-just-teasing, and criticizing others. For some, life seems to be about who we can laugh at today, who we can shake our heads about and say things like “how do they live with themselves?” or “I’m glad I’m not like them.” Humor is a complicated subject, because making fun of people who are different or uncoordinated or “dumb” or “stupid” can be so, so pleasurable. And so, so dangerous and hurtful and sad. There are lots and lots of videos on the internet of genuinely hilarious accidents and situations that people have found themselves in–harmless. And there are just as many videos of people who have found themselves in confusing, embarrassing, or frustrating situations and are being taunted by the rest of the world–not at all harmless, but so easy to laugh at. Maybe you and your siblings or friends found your identity in entertaining each other with running commentaries on the stupidity you saw all around you: Ignorant people, confused people, tongue-tied people, nervous people, lazy people, vain people, “fat” people, “ugly” people. The world was about judging others. Happiness was found in making fun of a “stupidity” that thank god you didn’t share. And now what you know about love is that love is for the “best” ones, the “good” ones, the “talented” ones, the ones that won’t be the butt of a joke.

You can pick up these dangerous notions about love from growing up in a home where everything is about being wealthier than the rest of the world, more successful, more academically inclined. You find that you don’t fit into this world, so you are less lovable. Or you find people in the outside world who don’t fit into this world, so you can’t love them as much.

In the end, this idea about love that come with words like “best” and “worthy” and “disappointing” and “different”–these ideas can come from worldviews and experiences that put any different version of “best” on a pedestal: Religion, morality, health, sports, money, intelligence, style, popularity . . .

And this idea is sometimes imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of hate. But they’re also imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of love. “I want the best for you, so I will protect/teach/push you by . . .”

 

In a nutshell, this damaging notion about love that so many of us have learned is this: Love needs a reason.

“I will love you if . . .”

“God loves you if . . .”

“I will be disappointed in you if . . .”

“You’re stupid if . . .”

“I will be so proud of you if . . .”

“You’re my favorite because you . . .”

“I love you because you are the best at . . .”

“I will support you if . . .”

“I will disown you if . . .”

And it sometimes goes one step further. “Love needs a reason, and each reason falls somewhere on a scale.”

“You’re the most . . . in the family.”

“You’re so much smarter than . . .”

“You’re so much more beautiful than . . .”

“You’re not as . . . as you used to be.”

“You’re not as . . . as she is.”

“You should be more . . .”

“If only you could . . .”

“I would love you more if you were less . . .”

 

I honestly think this idea matters a lot. It’s such a deeply rooted part of what love and worth mean to so many of us, and it has real and sometimes very sad effects.

Deeply internalizing the idea that your own or someone else’s worthiness of love is dependent on where they fall on a scale of worst-bad-good-better-best impacts our mental health and our relationship with ourselves. It impacts how we feel about entire people groups and the world as a whole. It impacts how we bond and interact with our social circles. It impacts our relationships–especially our closest ones. And it seriously impacts how we experience all the little (or big) things in life, like art and adventures and cups of coffee.

 

There are a lot of personality traits that society has largely endorsed as “better” or “normal.” I think that collectively we are slowly getting more accepting about these things, but generally, being “not normal” in certain ways comes automatically with a feeling of “bad.”

Deeply introverted people and people with sensory processing sensitivity can find it difficult or impossible to function in many settings. If I’m such an introvert that I literally can’t even process the fact that you’re loudly saying words directly into my face in a crowded restaurant, I very likely feel a lot of shame for being this way. Like I’m letting you down. If that’s you, maybe your parents told you that you had a bad attitude or only cared about yourself, or your friends told you that you weren’t any fun. Or maybe they all said “oh that’s okay that you’re introverted,” but you could tell for sure they actually meant “we can put up with this, but you’re definitely not our favorite.” Either way, at least until recently, introversion has been treated like it’s a bad thing and introverted people have often been left feeling misunderstood, lonely, ashamed, and “less than.”

Until very recently, if you were attracted to someone of your own sex, you were likely completely rejected by family and friends. Or maybe you were “accepted” but like in the “isn’t this amazing that we still accept you???” way that makes you feel just as rejected. Sexual orientation had such a central spot on the bad-worse-worst scale in the world I grew up in that I remember one time being told not to use the word “homosexual” because “it’s so evil it shouldn’t even be named.” So many people have accepted the message that they are less worthy or unworthy of love because of their sexuality.

Any and every kind of “fitting in” is so important to us that we reject the parts of ourselves that don’t match the “normal” we see around us. We learn to be embarrassed about making unusual life choices. We get self-conscious about being “different.” We try to reshape every unique part of ourselves until we can feel like one of the “normal” people. I love singing, and sometimes I quietly sing in my office. On self-conscious days I don’t let myself sing, and that’s sad. On days I embrace my “weird,” I get to enjoy that part of me. Another not-normal thing about me is that I have a really hard time understanding teasing. Very often I hear things as really serious (or at least seriously passive aggressive) that were meant as affectionate teasing. This is a noticeable enough part of my personality that for a while it became something I felt very embarrassed and ashamed and guilty about. Like I was defective.

We all have unique us-things that aren’t normal-things. And if we learned that love needs a reason and that love needs the best reasons, our unique us-things leave us feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, and lonely.

So “not normal” equals “bad.” But it’s more than just that. We have legitimate “weaknesses,” or aspects we identify in ourselves as areas where we want to grow or change–even if we know it’s “normal” to have these weaknesses. An internalizing of the “you-have-to-be-worthy-of-love” message means that we equate having these weaknesses with the generic label of “bad.” If something about me frustrates myself or causes stress for my significant other, that makes me “bad,” or at least it is a “bad” thing about me. And that is very sad, and it means you probably can’t love and accept me, and so I feel helpless and vulnerable and threatened and unlovable.

Weaknesses aside, even my strengths and my accomplishments and my good-things have to be the best! One of the most common phrases I remember hearing growing up was, “Is that really the best use of your time?” And that question lodged deep in my psyche. As an adult it has left me dealing with chronic tension and anxiety about doing all the best things, making all the best choices, “redeeming the time” as I learned to call it. It meant that relaxing was bad. It meant that getting lost in a story for the story’s own sake wasn’t worthwhile. It meant that playing video games with friends was a waste. And even as my values and beliefs changed, the old “bests” were simply replaced with the new “bests,” and I began feeling guilty for going a day without learning some big thing or without writing or without going to the gym. Every choice and every day has to be the “best.” My whole life has to be the “best,” so the idea of a career where I’m not making this huge impact on the lives and hearts of so many people was just not acceptable so I never bothered to look into acting even though deep down it was like my favorite.

Perfectionism. Workaholism. Obsessive dieting. Over-commitment. Dissatisfaction. Competitiveness. Fitting in. Stoic toughness. All these ways we are compelled to tirelessly grasp for “best” so that we can be happy with ourselves and so that others will be happy with us. That’s a lot of “best” to keep up with, especially because we never quite think we’ve reached it.

 

This subtle idea that love requires a reason affects how we see the broader world, too, from humanity as a whole to specific people groups. People who “talk that way” or “dress that way” or “spend that way” or “think that way” or “look that way.” People who struggle, people who “fail,” people who are vulnerable, people who need help, people who are “different.”

We alternatively fear and scorn “those people.” Democrats or Republicans. Immigrants. “Blacks” or “Mexicans” or “Middle Easterners.” Men or Women. Boomers or Millennials. “Filthy” rich. Homeless. “Fat” people. Sensitive people. Dreamers. Network marketers. Christians. Atheists. Parents. Politicians. Auditors. Celebrities. Rednecks. Rebellious teenagers.

We find a label that we’ve experienced as somehow “bad” or “less than,” and we assign it to a group of people we don’t know–humans just like us deep down–and then we get to hate them, reject them, make fun of them, mistrust them, attack them, write them off, bully them.

The idea that some groups of people are less lovable because of who they are or what they’re going through is the very antithesis of compassion. We mock and make fun and build walls and forget that all these people are just humans who, like us, at their core are just vulnerable souls in need of love and support.

 

Love needing to be deserved impacts our own social circles, too. One way I’ve noticed I carry with me this only-love-the-worthy-ones baggage is through my deep down gut reactions to people who hurt me and let me down, even in little ways. I’ve noticed that I learned a tendency to see only one or the other: someone that doesn’t hurt me and I love them, or someone who hurts me and I hate them. There’s no room for people that I love and also am mad at sometimes, because once they’ve hurt me they’re “bad” and it’s simplest to just reject them and move along. Either someone is the “best” or they are unsafe. Only the “best” are safe.

Sometimes it’s not about safety, sometimes it’s just about preference and popularity. We learn socially to accept and appreciate and embrace and follow and enjoy the “best” people, and neglect the “less-thans” out there. It’s why even in many social groups that try to be built around “love,” like some churches, the “odd” people–the socially awkward or the mentally ill or the addicts or the handicapped–are left out of the cliques. We gravitate toward the people whose style and company we consider the “best,” and we happily leave the “odd” ones to fend for themselves.

This perfectionist view of love also tends to really rub other people the wrong way. When I take issue with everything that isn’t quite perfect–when I always, always, always point out the errors or the weaknesses around me and look for reasons to criticize every single thing–well, it’s just not how to win friends and influence people. My accepting and loving only the “best” things doesn’t work for my friends.

 

Perhaps most sadly and painfully, this idea that love needs a reason can slowly erode your relationships–especially your closest ones.

Back to the idea that “not normal” equals “bad.” Nobody will get to know your significant other better than you will. And you won’t get to know anybody else in the world as well as you know your significant other. Which means that you see the “not normal” highlighted in your significant other so much more closely and loudly than you see the “not normal” in other people you like and look up to. And when some of those “not normal” things about your significant other start to get under your skin–which, for the record, being annoyed can be completely understandable and healthy–it is so easy to forget that your view of your significant other is what it is only because of your vantage point. When you compare your significant other’s insecurities to your other friends’ insecurities, your significant other loses this comparison. When you compare your significant other’s anxiety or mood swings to the anxieties and mood swings you’ve seen in other people, your significant other loses this comparison. Every “imperfection” you see in your significant other, you see so much more closely than you see it in anyone else. And that can eat away at your feelings of love and acceptance and patience and compassion. You can become frustrated and quite understandably discontent. You can feel panicky and stuck. “Other people don’t seem to have this problem. If only I could be with other people.” The reality is other people do have this problem and other problems, you just see your best friend’s “bests” and “worsts” from a front row seat.

In the context of people needing to be worthy of love, realistically recognizing your best friend’s imperfections means you have found a “problem,” and instead of love there is doubt and fear and mistrust.

As compassionate and accepting as you determine to feel toward you significant other, whose insecurities and weaknesses you get to know so deeply–if you have internalized the lesson that you need a reason to love someone, you will find reasons not to love. And you will experience times where you have lost sight of reasons to love. And in those times, if your love for your crazy best friend has to “make sense,” you won’t be able to find it.

Chances are you’ll be right about your best friend being a little heavier on the weaknesses than a few other fantastic humans you’ve met. When you fell in love with your best friend, they were “the best person in the world.” But there’s a good chance that someday you’re going to come across someone that you see as “better.” Maybe a new person has those characteristics that attracted you to your best friend, but even more strongly. Maybe your values have changed as you’ve grown and this new person’s compassion or their healthiness or their ambition is more attractive to you than your best friend’s.

In a world where you’re supposed to save your biggest love for the people who have (in some arbitrary way) earned it the most, best-friend kind of love and safety and togetherness and got-your-back-ness doesn’t work.

Flip the roles for a minute. Your partner fell in love with you “because of your ambition” or “because of your sense of humor.” You know there’s someone with more ambition than you, or someone a little funnier. But you need your partner to still love you anyway. What you really need is to just be loved for you. No matter how you compare to the next person.

There’s nothing wrong, I’m sure, with being attracted to someone’s traits and strengths and accomplishments and style to the point that you “fall in love.” Love has reasons. I just think love can’t totally need reasons. Because there will always be a “more reasonable” person to love, but humans were made to provide love and safety for each other–and not just for the “best” each-others.

Love needing a reason–love needing the best, the most worthy-of-love things to love–is a fragile, hurtful, loveless love.

 

Beyond our relationships with ourselves and others, being obsessed with comparing lovableness and worthiness and good-better-best-ness just practically drains life of its zest.

The world is full of magic. But we miss most of the magic when we obsess over the “best,” when we only love the things that “deserve” to be loved.

We scroll and scroll and scroll through Netflix looking for the-just-right TV show with it’s just-right humor that will put us in the just-right mood that we felt that one “best” time. (And, of course, we land on The Office and commence our thirty-fourth rewatch, because, despite all I’ve written so far, if there ever was a “best” and “most-worthy-of-love” thing to be exclusively embraced, the Office is it. Or maybe just because “favorite” is okay, too.)

We stress and stress and stress over our choices, desperately needing to make sure we’re making the most right decision that will lead us to the most happiness.

We criticize most things because they’re not the best. We’ve seen better.  Besides one, every single cup of coffee becomes “not the best cup of coffee.”

We mostly notice the “dumb” parts about each movie we see, each song we hear, each painting we look at. Because we’ve become wired to “discern,” to have “high standards,” to seek the best of the best of the best. Always. So we criticize almost everything in the world. All things but the best things are unsatisfying.

Once, when I was a teenager still living in a culture defined by a comparing/earning version of love, something struck me. And it’s a little dorky, like debate-kid-argument style dorky, so bear with me. This worldview of “god-accepts-only-the-very-best” and “only-the-most-excellent-is-pleasing” that I had grown up with, applying it so faithfully to each and every activity and choice in everyday life–its logical conclusion can only (and quite absurdly) lead to a world where we sing one and only one “hymn” to worship god–whichever we discover is the “best,” the most “beautiful” and “pleasing” to god. We’d only read one book, the best book. We’d only ever spend time with one friend, the best friend who had the most positive influence on us. Of course, this was absurd. Which meant, of course, that this notion of love and worth that I had grown up with was not an actual thing. It didn’t work. It wasn’t life. Life is bigger and broader, beautifully diverse and colorful, and full of countless uniquely lovable people and songs and places and styles and tastes and stories and choices and relationships and expressions.

The “best” just isn’t important. It’s not really even a thing.

 

Can I ask you a question? Like a real, honest, uncomfortable, stop-and-think question. If you learned this lesson about love–that love needs to be earned, that the biggest love is reserved for the best people and the best things–how has this impacted your life? What words of rejection have you said to yourself because you aren’t good enough? What harsh judgments have you caught yourself making because those people have problems? Who have you treated as less-than because you genuinely thought that’s how it worked? How has this fragile “I’ll-love-you-IF” and “You’ll-love-me-IF” version of love left you and your closest person in the weak, vulnerable, nitty-gritty-real-life moments? And do you ever wish you could just like things?

 

Could we give up this broken notion? Relearn love?

What if you just loved people and things . . . . . . ? (Like there isn’t more to that sentence.)

Maybe love doesn’t need a reason.

No, let me try that again without the watering down:

Love doesn’t need a reason.

 

My best friend and I used to ask each other all the time, “Why do you love me?” And that can be a very fun and encouraging and celebratory question to ask and answer. But often I was unnerved when the answers were less along the lines of “because-you’re-the-best-at . . .” and more along the lines of “I-don’t-know-I-just-do.” I couldn’t retrace the exact path it took for that answer to go from my least favorite to my most favorite. But it’s there now. Sure, I feel loved “for” being kind. But I also feel loved “for” being anxious now, too. And best of all, I feel loved “for” just . . . being me. No reason. Just love.

 

tl;dr version: Love doesn’t need a reason.

Anatole France - love without reason

Love is it.

It’s a new year, and I’m sitting at a coffee shop thinking about what I want to do as a writer this year. I want to grow. I want to get better at writing. I want to make more of an impact. I want to take it seriously. I want to chase the dreams I have about it. But what do I want to write about this year?

Impact. Significant impact. I want to write about something that has significant impact. That’s my dream. I see a world full of mind-boggling wealth and full of cold, starving, sick, and homeless. I see news stories about people shooting people. I see vicious arguments between people who just think a little differently. I see so many turning blind eyes to people who are suffering. I see abuse. I see people being shamed for being themselves.

What heals all this?

I guess that’s a lofty goal.

What heals some of this, then?

I think it’s really good to learn about communication. It’s really good to learn about relationships. It’s really good to learn about teamwork. About motivating and inspiring people. About mental health and well-being. About vulnerability. About honesty. About happiness. About strength. About psychology, the brain, the heart. Those are all big things.

But if I had to pick one thing that I could inspire people about in my life? One thing to show, to make okay, to spread, to advocate, to learn, to be an example of, to share, to celebrate–one thing with which and about which to make an impact?

I keep coming back to LOVE.

I didn’t used to. It was too broad, too obvious, too cliche, too already-been-done.

But I think I notice, every single day, the impact love makes in this world–and the impact made when love isn’t there.

Abuse. Greed. Addiction. Taking advantage. Neglect. Poverty. Violence. Loneliness. Bullying. Cruelty. Hunger for abusive power and control. Fear. Brain-washing. Shame. Low self-esteem. These are a few of the things that happen when love isn’t happening. And these are a few of the things that need love.

Love, as a subject, has definitely been talked and talked and talked and talked through for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s nothing new.

It’s also a pretty simple thing, I think. Yeah, how it ends up looking and feeling in each unique life is a pretty complex and difficult and scary and weird thing. But love is a simple enough concept. Simple enough that it doesn’t take much to share it, to spread it, to advocate for it.

So if it’s so simple and so already-talked-about, why keep coming back to it? Because we’re humans. And humans need a lot of inspiration, a lot of patient reminders, a lot of help, a lot of love.

Many things about our world make love very unsafe. All kinds of love–intimate couple-love, family love, friend love, stranger love, all-the-world love. Our experiences make love unsafe. Our fear makes love unsafe. Others’ reactions make love unsafe. Society’s expectations make love unsafe.

So despite how much we all know the deep importance, the centrality of love–we need to hear it again, see it again, feel it again, talk about it again, try it again. Every. Single. Day.

There are so many voices around us and in our heads and in our pasts and in our fears that drown out love. So there’s no such thing as spreading love too much.

It’s been striking to me lately how much everyone knows the solutions. We live in a smart age, a knowledgable age. Everything you need to know is at your fingertips. There’s no reason for there to be so much hurt and ugliness every day all around us. Everyone knows better. Everyone can do stuff to help. Everyone can stop doing stuff to hurt. From casual little interactions to big government policies and business decisions–people can choose to do the good thing–the love thing. But every day people don’t. And we’re left with a lot of ugliness in the world.

I don’t think the problem is that people need to know all the strategies and all the statistics and all the skills and all the ideas and all the answers. I think mostly people need to choose love. And to choose love, people generally need to feel love. And to feel love, people need you and me to get genuine and vulnerable and expressive and kind with them. You and I need to love.

Love has the biggest impact.

 

This isn’t a new thing. It’s timeless.

“Where there is love, there is life.” – Mahatma Gandhi

“God is love.” – John the apostle

“Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.” – Buddha

“Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.” – Ray Bradbury

“Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.” – Khalil Gibran

“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.” – George Sand

“The only thing we never get enough of is love; and the only thing we never give enough of is love.” – Henry Miller

“Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. It’s worthy of all the hullabaloo.” – Cheryl Strayed

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him.” – Viktor Frankl

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“All religious institutions, despite different philosophical views, all have the same message: a message of love.” – Dalai Lama

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” – Lao Tzu

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” – Jesus

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” – Maya Angelou

“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” – Oscar Wilde

“Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.” – Victor Hugo

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.” – Sophocles

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama

“. . . but the greatest of these is love.” – Paul the apostle

“Love the whole world as a mother loves her only child.” – Buddha

Love is timeless. And that means it is very much a right now thing.

Every day, love.

Most of all, love.

 

I think love really is the biggest thing.

 

P.S. Honestly–I challenge you to remember love every single day this year. And when you remember it, give someone a smile, text someone what they mean to you. . . . Love is powerful.

Victor Hugo - nothing in the world but to love

Monsters until you flip the light switch on

Andrew Gide - Very few monsters warrant the fear we have of them

~

Happy Halloween!

What or who did you think was a monster until you flipped your light switch on?

 

When we think that a thing is dangerous, unknowable, or scary, and we try to not look at it, it stays scary. It’s why, as kids, we think the stuffed animal under our bed or the shirt in the closet is a monster. They will only stop being scary if you flip the light switch on. And only when they stop being scary do you find freedom.

Fear of vague unknown potentialities keeps us from chasing our dreams. Fear of who-knows-what a bully might do if you upset them keeps us from sticking up for ourselves and others. And the fear from seeing someone in your life as a monster to be afraid of, instead of a person to decide what you think about, keeps you stressed and nervous and sometimes even paralyzed.

 

Monsters are scary. When you see the world as one big monster, your dreams are scary. When you flip the light switch on and see that there’s really a lot of good happy safe stuff in life, and that everything is usually okay, the scariness fades away and you find freedom to do what you want to do.

Monsters are scary. On the other hand, flesh-and-blood people you decide that you don’t like or don’t want controlling your life are not scary. They stop being scary when you look at them in the light, look at them honestly, look at them plainly. Most people who have scared you are just people. You sure don’t have to like them, support them, or keep them around. But if they’re keeping you up at night or controlling your feelings, flip the light switch on and see them for who they really are. They are not monsters and so they don’t have any mysterious power over you.

 

I have found a lot of freedom in trading away the monsters I thought were waiting under my bed, for normal life stuff, and for finite, human, limited people who couldn’t really control me.

If you think you, too, might find some freedom in flipping your light switches on, go for it! All the stuff that scared you is normal to someone else. And all the people that you thought were monsters, who you thought you had to be scared of, whose power you thought would affect your whole life–they’re just people. You can choose to stop seeing them as scary monsters. You can be free from the fear.

You can find the courage to choose what you want.

To a little kid, little hurts are big and real

I want to speak up for a group of people that can’t really speak up for themselves. A group of little people. People who don’t get taken too seriously when they speak up. Because they’re “just” little kids.

(Hey you, if you saw this title and clicked on this post because you were excited to shame someone you know, to make them feel bad for not having “parenting” figured out, or excited to attack anyone, really, please just skip to the P. S. at the very bottom.)

I’ve looked for the words for this for a long time, sat on a draft for over a year, because I actually think this subject matters a lot, but I probably don’t know enough about it and definitely won’t do it justice. But I guess it matters enough to say it anyway–at least this morning it does.

 

Bradford was a sensitive little guy, maybe 6 years old. He had the cutest little dimples and the sweetest laugh. I remember Bradford’s face when someone poured water over his head one time. It didn’t seem like a big deal to the adult who poured water over his head, but it was a big deal to Bradford, and he cried. A lot. I don’t think that makes what the adult did bad. But I think when Bradford starts crying, that matters. I think when Bradford starts crying, it’s time to hear Bradford’s feelings, to care, to see him as a human with valid experiences and needs.

The problem is I think we very frequently discount all those experiences and needs, because Bradford is “just a kid.” So we laugh awkwardly about it when Bradford is crying–silly Bradford. He’s just not emotionally tough yet. He’s overreacting. He’ll get over it. It was pretty funny.

Grace is the youngest in her family, still young enough that her little big feelings aren’t too consequential for the grown ups in her life. So when Grace gets to orders onion rings, and saves them for last, and then begs her dad not to eat her onion rings, and then cries when he eats them anyway–this is all pretty insignificant. Grace, after all, is just a kid. She will get over it. Onion rings aren’t something to cry over.

There’s a little girl I know who has such a big heart and big smile, and those come along with big feelings. She is cute as can be, and like any toddler, she is learning how life works. A while ago I was watching and listening to her do and say something just outrageously adorable. Like, she doesn’t even know. And it made the grown ups around her proud. Made us laugh a beaming-affectionate type of laugh. But the little girl saw us laughing, and she suddenly got quiet. She looked very worried. It wasn’t fun anymore. Why were we laughing at her?

 

Trying to predict the feelings and reactions of a little kid is about as difficult as it is to predict the feelings and reactions of “grown ups” like the ones you work with. (Let’s be honest.) So I don’t fault anyone who unintentionally makes a little kid feel sad, scared, embarrassed, or picked on. It’s going to happen.

I do, though, care a lot about what happens when the little kid starts feeling sad, scared, embarrassed, or picked on. When their smile fades and their eyes start filling up.

 

When Bradford is an adult, I don’t think he’ll care as much about water getting dumped on his head. When Grace is an adult, she’d probably just buy herself her own onion rings and not let people steal them. And when that little girl watches videos someday of her adorable two-year-old self, I bet she’ll smile and laugh, too, self-consciousness gone.

But the fact that they’ll grow up not to care as much about that little thing doesn’t make their feelings now unimportant.

Really, what is the difference between a child feeling hurt and an adult feeling hurt? Why do we have to be considerate of the feelings of an adult, but not of a kid? Why do we have to be kind and respectful to an adult, but not really a kid? Time? Age? Do those change the value of the hurting person? No, I think when we think really honestly and carefully about this, the really big difference is that the little people can’t stick up for themselves. It’s okay for adults to tease and laugh at little kids for being weak and vulnerable. It’s okay for adults to be thoughtless or unkind to little kids. It’s okay because the kids will grow up and . . . not have scars? No, it’s okay because the adults are in charge.

Lots of times, adults absolutely care when their little one starts crying–here’s to you, that can be an exhausting job! But sometimes, it’s just that adults don’t care when something ends up hurting their kiddos. For some parents, it never ever matters what their kid “wants.” And I think more frequently than we’d like to admit, adults actually get to be downright mean and inconsiderate to their little kids.

I want to say this, but I want to say it carefully: Little kids learn big lessons about the world from their little big feelings. When their tears are funny to you, they grow up knowing that. Even worse, when their tears just have no significance to you, they grow up knowing that.

I want to say that carefully, because “they’ll have scars when they grow up” is only part of the reason little kids’ feelings matter. Someone’s future feelings shouldn’t really be a necessary motivator for valuing their now-feelings. People just matter. People’s hearts matter. Feelings matter. Whether those now-feelings are felt in 6-foot-2-inches of body or “just” 3-foot-9.

 

I know 3-foot-9 feelings can be unpredictable or irrational. But that’s really no excuse to write them off, because 6-foot-2 feelings are also unpredictable and irrational. (Have you met grown-ups?)

And I know sometimes, no matter how angry or sad or hungry or not-hungry or definitely-not-wanting-to-wear-pants your little kid is in the moment, you have to get them in their car seat, they have to swallow some nutrients, and they cannot watch TV all day. So they’ll cry, and even if you love them and value their feelings, you still have to take good care of them, and you still have to keep your sanity. More power to you, moms and dads, because I can’t even imagine . . .

But when I grow up, I’ll remember if you at least cared to not let my tiny heart be broken unnecessarily. I’ll remember if you ever accepted or affirmed my emotions. I’ll remember if you thought they were funny or annoying instead of real. I’ll remember if my feelings never matter.

And honestly, that should matter before I grow up, too.

So remember to put yourself in your kid’s place, sometimes. To imagine what their feeling. To listen to what they’re feeling.

 

I’m no expert. I’m not a developmental psychologist. So maybe I’m wrong.

But I was “just a kid” once.

 

“Children’s emotions are as real as yours. Just because they might get sad over the colour of their cup, does not make their feelings any less real.” – Rebekah Lipp

 

P. S. One reason this post took so long for me to write is that I cannot imagine the challenge, the responsibility, and the pain of trying to be a “good parent.” We all screw up at just about everything sometimes, and you’re no more a monster for sometimes getting it wrong with a kid than you are for sometimes getting it wrong with the grown-ups in your life. This isn’t a you-should-feel-bad post, and please don’t use it that way, against yourself or against others. It’s just a please-see-your-kid reminder. I just wish you and your kiddo the best!

Dr Seuss - a person's a person no matter how small

A year later (compassion: we all have some crappy things we need people to understand)

Yesterday I felt really upset and sad that I got a concussion last year. A year–seems like this should be done now, right? When I had my first concussion, everything felt pretty normal again a few months later. This time, it’s been almost a year, and I don’t feel like myself.

I think the last of the physical and mental effects wore off months ago–at least the effects directly from the concussion–but I’m still trying to get past the after-effects of those first effects. Like when you go from running miles and miles every week to suddenly hardly being able to go for walks. Now my head isn’t keeping me from going for runs. Now I just can’t go for runs because I lost so much strength and didn’t realize how slowly I needed to work back into exercise, so I screwed up my back. And I’ve discovered along the way bad habits I’ve always had that have made my back so weak and vulnerable to begin with. Or now my head isn’t making the world seem foggy, confusing, or dangerous. But all the days and weeks and months of extreme anxiety added up and left me feeling scared and on edge and a lot more emotionally vulnerable than I used to feel.

Yesterday all I wanted to do was go to the gym or go out for a run, but I felt self-conscious and weak and frustrated, and running isn’t the healthiest exercise for my back these days. I thought about how fit and active I was a year ago. I had worked hard to be as healthy as I was. It was great. I was always up for anything! It was a part of my identity. Why the hell did that day have to happen? It still sucks.

One silver lining is that all the anxious days made me pay more attention to myself deep down, though that doesn’t always feel like a good change. Another silver lining is that I think I feel more compassion and acceptance than I used to–for myself and for other people. I guess I get that no matter how much you wish you were exactly your dream self, sometimes life has other plans. Or sometimes life just throws a curveball at you, and not everyone is going to find the strength to head in the right direction every day. Some days just giving in to the weakness or the pessimism feels like … well it doesn’t feel good, but it just happens anyway. Like eating your feelings. I think I understand even better now, that people don’t just live screwed up lives because they want to, or because they have bad attitudes. People are fragile. Fragile AF. But we’re also strong, so I decided to go to the gym anyway, and I set a few healthiness goals for August 16–the one year mark since I bonked my head.

Silver lining or no, though–sometimes life has its crappy moments. Crappy days. Crappy happenings, that can leave you feeling weak and frustrated, uninspired, lonely, misunderstood, just … sad.

I think we all need each other to understand each other in times like that.

I spent a lot of yesterday thinking of how much my concussion last year changed my life. I felt embarrassed, because … come on. Right? But I know a concussion can mess with your life pretty long-term. Especially repeat concussions. I think mostly they’re not the end of the world. But I think a lot of people don’t give each other or themselves the benefit of the doubt–space to feel and heal.

And it’s not just concussions–and it’s not just a few of us. PTSD, losing a loved one, sexual abuse, auto-immune diseases, bullying, losing a job, miscarrying your baby, depression, addiction, loneliness, feeling betrayed, verbal and emotional abuse, chronic migraines, cancer…

I think it’s always worth telling each other how these things affect us. Being open and honest about the darkness we sometimes feel. And then, like Lyssi helped me with yesterday, helping each other reflect on the good things we still have, too.

I wanted to re-post something I wrote in January about some of the unexpected effects of dealing with a concussion, along with something Lyssi wrote about it, too.

I also want to encourage everyone I know to learn about all the different hard-things that your people go through. And to share your own. We’re all in this together. Nobody has to be a hero. Mostly we just need some love and understanding. So ask and listen, and speak up, too.

12 Things That Happen When You Get a Concussion

A Glimpse Into My World of Slow Concussion Recovery

What’s your story you want people to understand?

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