Can you love humans AND cut people off?

How do you feel about these two “truths?”

  • Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.
  • Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

I bet most of us would agree at least in some sense with each of these statements taken separately.

But. When we put them side by side–these two ideas feel like they don’t fit together: If So-and-so is so toxic and hurts me so much, how come other people can love them? And if I admit that, deep down, they’re still lovable–how can I cut them off?

So which truth will you hang on to, and which one will you let go of?

 

Think about what happens when you hold onto just one of these truths, and let go of the other.

 

Rejecting the first truth–that everyone is lovable:

We learn to set boundaries. Some of us have to learn to set pretty big boundaries–tough ones. My own long story very short, I no longer have a relationship with my parents. It took years of therapy and soul-searching and trying and crying. And it wasn’t a clean break–for years and years, I walked away to varying degrees, a number of times, from the family and friends I grew up around. Honestly, it was the way I could be healthy. I was surviving. In the end, walking away brought freedom. But it also taught me a dangerous lesson. See, if the trauma is bad enough to permanently end a family relationship, it probably hurt you more than words can describe. That probably results in extreme emotional reactions when you think about those people who hurt you so badly. It probably means you have a hard time thinking clearly or calmly or kindly about them. Out of self-protection, I learned to label those people in my life “monsters,” totally “bad.” “Toxic.” Never to be trusted, absolutely the worst. And, depending on what you mean by those labels, I wasn’t wrong. So I left that relationship. And it has been incredibly freeing. It feels healthy. My life has become livable and full of hope. But in the end, through this deeply emotional and significant, drawn-out experience, I learned a really loud lesson: People who hurt you badly ARE NOT SAFE and must be cut off. They’re Bad.

So what do you think that did to me? I began to see the world as totally black and white. In his novel, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And that’s what happened to me. When I felt the sort of deep hurt, rejection, or betrayal that I had learned to walk away from once or twice, I began having to walk away from it every time. I began to assume that anyone who hurt me deeply must not be a safe person. And as I discovered that deep hurt is a pretty common and inescapable part of relationships–intimate, personal, professional, all kinds–I found myself walking away from relationships every time the hurt showed up, or even threatened to show up. If people that deeply hurt me are unlovable “monsters,” then I need to watch out for those people. I need to protect myself. When I see “toxic,” I need to turn and run. It hurts me too badly. Since I rejected the truth that even the hurtful people are lovable, I learned to walk away quickly from any hint of “toxic.” Problem is, of course, just about everyone in my life will feel a little “toxic” from time to time. I developed a protective habit of immediately giving up on anyone that hurt me. I couldn’t see that everyone is on a spectrum of kindness and unkindness. And that unless I accepted that people who have “bad” in them also have “good” and “humanity” somewhere inside them, I was going to live a pretty lonely life. (Oh, and–I hurt people, too–so . . . what do I do with that?)

So rejecting the truth that deep down, everyone is human and lovable, left me very much alone. But where does it leave others when we reject their humanity? Well, imagine that you’re the abuser-character. You’re the one that’s been labeled “toxic.” And maybe you really did do a number on someone. Maybe you were an absolutely terrible parent. Maybe you are really arrogant or really disagreeable. Maybe you rub a lot of people the wrong way. But when you wake up in the morning, you don’t think, “Muahahaha, let’s be an asshole today!” You think, “Oh man . . . I hope this day goes better.” Somewhere inside, you’re trying. You want good. You wish you weren’t mean, that you could control your words. You need another chance. Maybe it took you fifty years to see your immaturity for what it is. Maybe it took losing a bunch of relationships. So what will it take to change? To recover? To grow? Well, among other things, you need support. You need friendship. You need someone to give you a chance to do humanness the right way. You need hope. You need good examples. You need people to practice with. You need a shoulder to cry on when you have to face the damage you’ve done in the past. But–we’ve already decided you are “toxic.” So if everyone else rejects that first truth–that everyone is human and lovable–and clings to the idea that every hurtful or bad person must be written off, shunned, shamed, and “cancelled” into oblivion . . . you will never have a chance. Let’s be honest–we all know what regret feels like. We all know the feeling of hoping for another chance, because we screwed up with someone–maybe with a lot of people. We’ve had ours lows. So when you feel tempted to sentence every “toxic,” mean, negative, obnoxious, or immature person to a permanent identity as a hopeless “Bad” person–remember your lows. Remember when you needed people to give you another chance and show you a “love” that they could have said you didn’t deserve. It is wonderful to show up for broken people.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

 

Rejecting the second truth–that you need to completely walk away from some relationships:

We also learn not to set boundaries. We learn to accept bullying or abuse or mistreatment or disrespect. Some of us learn to accept it from many people, always afraid to stick up for ourselves. Some of us learn to accept it from just a few special people. Case in point, “but they’re still your family” is one of the most dangerous phrases that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Cultural expectations pressure us to patiently, silently accept behavior from family members that we’d never accept from non-family. A parent’s passive aggressive commentary on every single one of our life choices or preferences. A sibling repeatedly guilting us into “lending” money we’ll never get back. A spouse’s constant berating. Sticking up for yourself in the face of abusive treatment from family is not a life skill we talk about. When we do finally stick up for ourselves, we discover whether or not they’re going to listen and accept our boundaries. If they won’t, maybe the relationship is too unhealthy. Maybe it’s too damaging. Maybe it was never really a relationship at all. So can you take care of yourself by walking away? The general cultural expectation is: No. “They’re still your family.” “You only have one set of parents.” Etc. Families aren’t the only area where we can learn not to set boundaries. We can feel too guilty to stick up for ourselves when a friend starts taking advantage of us or hurting us–we don’t want to hurt them. We learn to grin and bear it when co-workers make mean jokes or take their mood out on us–need to be a “team player.” I think deep down we each know that some relationships need to end, but we can’t do it. We’re afraid. We don’t know what others will think. We care about the person we need to walk away from. We worry for them. We want to “be the bigger person,” and give them another chance, and another, and another. So we tell ourselves and each other that Love says that you shouldn’t cut someone off, that you should be there for them, no matter how yucky it gets–after all, maybe one day they’ll hit rock bottom, and if you’re not there for them, who knows what might happen. So “cutting off” a family member, a friend, even a co-worker–establishing such a final boundary–is not cool.

So where does this leave you? It leaves you being abused, mistreated, disrespected, bullied, hurt, taken advantage of, pushed around, made fun of. It leaves you exhausted, crying, fragile, insecure, powerless, hopeless, lifeless, stuck. It leaves you, year after year after year, holding your breath when you show up for a family reunion, and then flying back home in tears, disappointed and crushed and re-traumatized again and again and again. It leaves you stripped bare of energy. Maybe stripped bare financially. It makes your life a living hell. This is not the life you want. This is not a life of love or of purpose or of hope or of beauty or of peace. This is miserable. . . . Please, please, please, please, please hear this: You are worth more than that. . . . You do NOT matter LESS than the people who are systematically hurting you. . . . You are a precious human being. Pretend like you’re your friend–looking at mistreated-You from the outside. You know that the You you’re looking at through a friend’s eyes MATTERS. You matter. You matter. You matter. Your heart matters. Your life matters. Your happiness matters. Your peace matters. Your human dignity matters. Your dreams matter. You absolutely, 100% do not have to put up with abuse. So if someone refuses to have a healthy, functional relationship with you–you absolutely can walk away. Yes, even from your parents. As someone who’s lived this, I can tell you, despite what 99% of the voices around you are saying, it IS better when you end the relationships that are too far broken and damaging to you. Whether it’s because the person you love refuses to stop mistreating you, or because even if they would try there has already been too much trauma–or both or either or–who knows, honestly? If any relationship is suffocating your heart and is not able or willing to be fixed–you can let it go. Rejecting boundaries–really big, final boundaries–can keep you a prisoner of abuse and bullying for your entire life.

Rejecting the idea that some relationships need to be ended doesn’t just hurt you. It’s also not good for anyone around you. There’s a reason on the plane they say you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you put the mask on your kid. A stuck, abused, lifeless, hopeless you isn’t going to be any help to anyone else. A drained, bullied, broken you won’t have much left over to offer your friends, your job, your hobbies, your life, your loved ones. And it actually, really, truly, honestly, for real won’t be any help to the abusers you love too much to walk away from. My therapist put it this way when I was wrestling with whether to travel down to my family’s Thanksgiving–to be there for my siblings in their own stressed and disappointed and anxious journey with what it means to be in our family–to be there for my parents, to spare them some sadness and feelings of rejection–my therapist put it this way, and it’s stuck with me: When you see someone thrashing around, drowning in a raging river, jumping in next to them won’t help. You’ll just get pulled down with them, in their thrashing panic, and besides, you can’t beat the river’s current either. Instead, you throw them the life saver tied onto the dock, and tell them that if they’ll grab on you can help pull them out of the river. The tough part is, your unwillingness to jump back into a toxic river you once lived in and drown right next to them will absolutely feel like a betrayal to them. But jumping back into a place where you’re going to get knocked in the head by the flailing limbs and pulled away in the dangerous current is NOT going to help them. It will only cause you to drown. The only chance at helping those people that have hurt you so deeply and traumatically, or insist on living in that world, might be by standing on the shore, ready to help when they finally decide to hop out of the raging river into a healthy, functional world of freedom. Being, if nothing else, an example–proof for them–that if they want to find love and freedom, it’s out there. A drowning you helps nobody. Let’s be real about this urge to stick around and rescue our abusers: Has our sticking around, trying to please, them, ever made them happy and fulfilled? Nope. And it won’t, as long as we’re in their toxic world. The only chance you have at being there for the world is putting your own mask on first. No matter how “selfish” it feels. It’s just the way it works.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

 

So how do you hold these truths together?

Well, first, don’t go crazy with either one of them. Don’t take either one to a mindless extreme. Don’t be in a rush to throw a salvageable relationship of love away. But also don’t cling to a relationship that’s not there and drown yourself in the process.

Second, notice that we probably have a tendency to reject each one of these truths in different contexts. In what parts of your world do you champion love and acceptance, but forget to set boundaries? Maybe with family? Work? Politics? And in what parts of your world do you champion boundary-setting and forget that people are all still lovable humans deep down? Social settings? Friends? Social media? See, I think we know each of these truths, and forget each of these truths, and it may all just be an arbitrary tangle. Can we hold them, balance them, mindfully?

Third–and I think this is sort of the kicker: Who you LOVINGLY ACCEPT vs who you HEALTHILY WALK AWAY FROM has EVERYTHING to do with that specific relationship, its dynamic, what it is for, what needs it is fulfilling, and what it is intended to be. I can very healthily and compassionately put up with a kind of immature negativity and judgmentalism from a co-worker that would be devastating coming from a parent. I can put up with some hardcore manipulation from a friend who has very little control over me, whereas if this person were my significant other, I’d have to walk away. What is your relationship with this person who’s showing their “toxic” edges? As my friend Luke suggests asking, “Is your putting up with the mistreatment actually truly helping the other person or the situation, and therefore maybe worth it?” You can also ask, is the level of their immaturity one that you can deal with healthily? Or are they harming your well-being? Can I handle it when a high school friend expects me to solve all their emotional distress for them? Maybe. Can I handle it when my mom expects me to solve all her emotional distress for her? No. One size does not fit all. Re-framing the hurtful behavior around the dynamics and purpose of the specific relationship really helps. What is a parent? What is a child? What is a sibling? What is a friend? What is a co-worker? What is a random stranger? Each relationship has different needs when it comes to support, fulfillment, love, and boundaries.

Fourth, it helps to just acknowledge what is going to be, I think, the hardest part of all this, emotionally: Trusting that there will be other people there to give the “love” your parent or spouse or sibling or friend or co-worker needs to experience–the person you had to call it quits with. In holding that first truth–that every human is lovable–it is so hard to let go of people that are hurting us, because we may truly love them and wish them the best and hope hope hope that they will find and feel some love. It is so hard to trust this, but we have to trust, to remind ourselves, that there are 7.8 billion people in the world who they have not abused and traumatized, and among those 7.8 billion people they will absolutely find the love they need when they are ready. They will have other people there to help them change, other people there to give them hugs and a shoulder to cry on if and when they change and regret their abusive behavior. You do NOT have to stick around to help your abusers recover and grow. So let them be lovable humans that others will show up for. You can’t help them anymore. Let them go, and then trust that there is still a world there to love them when they need it.

And fifth, focus on the flip side. There are far, far, far more people who are still safe for you to show up in love for, to be there for, to make a difference for. Who do you get to show up for? Let your energy live THERE.

 

A few words to meditate on:

~

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Truth: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

~

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

Truth: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

~

Good luck, my friends. I know that trying to live a life of love for others and love for self, holding these two truths together, can be hard and can include lots of tears shed. Hang in there. You’ve got this. Sending you love and energy.

20190629_150603

No more looking the other way

A poetic quote has been making the rounds (not sure where it originated), relating to the pandemic: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”

I think that’s as big as the rest of life, too, in every corner of the world.

 

These words are not going to be enough. But I hope they help a little:

 

I want to tell you something about the world I grew up in.

We tried desperately to look the other way when bad things were happening that we didn’t want to be bothered with.

Racist, sexist, and homophobic statements and acts were all somehow justified, excused, or explained away. For some reason it was the victim’s fault. The victim “should have known better” or “was asking for it” or “should have made different choices” or “shouldn’t dress that way.”

Jokes and mockery at the expense of vulnerable, disadvantaged, and oppressed people were normal. Tacking on the phrase “We’ve got to lighten up a little” absolved us. We threw around hurtful words like “retarded,” called avoidable suffering “God’s judgment,” used the hell out of the phrase “Well maybe he should get a job.” And goodness knows my old world is on the front lines of making and sharing “Kung Flu” videos. “Okay, folks, lighten up!”

The only way we could stomach these selfish behaviors was by carefully turning a blind eye to the sad and violent realities behind the things we were making light of. “Kung flu” only stays “funny” if you ignore the real and sudden and very sad rise in harassment and assault of Asians who are being generically and vaguely blamed for the coronavirus.

If we admitted that in life and in its storms, some found themselves in tougher, scarier, less fair boats . . . then we might have to do something about it. And we couldn’t be bothered.

For example, I learned that racism was largely a thing of the past. That remaining inequities or disproportionate suffering in and harassment toward America’s Black population, by this point was sort of their own fault–holding onto the past, up to no good, “their culture.” We certainly never looked closely enough to see that Black (and Hispanic for that matter) Americans are stopped by the police at a much higher rate. If we had looked–had acknowledged that so, so many people in our society are still genuinely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin–from unequal pay and work opportunities to heavier prison sentences for the same crimes–if we had opened our eyes, we would have had to stand up for them. We would have had to acknowledge that maybe, yes, we should be helping. That accountability is an absolute necessity in the face of racism. That devoting economic resources to undoing the cycle of oppression is only fair. But then we would have had to stop making the jokes and loosened our grip on our disproportionate access to wealth, comfort, and ease.

Another example is how we judged victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, manipulation–pick anything. In almost every case where a female was used sexually, the responsibility and blame was placed on her. Or, if the blame couldn’t be placed on her, she at least had to share a good chunk of it. She probably wouldn’t have been assaulted if she had “dressed modestly.” She wouldn’t have been coerced and abused by her husband if she had “fulfilled her wifely duty” with enough frequency. It was on females to know that males were uncontrollably attracted to them, and to shield themselves. If we hadn’t so consciously looked the other way, we would have seen that 1 in 6 females in America are sexually assaulted. That 1 in 7 females are sexually abused before they even turn 18. And that 20% of sexual assaults on minors happen by age 8. Meaning that we live in a world where real, inexcusable, hateful sexual abuse happens, and it’s NOT because girls ask for it. We would have had to stand up and say, “Males, STOP. Stop assaulting, harassing, and abusing females. This is on the abuser, not the abused.” But then males would lose some of their excuses to use and manipulate females, lose their control, and their free passes. Be opened up to scrutiny. No . . . easier to just shake our heads and say “She asked for it.” (I know that this is not an issue that exactly follows these gender-lines, but in the world I grew up in, excusing male’s abuse of females was what was focused on.)

One last example was how we viewed and talked about and confronted poverty. Poverty was the responsibility of the poor. Their fault. Not our problem. We always began with the assumption that some character flaw led them into the poverty they were experiencing. I remember a hundred conversations about all the ways we couldn’t or shouldn’t help the poor. How giving money or food to “beggars” (as if that were the word that summed up their identity) would just enable and make worse their “laziness.” How we couldn’t make them diligent. How “sinful” attitudes and behavior, like a poor work ethic, led them into poverty. How state-run social programs were theft and would make poverty worse. A hundred conversations about how we can’t help and how it’s not our fault. I don’t remember conversations about how we could help. We didn’t have those . . . we couldn’t have those, or we’d have to do something. There was one way, I guess. Support for the poor was exclusively the responsibility of “the church,” and “the church” solved everything by teaching people to find their hope in an after-life where it wouldn’t matter that they lived a life of suffering and poverty (at least the churches I grew up in; I know there are other churches that do genuine work on behalf of economic support for those living in poverty). Every conversation about poverty was about how it’s “not our fault,” and “we can’t help,” and “they’ll have to fix it themselves.” We didn’t talk about systemic, cyclical patterns in society that unnecessarily push people into poverty and hold them there. If we explored those ideas, we’d have to do something uncomfortable. We’d have to acknowledge we had it easy and look for the inconvenient, messy ways to help. Easier to just live in blissful, intentional ignorance.

In sum–the world we grew up in was one of desperately trying to look the other way when bad things were happening that we couldn’t be bothered with. So we always, always, always started by looking for the reasons why the “problem” wasn’t real, the “oppression” wasn’t real.

I’m not the only one who grew up in a world like this. I would venture to say that we are all plenty familiar with a big chunk of America that sees “not-my-problem,” status-quo-justifying Non-Action as a value–a goal to aim for–an ideal to live by. There are social and political philosophies built on this. “They” are not our responsibility, not our problem. It’s on them to take responsibility and fix their own problems.

 

If this is the philosophical world you grew up in, I invite you to try 2 new things:

 

First, when you see hurt and suffering–don’t look away. Look really, really closely. Watch the sickeningly awful stuff.

As someone who grew up in a world that tries desperately to look away from bad things happening (as long as they don’t hurt us), I DO think there’s a solution–a way to effectively transition ourselves and each other out of this habit.

If you’re trying to bring awareness to somebody who grew up with the philosophy I did, honestly I don’t think arguments, statistics, or ridicule are the way to go. When looking-away was my go to, I still, in general, was a very loving and compassionate person. I had just had it trained into me to assume the “problem” wasn’t valid and that it wasn’t my place to help. So calling names won’t help. Every argument and statistic can and will be countered by someone who needs to believe there’s not a real problem to deal with.

I think that arguments and statistics and history and et cetera are all helpful, but only after someone is actually ready to listen. And emotion is generally what gets people ready to listen–as it should be. Because suffering, oppression, murder–those are emotional things. They are deeply sad and painful and angering things. We have emotions for a reason.

So if you’re raising awareness among people who have learned to look away, start by asking them to just look closely at the yuckiest stuff. To just look. To just watch. To see the videos and the pictures, to hear the really awful stories, to go look at the horror face-to-face wherever they can.

When I don’t ever have to see a homeless person–don’t ever have to talk to them, don’t ever listen to their stories, it’s much easier to live in a different world, as if the homelessness-problem doesn’t exist.

When I don’t ever have to see racial discrimination and oppression actually happening . . . when I get to quickly walk away from the headline instead of watching the sickening video of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd crying for help until he dies under the knee of a police officer who onlookers couldn’t stop . . . when I get to treat Ahmaud Arbery like a statistic instead of watching the stomach-turning reality of his murder that was then covered up for months . . . when I get to look away, never see or feel the emotional torment in suffering, I get to keep saying “not-my-problem.”

Seeing the shocking, brutal reality of hurt and suffering–confronting the emotions they bring–that is where minds start changing and people start looking and listening.

If you are the person who starts with this not-my-problem philosophy, I encourage you to LOOK–to LOOK CLOSELY when bad things happen. Go watch the videos and look at the pictures and read the stories. Let yourself get emotional about them. Imagine yourself or someone you love in those stories. Remember that you’re seeing real humans. If that homework seems to you like a bad idea, seems “unnecessary”–ask yourself why that is. Why do you so badly need to look away? What will change when you look?

 

Second, imagine being part of willing, compassionate solutions to suffering.

Try shifting your perspective for a minute from protecting your right to look away to asking what love and compassion could do to help.

You might find that there are lots and lots of real ways to help. You might find those ways through reaching out individually to suffering people, through volunteering and non-profit work, or through bringing awareness on a larger scale to the needs of suffering people. You might even find that there is a group of people who, motivated by compassion, not compulsion, have elected leaders who can help focus society-wide efforts on helping those in need and making this a safe world for every human. There are lots of people who don’t cling to their “right” to not be forced into solving suffering, and who start instead with “Okay, how CAN we help?”

You might find that we really can help make the world a better place, but only once we can give up our focus, for a moment, on protecting our own need to cling to every dollar, convenience, comfort, ease–“right”–that we have.

What would your role as a benefiting and contributing member of society look like if you switched your focus (at least sometimes) to how you can help, instead of focusing on the threat of being “forced” to help with something that “isn’t your responsibility”?

 

No more consciously or subconsciously denying that we’re not in the same boat. No more automatically denying the possibility of inequities, hate, bigotry. No more scrambling to justify, excuse, or explain away every racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, or greedy act. No more ignoring things that don’t fit our agenda. No more looking away from realities that make us uncomfortable.

I know that part of the discomfort is, “But if I DO acknowledge the massive problem, I have no idea how to help, and maybe I’ll get it wrong, and where do you even start???”

That is okay. Awkwardly, messily speaking up for your suffering fellow humans leads to change. It doesn’t matter if you get it a little wrong. The worst possible thing you can do is look away and let the suffering, abuse, and oppression continue.

We’re not going to get this perfect. But when we have the chance to do some good, to help the vulnerable, to fight injustice and protect our fellow humans . . .

We need to stop looking the other way.

We need to step in and help.

We need to take a stand for love and justice and the right of each human to not be degraded and used and oppressed.

No matter how messy.

William Wilberforce - looking the other way

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