Here’s what I know about love:
All genuine love is unconditional; there is no other possibility.
Ours was not an “I love you” kind of family. It was loving, to be sure, but it was governed with the restraint of good manners, tact and patrician reserve. “I love you” was, in our tribal lexicon, a private set of words, exclusive to the universe of romance, unsuitable in any other situation. Showing polite affection was encouraged. Putting those feelings into words, though, was considered unnecessary within our home, gauche and inappropriate outside of it.
You know by now, if you’ve been reading here for any length of time, that all 62 inches and 100 pounds of my mother loved my sister and me fiercely. Deep, powerful, unconditional love. But when she talked about love to me as a child it was always either in the context of finding either true love (a mate) or finding passion in work (“do what you love; the money will follow”).
The first time a grown friend said, “I love you” at the end of a long catch-up phone call, I remember stumbling awkwardly for an appropriate response, foreign words tangled in my mouth. I did love her, quite dearly; still do; will always. But I struggled to say so.
I thought about it for days. Silly, perhaps, I agree; but I recognized it as a handicap nonetheless. Words without meaning are useless, but feelings without words are, too.
So I decided to start saying “I love you” to my children on a regular basis, to practice letting these three words roll off my tongue with the people for whom these words would always be true. I’ve never required that they say these words back to me, and I never will. That’s not the point of this practice.
It’s working, I think, the way being mindful of something always does. The three little words live easily these days in our house, in our family vocabulary, in my personal comfort zone. My Mother’s Day card from my son last year read, “Dear Mom, thank you for loving me even when you’re mad at me.” Can’t hope for better than that.
While we’ve been working on our words, I’ve also been thinking about what it means to love another person, about the different kinds of feelings that could accompany the words and how best to explain them to my children: romantic love, motherly love, sibling love, friendship – all of these are worth reflection. While I share my mother’s wish for my own children, that they may find true love in both a romantic partner and in life, I hope they may see a bigger picture.
Love is love, it just gets paired with other things, looks different in different places. But in every place, every different context, I believe the same truths hold.
- Genuine love is unconditional; there is no other possibility.
- The feelings that may accompany love will repeatedly cool and reheat over time, but the love itself is constant.
- Loving others at one’s own expense is not love but need.
- Love does preclude anger, disappointment, or dissatisfaction.
- Love’s kindness and patience are not limited to marriage or to any single partnership; in fact, these qualities are not limited at all.
- Words become thoughts which become actions, so the words of love are the reality of love. Practicing the words makes them easier to say.
May you be fortunate to love someone today, this week, always.