I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.
I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.
For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.
I told you the language was inadequate!
Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.
Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.
I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.
Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.
Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.
Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.
When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.
This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.
I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.
I have a friend at work who, in the moment of an unexpected event, says, “This is happening!” as he copes on the fly. The phrase (and my friend) makes me smile, and it keeps running through my head as our world changes.
We’re all affected, and we’re all saturated with news, statistics, opinions, thoughts, predictions and our own feelings about current events. We’re all sick of the subject (no pun intended), but it’s hard to talk about anything else.
The headlines are grim. The maps are grim. The future is uncertain. I’m writing this on Saturday, March 15. What will Monday bring? Where will we be on Thursday, when I publish this?
Last week I wrote about making choices, and discerning between the places we have power and the places we don’t. It was a timely post.
We can choose to see our current situation as an opportunity.
Before you start throwing rotten food at me, understand that I’m in no way minimizing our stress, anxiety, fear or loss. I’m very concerned, more for others than myself, but for myself, too. I don’t want to get sick and die. I haven’t finished my books yet, for one thing.
On the other hand, I admit to a sort of horrified fascination when it feels like everything is falling apart, either for me, personally, or on a larger scale. Chaos, in my experience, is filled with possibility, with sudden shifts and changes, with unexpected twists and outcomes. When we surf the edge of chaos, we’re in terra incognita, and anything might happen.
We’ve all been hearing about restrictions, limitations, cancellations, curfews, lockdowns, and other draconian measures as the pandemic sweeps across the globe. It’s not a good time to travel, have elective surgery, spend money frivolously, run out of toilet paper, or do a thousand other things.
It is a good time for … what?
I work in a hospital rehab center in a nonessential position. We currently have 30 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Maine. I suspect there are actually many hundreds of cases by now, but testing is limited up here, so it’s hard to say. The hospital has put protocols in place, and we are now closed to the public and serving rehab patients only. I’m an hourly worker, so if (when) we shut down the rehab center, I won’t get paid.
My partner is at high risk due to his age and health history.
Just like everyone else, I’m anxious about how fast things are happening and what might happen next, and I have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that says we’re freewheeling, out of control. ‘Normal’ is MIA.
I always have my eye on power dynamics. We could make a long list of everything we can’t control right now, all that’s not in our power.
But what about what we can control? What is in our power? Again, I think of my post last week, and how many of us honestly feel that we don’t have time to engage with what matters most to us in our normal lives. But now we’re living not-so-normal lives, and we may spend some time doing that.
In my own life, when it’s all fallen down and I find myself wandering through the rubble, I’ve always found transformation. Pain, grief, tears, terror, yes, all of those. And transformation.
We each have the power to reach out to loved ones. We can’t choose who gets sick or who recovers, but we can communicate with the people we care about heartfully and honestly. It’s easy to lose touch, or interact superficially on social media and call it good. It’s easy to drift apart and become disconnected. Quarantine, isolation and lockdown are opportunities to strengthen connections.
Don’t forget it’s spring. We can choose to enjoy the return of the birds, the lengthening days, the sunshine, and the abundance of new growth and life around us. We can take a walk. We can make it a daily habit.
We have an opportunity to enjoy creativity. Listen to music. Read a book. You have time now, all you TLDR (too long, didn’t read) people! We can forget the toilet paper and buy ourselves a new box of crayons or some finger paints. Here’s our chance to nurture our creativity. If we’re in quarantine or lockdown we have time to play. No more excuses. Creative folks are reaching out to others in all kinds of nontraditional and beautiful ways right now.
Have I mentioned that it’s spring? It’s a great time to clean and declutter our homes. Not only can we make daily cleaning of all surfaces we touch easier right now, we can lighten up our lives and homes for the future. Let’s open the windows and let the sun come in. Let’s get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter. Let’s clean our cars, our phones, our keyboards.
While we’re out walking, we can wave to our neighbors. We can smile. We’re all scared and worried. This is where our power is—with the people around us. We can check up on neighbors. If we’re at less risk than an elderly friend or neighbor, we can offer to run errands for them when we have to go out. We can find a dog to walk. We can practice social distancing and still connect with and care for those around us. We’re all in this together.
We can do ourselves and our immune systems a favor and rest. Relax. Laugh. When was the last time we checked in with ourselves? Are we happy? Are our needs being met? Are we pleased with the shape of our lives? We can take naps, or sleep in. We can exercise, eat good food, drink lots of water. We can challenge an addiction or a time-wasting habit. If not now, when?
When did we last give our intellect a fun thing to do? We could explore something that interests us, learn a new skill, play with critical thinking. We could exercise our brains. We could take on a daunting project we’ve been procrastinating about.
How’s our spiritual life? It’s a great time for prayer, ritual, or to begin a meditation practice. We could create a daily gratitude practice and focus on that instead of fear and anxiety.
Resilience equals survival. Resilient people make conscious choices about how they use their resources, especially in the face of unexpected disaster. We’re faced with a lot of unknowns right now, but let’s not obsess over the unknowable, including the future. Our power lies in our ability to choose in the present moment and let the rest go.
We know how to work, spend money, distract and be busy. Life is about more. Now we have an opportunity to simply be with the moment, with the world as it is, and with ourselves. Let’s remember how to live. Part of living is the necessity to come to terms with death.
Take good care, everybody. Love yourself and your people. Stay with your power and surrender the rest. We’ll get through this.
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Centre down.
And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love— for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live.
I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.
One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.
I was wrong.
Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.
But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.
You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.
Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.
In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.
Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.
A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”
Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.
Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.
When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.
On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!
I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.
When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.
My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!
Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.
Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.
Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.
Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.
My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.
Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.
As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.
We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.
In the farmer’s market on Saturday morning, we stood in line to buy bread. We did not stand in line to buy a peach raspberry pie and bread, but that’s another story (with a happy ending. The pie was worth it.) Next to the baker’s display was a booth set up by a local businesswoman who specializes in unique homemade dog treats. As my mother is owned by a dear border collie and I’m always on the lookout for something they might like, I idly checked out the booth while my partner waited in line (to buy bread, not pie.)
I found rows of attractively-packaged, carefully labeled, very expensive bags of dog goodies, most of which were vegetable-based and proudly labeled as containing “no animal biproducts.”
Sometimes I feel pretty despairing about the world. I’m sure this businesswoman is a well-meaning and hard-working person trying to earn a living in central Maine who cares about dogs. However, it would be good to avoid spelling errors on her labels and dogs are not vegetarians or vegans.
There is, in fact, debate among veterinarians and scientists about whether dogs are omnivores or carnivores, but recent research based on physiology suggests dogs are indeed carnivores. Many wild canines are apex predators. Many perform the vital function of carrion eaters and scavengers. Dogs are not vegetarians.
There are a lot of dark monsters walking the streets right now. Rampant narcissists, greedy capitalists and fanatical ideologists are slowly consuming the world. There’s another ogre abroad, though, one bathed in blue light and wearing angel wings, and that is our willful ignorance and denial of the physical and biological realities we live and die with, our inability to work elegantly with complexity and shades of grey and the cult we’ve made out of love and peace.
Photo by Michael LaRosa on Unsplash
One of my favorite writers on Medium, Kay Bolden, recently wrote a piece entitled Love is a Warrior, Not a Saint. She is absolutely correct. Love is not a saint. Love sees things clearly. Restricting our dogs to a vegetarian diet is not love. It’s animal abuse. If we love our dogs, we appreciate them for the magnificent companions and colleagues they are, and dogs are not vegetarians. If we love our dogs, we give them a nice raw, bloody, meaty bone now and then and we do not force them to struggle on a grain or vegetable-based diet and handfuls of supplements in order to address their nutritional needs. Wild canines form packs and hunt. They kill birds, rodents, rabbits and even larger animals, tear them apart with their teeth and eat them raw. That’s what a dog’s ancestry is. Refusing to accept that is not love.
Dogs have evolved with humans for thousands of years and have adapted to scavenge and forage amongst people. Most dog owners know that their pets will, if able, routinely eat all kinds of rubbish and frequently suffer digestive consequences. If humans are wiped out overnight in some kind of a plague, our dogs will consume our dead bodies, form packs, and begin hunting.
I despise what human beings have done to animals. Animal testing, the terrible practices of factory farming, our idiotic greed for things like rhino and elephant horns and furs, and our irresponsibility, cruelty, stupidity and malice have done no end of harm to the entire animal kingdom. We seem bent on destroying every habitat on the planet (often so people can feel self-righteous about how peaceful and loving they are as vegans and vegetarians, never mind that Big Ag wipes out hundreds of thousands of organisms and poisons the soil in every field it monocrops, not part of the natural process of life and death) as quickly as possible, leaving nothing but sterile wastes behind us. We do this. People. Homo Sapiens.
Photo by Jamie Morris on Unsplash
Bleating about love and peace and refusing to recognize carnivores, herbivores, the extraordinary complex system of Planet Earth and the necessity and function of all parts of it is just as bad as clearcutting the rainforest. Mother Nature is about prey and predator. When it’s healthy, the natural system is a complicated, dynamic dance of life and death involving countless organisms. Carnivores hunting and eating meat is not an act of violence or hate. Predators hunting prey is the natural order of things. Life on earth depends on it.
Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our innate wisdom and connection to life. The modern age is all about arrested development. We’re like small children in sunny nurseries having a tea party with our stuffed animals and dolls. We’ve distorted love and peace into something prim and sweet, entirely artificial and entirely one-dimensional. Peace and violence are mutually exclusive. Love is entirely peaceful. Death is entirely hateful and violent. Love and peace are pretty. Love and peace are nice. They’re tolerant. They contain no animal “biproducts.”
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
What dangerous, infantile lies. Love is the face of the Divine, and the face of the Divine looks upon fire and flood, thunder and lightning, sand and ice and sea. The face of the Divine looks upon the musky violence of reproduction, the grinding bones and tearing tissue of birth, the vast cycles of predators and prey that encompass each layer of life from the smallest microbes to the largest animals. The face of the Divine orchestrates the checks and balances ensuring population control, which is often driven by disease, famine and drought. The Divine dances a passionate, sensual, joyful dance, knee-deep in blood, semen, bone, flesh, fat, hair, scales, feathers, rot, vomit and excrement.
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash
In the midst of this beautiful, intricate world it’s we alone who have the fantastic hubris to refuse to participate. It’s we who deny the very ground of our being, the substance and structure of flesh and bone and biology. We rant about inclusivity and equality while we steadily eradicate life on earth, self-destruct, and allow ourselves to be divided from one another, never pausing long enough in our fatal greed and grotesque need to win and be right to understand life and death already are inclusive and equal. We all must eat and drink, successfully procreate if our genetic material is to survive, and die. We’re all part of the magnificent turning wheel of life, whether we like it or admit it or not. We’ve allowed our contemptible ideologies, our fears, our ignorance and our absurd desire for the higher moral ground to weaken us and we’ve become the most dangerous form of life on the planet, not only to ourselves but to every living thing around us. Then we project our madness onto the animals who depend upon us, reward the criminals who market vegetarian dog food and call that love. We call that being peaceful.
No. That’s not my love. My love and compassion are bigger and wider than that. I love the glorious cycle of life and death, even if it means I dip my hands in blood and endure the stench of decaying flesh. I muster the humility to learn about interconnectedness and how to participate elegantly in life and death. I love myself and others for what genetics, evolution and biology make us. I work for peace. I can wield the tool of violence if necessary. I respect and welcome death, recognizing it as a sacred consort to life.
A few weeks ago I wrote about romance and in that post I confessed that at this point in my life I’m not sure what love actually is. A strange admission from a reasonably intelligent, well-educated, middle-aged broad with two marriages and two children in her history.
Writing that post enabled me to clearly separate romance from love; though I suppose love might include a little romance from time to time. I’m convinced romance is not synonymous with love, however. I began to make a mental list of what love is not, as I often approach things from the back door first. Love is not a synonym for:
All right. So what is love? My Randall House Collegiate Dictionary says it’s “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for a person” or “a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection.” This definition doesn’t satisfy me at all. My rewrite is that love is a feeling of warm, tender connection and deep affection. I don’t think love is always passionate and I don’t like the word attachment. If anything, love implies to me an attitude of nonattachment.
But what about unrequited love? What about failed love or withdrawn love or love as a weapon or a tool? What about the inability to accept love, or feeling unloved though being told we are? What about those who make us feel our love is ugly, twisted, shameful or inadequate?
I’m always playing with words in my head. This week it’s “What is love?” and “What is a crone? and “What are the differences between compassion, empathy and sympathy?” I lie down with those inquiries and wake up with them. I turn them over while I shower, cook bacon, wash dishes, take my morning walk, practice Tai Chi and drive to town. I’m constantly scribbling notes.
I gave a neighbor a lift this morning and asked him to talk to me about compassion, sympathy and empathy. Poor man. He didn’t know what to make of me.
Yesterday, during my frosty morning walk, I dove into a stand of staghorn sumac below the barn and went to visit the spring. This is a daylight spring seeping out of the hill on which the barn and house stand. A long time ago, someone dug a well there, and at one time a pump and tank were installed, along with a system of black plastic outdoor lines to carry water to and from the barn, the garden, and down through the woods to, presumably, crops in the fields below. All the equipment is many decades old now, fallen over and covered with leaves and moss. The well is protected by a round cement cap, much too heavy for me to lift alone (drat!).
This spot is hidden in a thick tangle of vine, briar and trees. We rarely go in there, though it’s in close proximity to the barn.
It’s fall and it’s been dry, but the drainage where the spring emerges is clearly marked by rocks and moss. The ground underfoot felt soft, and when I brushed away the leaves I found moist earth. A yard or two below that is mud, and then a trickle of water and then, at the bottom of the hill, a quiet film of water, barely moving, reflecting the tree-laced sky. Right now It’s full of apples dropped from an apple tree that grows alongside it.
As I slipped and slid, tripping over vines and getting scratched by hawthorn and raspberry bushes, feeling the velvety moss coating the rocks and stepping cautiously on rotting wood, it occurred to me that love is like this spring.
I’ve always thought of love as an action verb, something I do to another in exchange for receiving the same. I thought I knew what I meant when I used the word, though I was never challenged to define it exactly. For me it’s been a catch-all term, synonymous with dozens of other, more specific actions: Want, need, desire, honor, trust, respect, care about, listen to, defend, make excuses for, enable, protect, support, believe in, etc., etc.
But what if love is just being? What if it has no object, but just is?
This little spring is absolutely true to itself. Water drains off the hillside above us and carves a path through the earth and rock until it emerges and runs down the surface at the foot of the hill. We pay no attention to it whatsoever. It’s reliable, predictable and faithful, but not because anyone is looking. Its unobtrusive, quiet presence has created a lush pocket of life, a complex system of plants, fungi, animals and insects, but ten yards away on the open hillside it’s invisible.
What if I make a choice to allow my feeling of love to run through my life in the same way the spring runs through and over the ground? What if I carry within me a wellspring, a hidden cleft, moist, fertile, filled with life, rich in sensuality, simply because it’s an expression of self? If others find their way to it, sit a while, bathe, drink, and allow it to nourish and refresh them, they’re welcome. If others can’t see it, or don’t value it, or dislike the perfume of rotting wood and leaves or the feel of plush moss under their bare foot, it’s nothing to do with me. Not everyone chooses to make their way through raspberry and hawthorn bushes, after all.
What if I don’t need anything in return because I’m giving nothing away? Perhaps the act of love can be a simple state of being, not a totality, not a hurricane of passion and lust, not a romantic fairytale, not a prison and torture chamber, but a spring, a waterway, a shining thread I can share without depletion. Can I allow it to seep quietly up through the roots of my experience, even if no one else ever finds it, wants it, returns it or deems it acceptable?
Our spring is part of a landscape of field and forest, river, pond and stream, rocky hillside and bog. The landscape contains many forms and embraces many systems of life. Birth and death happen on this land. Disease, erosion and flood happen on this land. Prey and predators carry out their sacred dance of balance here. Blood, bone, fur, feather, antler, musk, urine and feces are all here.
I, too, am a complex system of history, memory, belief, thought and feeling. I do not feel love for everyone and everything. My experience of love is that it’s a wild thing; it seeps up where it will and trickles away without warning, taking no account of rules and expectations. I can’t command it and I don’t choose to hold it back. My love doesn’t need anyone’s reception, appreciation, validation or praise.
Love is. I reserve the right to love as I will. I am the keeper of my own wellspring.