When I was growing up, I had it drummed into my head that I was not to say ‘four-letter words’ – swear words. Words like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’. And there were the many four letter words for various body functions. Words like ‘fart’ and the like. I was told that these words were dirty.
There were other four letter words which I was schooled to use very sparingly. The strongest of these was ‘hate’. Hate was a bad thing: a word and an emotion to be avoided. I was told that I didn’t hate something. Rather, I was only annoyed or frustrated. To hate anything or anyone would lead to the dark side of my soul.
I was never to be heard saying, “Fuck!” That was an ugly word and saying it would result in my getting spanked. To this day, I utter it only when I’m under great stress. And I don’t like the sound of it, even from me when I say it. As a teacher, I used to bemoan the fate of the English language – a language rich with words to say precisely what we mean – when I heard my students utter the ‘f’ word and use it as every part of speech.
Yet, consider that there is another four-letter word. One that’s supposed to be kind and gentle. A word which we are encouraged to use. That word is love.
Love, we are told is a good thing.
To love someone is to care about them and want the best for them and to hope that they are happy and healthy. Love, we are told, is nurturing and benevolent.
That might be, yet we’ve come to use the word so much that it has lost its importance to us. It’s really lost its meaning. We say things like: “I just love your hair.” “I love pasta.” “I love ice cream.” “I love your dress.” And we gush and simper and give each other air kisses. We use ‘love’ when we really mean ‘like’. Yet these words are not interchangeable.
When we use ‘love’ when we consider relationships, then its meaning can really get skewed. For many of us, I believe that love has come to be emotional extortion. Love has strings attached. When I was a child, and in my family, I knew that love was always conditional. I wouldn’t be loved if I didn’t get straight A’s on my report card. I wouldn’t be loved if I lost my temper. I wouldn’t be loved if a made a mess. I wouldn’t be loved if I was demanding. And on and on, the conditions went.
I believe that we’ve come to believe that to love anyone has come to have bartering attached to it. “You do ‘A’ for me, and I’ll love you.” And there’s always an impermanence about it all. We are loved until those who say they love us want something else and then it’s “I’ll love you when you do ‘B.’” Or we may love others only to the extent that we feel we are loved by them. “I’ll only love you as much as you love me.” Something like choosing to spend only so much on presents for others in proportion to what we believe they’ve spent on their presents for us.
I wonder if we really can define what love is for us.
Love has become something which we withhold from each other. We dole it out in dribs and drabs, piecemeal. We hoard it. We’re stingy with it. And, eventually, we have absolutely no conception of what it means to love. And, by extension, we have no sense of what it means to be loved.
Add to this that we are afraid to love. To love means potentially being rejected or hurt. It means that we have to trust freely and without constraint. To love means being vulnerable. And, as we grow, we learn that it is dangerous to be vulnerable.
We’ve been told that we cannot truly love others if we do not love ourselves first. That has always seemed so trite to me – just so much psychobabble. Since I had no sense of what love was for me, how could I love myself? What would that mean? What would that look like? How would I know?
I know that I have been afraid to love unconditionally – to share how I feel and to be open to loving. I know that I have expected that love will always have conditions attached. I know that, in the end, I have questioned whether I am loveable and worthy of being loved.
I believe that we all want to be loved.
We want to be accepted just for being ourselves. We want to know deep down that we don’t have to do anything to be loved. We don’t have to earn love from anyone. And I believe that, for too many of us, we feel that we must do something special or be someone other than our true selves in order to be loved.
We hunger for the trust that we are loved and we are starving.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote about this in her sonnet, Love is Not All:
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber not a roof against the rain:
Nor a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise again:
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
As I think about this now, I believe that…
it all goes far beyond love.
I have to know who I AM, own all of that, celebrate all of that, and be willing to live my life from that platform. For me to love mySelf and those in my world, I must live being open and clear and honest in every breath. And for me, as for most of us, that’s both my choice and my challenge.