Four of the most startling words I have ever read came from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled.
“Love is an action.”
I no longer have the book, having loaned it out a half dozen times, but I believe he went on to say something like “many unloving things are done in the name of love.”
I thought about the times my ex-husband or my family told me they loved me after doing some very unloving things to me. I thought about it a long time and over many months. I also realized that love is consistent or, at least it should be. I realized that everyone in my life gave conditional love and how I never quite knew when I would get it or why. I was never quite sure if I was in trouble or why or if I had fallen out of favor or why. Everyone seemed fairly contrary and there was no rhyme or reason as to why I was “loved” one day and not the next.
Everything seemed arbitrary and unclear. I was always thrown off my pins and never quite secure in any good feeling. I felt on the defensive, a lot of the time, over things I didn’t do or explaining that something I did, by accident, was not done with some evil intention.
I remember my ex husband used to say I forgot to do certain things just to make him do them. I forgot things because I was a young mother with a job and 3 kids and an overbearing demanding husband. There was no evil intention involved. I wasn’t conniving or plotting to get him to do things. I was hurried and harried. Yet, I was always defending myself against things he said I was thinking that I wasn’t thinking.
I was sitting at the table reading the paper one day when my mother was sweeping the floor. She was always sweeping the floor and she never asked for anyone else to sweep because no one else did it good enough. When she was done, she turned to me and said, “You just love watching me work, don’t you?” I was thrown. What? I was reading. I wasn’t even thinking about what she was doing. But she left the room in a huff. I had somehow done something wrong by doing nothing at all.
It was all very disturbing. Even more disturbing was that my own reactions mirrored theirs. While I didn’t accuse people of thinking things, I could punish people who angered me and pull my feelings away when I felt wronged. Not only did I realize that what they did to me was wrong but I realized I carried out the same sort of behavior toward others. It was a tough thing to come to terms with.
After I left my marriage and moved away from my family I started to judge people on what they DID, not what they said. I expected loving kindness most of the time (understanding that people do make mistakes) and I judged people on what they did, not what they said.
I assured my children that I love them, but even more, I have always treated them like they I love them. And I have always shown them unconditional love. It’s not arbitrary or inconsistent and doesn’t get pulled away when they fall out of favor.
It was relatively easy to do with my kids…much easier than with other people. But as the product of my environment and a very bad marriage, I continued to treat others as I had been treated. It took me a long time to learn not to chop someone’s head off that I was angry with or how to be “a little bit” upset over something. In my family and in my marriage, there were only extremes. You were either in or out. You were either good or bad. I had no idea how to operate in shades of grey that normal, healthy relationships require. One ex-boyfriend said, that I held the “Sword of Damocles” over his head for practically nothing. It was true. It took me years to stop acting like the very people I had been scarred by. It took me a few years to realize I was giving the same kind of conditional love that I was used to–the kind that withdrew completely when someone had upset me. It took me a long time to understand how to be angry with someone and not send “I don’t love you messages” to them in my anger.
I had to learn to say, “I’m angry. I still love you, but I’m angry right now.” For me, those were always two mutually exclusive things, both to give and receive and I had to learn to de-ice the love when I was angry.
It took a long while of observation, preparation and cultivation. I had to observe what I was doing and then prepare to change it. To realize that people could not and should not be cut off because I was angry with them….I had to reign in my emotions, do my work in my family of origin, do my grief work, learn to work through some of the emotions that held me hostage and kept me from lovely and loving relationships. I had to deal with the emotions that caused all of my reactions and responses to be over the top.
My therapist said that I didn’t just get angry, but I attacked people “Like Sherman took Richmond.” It was the perfect way to describe me. Whenever I was angry I had to ask myself if my anger was appropriate for the situation. Many times it was not.
I had to stop seeing people who cared for me, really cared for me, as being weak or asking what was wrong with them. I had to learn to accept their love and accept their imperfections. I wanted someone who acted like they loved me and to be consistent about it. I had to do the same.
After many years of working on myself, I married a man who consistently showed me he loved me. He told me he loved me, just about once a day, but more importantly he always ACTED as if he loved me and not just loved me, but loved me UNCONDITIONALLY. Michael expected love to be an action and acted lovingly toward those he loved. It was fairly simple in his book; fairly complicated in mine. But the bottom line was the same.
And most importantly I have come to love and to trust the people in my life so that I can love them unconditionally. I’ve learned how to live in a world where my relationships are with people who love me unconditionally and I love them the same way. And true love only happens when that is present.
And for all of us, in my world today, love is what we do. It is possible to come from a dysfunctional and crazy past and learn how to love. It really is possible.