This is the next to the last in the series of Life Lessons and this one may be the hardest for me to write. The lesson on love that I learned early in life is best described by C. S. Lewis from his masterpiece "The Four Loves" -
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
In the most traditional sense of love, that incredible energy that flows between a man and a woman, I've not been successful at all. I spent most of my life in a self-made coffin of selfishness. Consequently, I don't have much to offer in the way of romance. I'm convinced at this stage of my life that this failure at romance was much because I refused to be vulnerable. I'm one of those women who jumped into romance as a teenager with someone I barely knew.
My first marriage was marked by abuse. I was a battered wife and I fought back with a fury I didn't know existed within me, but it wasn't enough. I was no match for a grown man at age 18. There were no domestic violence centers and I did what any normal American girl would do in that situation. I called Daddy and begged him to come rescue me. He did. The whole mess was heartbreak for my family. No one in our family had ever been divorced. No one. I was the first. I was 19 years old. I was deeply ashamed and I was also damaged, and even I didn't realize how badly.
When I married the father of my children, I honestly thought I had gotten it right - finally! I was 30 years old and we went through the requisite pre-marital counseling with the Pastor before being married in a traditional ceremony before God and family and friends in the church. We got pregnant on our honeymoon and nine months, 15 days later our son was born. Shortly thereafter, we bought a little 3-bedroom split level ranch in Woodstock and began our journey as the little suburban family. Three years later, I was expecting again, and we brought our daughter home from the hospital on our son's fourth birthday.
There was trouble in paradise. My attentions were focused on the children and I really did totally ignore my husband and his needs. I wasn't capable emotionally or physically of doing it all. I worked full-time in Atlanta, and by the time I got the children taken care of, household chores done, and whatever else was required, I just didn't have any energy for dates, romance, nothing. I was exhausted and I slept for whatever time I could each night. I was probably also just a little depressed. So, when our daughter was eight months old, we separated and our divorce, thanks to Georgia's no-fault divorce law, was final 30 days later.
I dated some after the divorce but only got close to marriage once. I decided against it. I really had locked up my heart and thrown away the key. My focus was on raising the children and I just couldn't find a way to balance it all. I don't regret choosing being a mother and a working woman over love and romance. I don't regret it at all. However, I must admit, that now that the children are grown and my daughter has a family of her own, it's been pretty lonely for the past six years. Even today if anyone asks me what the most challenging time of my life was, I respond without hesitation "empty nest syndrome."
As of January 2007, I was an empty nester. Both children were off on their own, pursuing their life stories and that, it seems, is the way it is supposed to be. It really is our job as parents to prepare them to move on into their own identities and their own lives. It shook me to my foundation. I had been "Momma" for so long and it filled my life with activities and duties and responsibilities. Now what to do?
My decision was to take a good look at myself and why I had been so unsuccessful in relationships. As I inventoried the rather unsavory list of failures, a light bulb went off in my head. There were a few marked patterns that needed to be addressed and corrected. I didn't do this with the thought that I would find love if I just dealt with the issues. I did this to free my heart from captivity.
The first thing I had to be honest about was that I hadn't known what love was. I was as confused about the idea as a whole lot of other people. I've discovered through church, Sunday School, support groups, casual conversation and even articles that others have written that many of us don't really understand love.
For me, and this is very personal, I was confusing love with identification. I went into every relationship in a wounded state and in finding someone else who was wounded, we identified with each other. It is so easy to confuse identification with "love." For some insane reason, each time we thought that because we identified with each other we could "fix" each other by loving enough. Wow. I believe there have been enough books written about codependency to fill a whole section of a library, but I never got it until I got it. I guess that's true for most things. It was right there, staring me in the face for years, but I couldn't see it until I could see it. And once I was aware, I have to admit that the truth was very painful, but it did set me free.
For quite a while, I've dedicated myself to re-educating myself on what love is. I've been blessed to see love in action among so many couples. And while that romantic ideal is something I'd love to experience before I die, it's not a pursuit. I'm not on any online dating services. I don't pursue men. Oh trust me; I've watched some of my single women friends pursue with the dedication of a bloodhound searching for a body. That's just not me. I have learned some things, and I'm grateful to have a different perspective today. Once again, I'm willing to share. I'm no expert. Believe me when I say I'm not sure I know much. Here's what I've learned:
- Love begins with me. If I'm not willing to love myself, if I'm not willing to exercise self-care, self-respect, etc., why would anyone else? Another aspect of this is that I am a complete person. With all deference to Jerry Maguire, no one else will complete me. My Creator made me a whole person with everything required to live. I will be able to breathe whether I am in love or not in love. I am responsible for myself and for my feelings. No one else is. No one can hurt me unless I give my permission, as Eleanor Roosevelt said. I have to set the tone and the boundaries for the ways in which I expect to be treated. Love begins with me.
- What happened in the past is in the past. Nothing that is in the past is happening to me today. My Creator has removed the guilt and shame of past failures by showing me that they have helped me to learn what I don't want to do as well as teaching me better ways of loving. The bags of trash that I accumulated earlier in life have been stashed in the garbage and taken away. For example, I mentioned having been a battered wife. I am no longer afraid. I don't expect anyone to hurt me. I know how to set boundaries. And most of the time, I can honestly say that I don't confuse what happens today with what happened yesterday. That has been huge in terms of unlocking my heart.
- In an effort to learn real love, I've been able to work with family and friends to learn what love feels like. I'm blessed to have four siblings. Like any large family, there are those of us who are closer to one or another for various reasons. We all love each other, but differently. I've been able to learn that we all don't love the same way and each of us is unique in our ability to give and receive love and how that is expressed. It's the same with friends. Some like to hug. Others don't. Some are talkers. Others are gift givers. Others just quietly sit in the background and pray. Love comes in many forms and I've learned to give and to receive and be grateful, no matter what form it takes.
- I've been able to move away from the idea that chemical reactions with pheromones (lust) is in any way related to real love. Oh sure, attraction is a wonderful thing, but I've known for a long time that attraction is not love. Lust is not love. So when I find myself reacting chemically to someone, I have a tendency to step back and evaluate my behaviors and my reactions. I don't want to be confused anymore. I don't need to add sexual addiction to my list of things to overcome.
- The most important thing I've done is to look to my Creator and the great spiritual literature available to me and see how love is defined. I have done my best to integrate those lessons and imprint them on my heart. I don't search for love, as I said earlier. I do search for ways TO love. I reach out to those who seem to need love and even more to those who seem impervious to love. The more I love, the more I am able to love. If there is a gift that I perceive as most miraculous from my Creator, it is the heart's seemingly endless capacity for love. I test it to the limits, both among those who are dear and among those who don't seem quite so loveable. In loving and concentrating on loving rather than being loved, my heart has blossomed.
A number of years ago, when I was writing a newsletter for Woodstock United Methodist Church where I was the administrator, we were blessed to have four couples in one year who were all celebrating a Golden Anniversary. Four couples celebrating 50 years of marriage - even I knew that was an amazing opportunity for an article! I was able to catch each husband and each wife and ask the same question - "What is the secret of your marriage?" Mind you, every one of these couples was very happily in love even after 50 years together. It was incredulous to me that each person gave me the same answer, even though each of them was asked individually while they were alone. "We are best friends and always have been."
Honestly, that was the start of my journey to unlock my heart. Those couples were all so dear to me and they were so happy together. Sadly, some of them have passed away. The surviving spouses keep moving forward, but you can hear the loneliness in their voices. I continue to honor their love in my heart and I pray for each of them daily.
I am so blessed to have family with whom I share great love. My children and my precious grandchildren keep my heart open and vulnerable. My parents and my siblings and their children do the same. When my niece traveled to Uganda last year on a mission of mercy, my heart was filled with love, pride and prayers for her safety. I have those same feelings toward my friends. I have great love for friends, near and far, no matter how frequently or infrequently we talk or see each other. My prayers are filled with gratitude and intercession for those whom I love and love deeply. My heart is so filled sometimes I wonder at the miracle of it. And all this blessing is because I was willing to change and change in a way that was pleasing to my Creator. He was the one who gave me the gift, just as He bestows every gift in my simple life.
I will never celebrate 50 years with anyone. I determined years ago, and keep that commitment today, that I will serve my Creator and serve Him gladly as a single woman rather than to settle for less than meeting my best friend and falling in love. There are so many people who haven't been loved that I could spend the rest of my life reaching out to them and never feel as though I've been denied anything. In doing so, if I happen to find my best friend, so be it. If not, I don't feel one morsel of regret.
This prayer, which I pray each day, helps me to keep my heart open and receptive to how I might be used to bring love to someone. I imagine most of you have seen it before. If you are struggling with love, perhaps it will help unlock the chains of your heart.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.
Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.