I was going to write an article about self – love. However, I felt it would help to explore what love is, before delving into how we can show love to ourselves. How can we love ourselves if we don’t first know what love is, right?
So that’s what I was thinking when Haddaway’s hit song from 1993 shot into my thoughts. It goes like this: “What is love? Oh baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me, no more..” Remember that song?
I thought it interesting that this song choice popped to mind; love coupled with the word hurt. We all experience love differently based on what we experienced about it in our youth, from our parents, grandparents, friends, schooling, our local environment but also we learn about love in the big wide world from the media. And anything else that infiltrates our eyes, ears and subtle awareness.
Does love hurt? Well the truth is, my truth at least, is that yes, love did hurt for most of my life, up until my turning point of transformation 4 years ago. I had a confusing taste of what love meant growing up and I think most of us do. We only realise this with hindsight, when we are forced into situations that confront our deeply embedded and unexamined belief systems.
Let me list some examples of my confusions about what love meant in my childhood and see if you also have similar confusions in your past experience:
– I was told I was loved by my parents, and I was shown love, warmth and I was well provided for. When I was a ‘good girl’ I felt loved but sometimes when I didn’t meet their expectations, I felt unloved. I also got whacked sometimes too and the whack faaar outweighed whatever had prompted it. I now realise that sometimes I was not punished but anger and frustration was taken out on me; these are different. I knew as a child that it was wrong to be hit. So to be loved and also to be whacked, and I mean whaaacked, was confusing.
– My parents were married, and I thought they loved each other, in lots of ways they were very happy together but oftentimes they weren’t. I guess I took the love bit for granted, I mean people that married and had children loved each other, didn’t they? I remember once my dad had been in the pub for a whole day. My mum was furious, I think the dog got his dinner. And when he came home they had a huge row. This was terrifying, watching him getting his stuff whilst threatening to leave, hearing the shouting and witnessing the fighting. This happened a lot. Love was arguing, drama, blaming and shaming.
– I told my nanny I loved her in a moment of sincere affection I felt in my heart, I must have been around seven at this time, and her response was one of embarrassment. She asked me, “What you saying that for?” I remember wondering why she couldn’t say it back or give me a hug or something. With one grandmother love was very practical.
– Princess Diana marrying Prince Charles – epic. Love story and fairy tale, until Prince Charles was asked in an engagement interview if he was in love and he said (ironically) “Yes, whatever love means.” This apparently destroyed Princess Diana, she thought it such a strange thing for him to have said at such a ‘happy’ moment. The rest is, as the saying goes, history.
– The Gulf War – splashed all over the newspapers. I was ten years old and remember we had to write a report about it at school. The images of dead children all over the media frightened me, what kind of love was this in the world? Love for some, for children that looked like me and came from the same part of the world as me, but no love for others?
– Affairs abounded in adult conversations I would overhear, concerning friends and family members. Happy families weren’t what they seemed. People lied. Love wasn’t safe.
– I remember going to visit George, an old man in the village where I grew up, who kept rabbits and pigs. I used to love seeing them and stroking them all. One day I went to see the rabbits and to my shock and horror, there was a dead rabbit hanging on the wall next to the other caged rabbits. This was a big awakening for me to the fact that George killed his rabbits so that people could put them in casseroles. I was a devastated! How could somebody kill their pets, I thought and eat them? That wasn’t loving was it?
– Let’s not start on the films I watched growing up! Beautiful and picture-perfect-looking leading actresses meeting Prince Charming on white horses with MASSIVE wallets to go with their rippling muscles. Love meant looking like them and seeking what they did. I was doomed to fail from the start!
So what happened to love in our own teenage and adult lives as a result of our childhood experience?
In our culture love is often transactional, you do this or be this and I’ll be this. Fulfil my wishes, my desires, make up for what I lack, complete me, be my better half ( so I don’t have to change or meet certain needs in myself) wear a nice shirt for me, be a certain way for me etc. Make ME happy, fulfil my expectations. ‘Love’ is often comfortable, profitable and when it isn’t anymore, it hurts and it’s over. Is that love? Does love just end? Of course we can experience love, but there are limits it seems. Does love have limits?
I think to really love, we must be willing to surrender. The personality being too needy and self-serving in the midst ,makes love conditional. And I don’t think there is love and conditional love. There is just love and the other is a selfish ‘kind’ of love, as Michael Jackson writes in Man in the Mirror, ” I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love, its time that I realised..”
Rabbi Abraham Twerski talks about the difference between selfish love and true love, which must be a love of giving and not of receiving. Here’s the video I refer to and a transcript of it below:
“Young man, why are you eating that fish?” The young man says, “Because I love fish.” The man says “Oh, you love the fish. That’s why you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it.” He says, “Don’t tell me you love the fish, you love yourself. And because the fish tastes good to you–therefore you took it out of the water and killed it and boiled it.”
So much of what is love is fish love. A young couple falls in love. A young man and a young woman fall in love, what does that mean? That means that he saw in this woman someone who he felt could provide him with all of his physical and emotional needs. And she saw in this man somebody she feels she can write–that was love. But each one is looking out for their own needs. It’s not love for the other. The other becomes a vehicle for my gratification.
Too much of what is called love, is fish love. An external love is not what I’m going to get but what I’m going to give. We had an ethicist–Rabbi Dessler–who said “People make a serious mistake in thinking that you give to those whom you love. And the real answer is you love those to whom you give.” And his point is, if I give something to you, I’ve invested myself in you. And since self-love is a given–everybody loves themselves. Now that part of me has become in you, there’s part of me in you that I love. So true love is a love of giving, not a love of receiving.
So yes I learned about selfish love, I watched and copied as children do. But as a very young child I also knew what unconditional love was and I didn’t learn this from adults.
The love I experienced as the most gentle, real, kind and patient was from my cat, Footsie. I didn’t have to be a certain way for her, she had no expectations of me. She came to me and put her paws around my neck every night when I was in my bunk bed, her head nestled between my shoulder and chin. This was where I felt really loved and knew pure, unconditional love.
Maybe the fact that as a society, we love selfishly, points in general to how selfish we have become and it is time to realise this. It is not our fault, we copied our elders, our teachers, but we can change, we must change. If we can’t unconditionally love others, it means we aren’t unconditionally loving ourselves, first. And that’s where it needs to start and where we can go to work. As ever, if we wish to change anything in the world, we need only change it, firstly, in ourselves. I’ll write about that next time x