Sunday, September 14, 2014

How to Love Well

Today dawned crisp and clear, a beautiful Colorado fall morning.  Everyone slept in late, enjoying the opportunity to rest more after a busy week.  Angela and I were preparing to head up toward the Grand Mesa, where I was going to sing at a wedding in the afternoon.  The location was stunning, a small ranch with log cabins dotting the hillside, sheltered by aspens.  It was a great chance to spend a little one on one time with Angela, and the drive up and back was lively as conversation flitted from one topic to the next.

The young couple, so earnest as they recited their vows to one another, were completely authentic and endearing.  This was a wedding that was not a high budget, over the top extravaganza.  A beautiful homemade dress, a groom donning a cowboy hat and tails, decor pulled together by the mother and future mother-in-law, all helped to create an atmosphere that was the antithesis of "Say Yes to the Dress" kinds of affairs.

Someone thought to visit each table with a video camera and asked guests to offer their best marriage advice to the newlyweds.  Put on the spot, everyone sputtered a quick sentence or two with general comments of well wishes, and I did much the same.  Afterward, however, Angela and I talked a lot about what love is, and I was called upon to give some real thought to the questions, "What makes a great marriage?  What is real love like?"

Interesting to ponder after this week's news reports of the fact that, by official count, 50.2% of the American population is now single.  So often I hear such negative comments about married life, including today at the table as those who were embittered over love gone wrong struggled to find any positive things to say at all about being married.

I realized something as I conversed with Angela.  While not an expert by any means, I do know a little something about the topic.  I am blessed with a thriving, healthy marriage of 28 years, and we have welcomed five strangers into our home to live with us, developing deep bonds of commitment and respect, let alone abiding love.  I had never given it a whole lot of thought before, but I have finally arrived at an age and stage of life where I have gained a little wisdom and experience.  I know things now.  I've tried and failed at many things, succeeded at others, and figured out "how to do love well".  

I know that love is acceptance, not of mediocrity, but of human frailty.  If only we could look inward in complete honesty, we would see our own failings, and that honest assessment might help us come to a place of humble acceptance of others and their very human failings.  

We want one person to be our Spiritual and Physical Everything.  That order is far, far too tall, and incredibly unrealistic.  While I deeply love Dominick, and I know he deeply loves me, we are far from each other's Everything.  The human soul is much too complex to be able to have a single person fulfill each and every part of us, and to expect that from another is unfair.  It is also lazy, as that means we are unwilling to do the hard work of putting ourselves out there to meet others who can fill in the cracks that our One and Only leaves not quite completely covered.

We are harmed more by our pasts than we ever want to admit, or are even capable of seeing.  Love doesn't stand a chance if we hold every potential partner accountable for the sins of others that came before.  We generalize, we categorize, we don't leave space for new people we meet to be wholly themselves, as they stand before us forced to be imaginatively dressed in the garb of our former partners or parents.  We make them pay for all the wrongs of others, then wonder why they don't live up to our expectations.  Such difficult patterns to break, and yet break them we must in order to allow someone to stand before us undiscovered and unfettered.

I have learned that love is often contradictory, it is a study in opposites attracting...then having those very opposite qualities that once called out to you drive you nuts!  Appreciation wanes, and frustration drifts in.  Acknowledging that this will inevitably happen is how love survives.  Forcing yourself to see the value in partnering with one whose strengths are your own weaknesses, and vice versa, is what can help love to thrive.  That whole "You complete me." romantic statement can only be true if your "other half" is indeed the other half of you that is missing, and not an exact replica of the you that you bring to the table.  This can infuriate and fascinate those who are willing to grab the hand of their mate and, fingers entwined, move forward in gratitude for those very frustrating qualities that we don't always understand, yet intuitively know we need in our lives.

Being voluntarily accountable to one another is love, and one key to that mysterious emotion that many resent the most.  We must be willing to be bound to another, and that can be very hard to do.  
Men and women alike tug at the reins, unwilling to be yoked to someone else and pulling in the same direction.  Of course, we are Americans, boot strappers and lovers of all things independent.  But love leans on one another, and freely recognizes that in relationship with others, we have an obligation to them.  For many, this can be the hardest thing to do, but it is necessary for a healthy, committed relationship.  Are you giving up something?  Yes, undoubtedly so.  But I have a secret for you, one that few today ever want to readily admit in our "You can have it ALL" world.  You can't have it all, you really and truly can't.  You are playing head games with yourself if you believe this to be true, for you have to give up something to gain something.   Love can often be more about deciding what it is you are willing to give up, than it is what you will take.

Love requires presence.  It asks of us that we work hard at it, all the time, and that we don't neglect it, leaving it sit on a shelf only to be pulled down from time to time to appreciate.  Love has a shelf life,   if left disregarded, it withers.  Oh, it might still be sitting there, waiting for you, but without regular attention, you are missing out on the sweetness of all that love can be, and are instead settling for a stale version, hardened and lacking texture.

Most of all, I have come to learn that everlasting love, the kind worth giving your heart over to, asks of us to be courageous.  To be in a satisfying relationship, be it with a spouse, partner, parent or friend, means exposing as much of your whole authentic self as possible, and that can be terribly frightening.  It means asking the questions you are afraid to ask, it means boldly risking rejection as you share your innermost thoughts, and it means daring to trust another with your yearning and devotion, hoping against hope that it won't be thrown back at you.  The kind of love that is singularly fulfilling means you must have the courage to reveal your tender spots, as the one you adore gingerly does the same.  It is that process of bringing all of ourselves to the table and laying out the emotional buffet that makes the kind of love that fills us up possible.  Without that courage and revelation, there will always, always be something missing. 

Loving well is a complicated, messy affair.  We think it is the thing of Romcoms and billowy white wedding gowns, when in reality, it is everything but that.  We also almost never get it right the first time, or even the second or third time.  It must be practiced and tested, but over time, we just might eventually get it right.  If not, keep on trying, for love is worth all the effort.

Now, if I could only learn to love myself as fully and completely as I seem to be able love others.  There's always something to work on, isn't there?


Julie said...

Cindy, this is beautiful. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I am getting married next month and these words are coming at the perfect time.