The mightiest word

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
–from “Praise Song for the Day” by Elizabeth Alexander

Last week I wrote a post (Playing the Death Card) in which I related an experience I had with tarot cards back in the early 1990s. I knew as I wrote the post that there were members of my family, and likely some friends, who would be concerned on religious and/or spiritual grounds about my use of these cards. Sure enough, later that morning I received an email from one of my sisters. She was resisting the urge to comment, she said. She went on: “Instead, if you would like to know what I think, let me know and we can discuss it.  If not, no problem, and I won’t bring it up again.” She signed off with love.

Contrast that experience with the one recounted in this deeply sad post I read earlier this week, To Forgive. The author, Justine Graykin, tries to come to terms with the death of her only sister, whose terminal illness was kept a secret from her – at the sister’s request – because of Justine’s atheism. The sister refused to have a relationship with someone whose beliefs did not include God. And so she died, denying both sisters the opportunity to forgive or to choose love over implacability.

Two tales of sisters, one in which love fosters understanding and another in which love fosters alienation. So, as I’ve thought about these (among other things in an emotionally eventful week), I find myself asking:

Is love really hard, or do we just make it that way?

The only answer I can find is that we make love hard by our unending need to be in control. To have the people and events in our lives conform to our conception of what and who they should be.

What if we could let go of all that?

I have been trying to do this in my life and relationships, and I’m learning a few things:

  • There is a difference between not controlling and not showing up. Me being who I am and letting others see that, see my preferences, my feelings, my responses is important. When I don’t do that I am just a tabula rasa (a blank slate) for their projections. Like Julia Roberts’ character in “The Runaway Bride”, my favorite style of eggs are whatever style the person I am with likes. People may enjoy having themselves mirrored back, but it doesn’t allow for much depth of relationship.
  • Love and respect require honesty. And I don’t mean bluntness. Or “I just call it as I see it” approaches. These are typically masks for allowing oneself to steamroll over another person. I mean the kind of honesty that requires courage – sharing your true feelings, showing your insecurities and hurts, putting words to the fears that make you want to control the other person. 
  • Honesty is a two-way street. If love and respect require you to be honest with others, they also require that you ask for and seek honesty from the other person. Listen carefully. Ask questions, even if you are afraid of the answers. In fact, ask specifically the questions you are afraid to know the answers to – because all that secret fear is toxic to relationships and makes you want to grasp for control.
  • Definitions are not required. Our love for defining and quantifying things is deeply ingrained. But, except in a few specific instances (such as “spouse” “parent” “sibling”), we don’t have to check a box beside each of our relationships. This is why I have never been a fan of the term “best friend”. Best implies a hierarchy. At different moments, different people may fulfill the role of being the best person for me to be with or interact with. Relationships, even those defined by a title, are not static. They ebb and flow.

There are people in our lives who are not willing or able to meet us in exactly the spot where we stand on the path. Some are further ahead than we are, others are behind us with regard to maturity, confidence, ability to engage authentically with others. Instead of seeing these differences as problems and trying to force our steps to be in synch, what if we rejoiced in each other’s unique perspectives? What if our hopes and dreams for the others in our lives were not that they become who we think they should be, but rather that they become the best version of themselves – and allow them to define who that person would be?

Maybe love could stop being so hard. Maybe love could become free flowing and easy. Maybe love could cast a “widening pool of light” as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem suggests.

In the end, the question isn’t really, “What if the mightiest word is love?” Because it is. The question, I think, is: “What if we managed to let love be mighty?” How would our lives and the world around us change?

4 thoughts on “The mightiest word

  1. Thank you for the mention of my piece. I enjoyed reading this post. I might suggest that the word “love”, like the word “God”, is one whose definition is hard to pin down. Everyone had a different conception. It comes with baggage and connotations. It makes some people uncomfortable. To say “I believe in God,” tells a person almost nothing, because they could mean some sort of vague “higher power”, or the Christian God of the Old Testament, or simply the principle of love. I can say “I love you,” but it does not mean the same thing when I say it to my husband, my children, or when I say I love key lime pie.

    So I prefer to use words like “compassion” and “understanding”. I can feel compassion towards nearly every living thing, and it means pretty much the same thing in every case. It lacks the ambiguity of “love”.

    All of this does nothing, however, to contradict what you say in your post, which contains a great deal of wisdom. Consider it a supplement, or a footnote, if you will.

    1. Justine: I wanted to comment on your post, but words escaped me – as you so rightly point out, many of the words we think denote big and specific meanings are actually fairly ambiguous. And when writing to a stranger about such a personal sharing…well, I would have wanted the words to be just right.

      I can’t disagree with your comments about the word love. It is inexact and means different things in differing contexts. And yet, I find this is exactly what I like most about love. It can be messy and lack specificity, but it always implies a degree of feeling that is special and just isn’t covered by words such as “like” or “admire”. Though compassion is an excellent choice, too.

      I really appreciated the substantive comments on my post. I am unsure about blogging etiquette when referring so directly to another bloggers piece – if I should have contacted you in advance, I apologize. Hopefully, the fact that your story touched me deeply came through.

      Best wishes!

      1. It’s a nice gesture to ask for permission before reposting a blog, but Internet reality is that people repost and link to stuff all the time without bothering to ask. It creates a “ping-back” so that the OP knows this has happened, can check it out, and request that the link be removed or the repost taken down if they think it is inappropriate. Most folks are happy to have their posts spread around.

        As for “writing to a stranger about such a personal sharing”, anything posted to the Internet is public property and up for grabs. It’s an invitation to comment. I got some shockingly insensitive comments, but that’s what happens when one exposes oneself to public scrutiny. I knew the risk. But it was what I felt I had to do to try to make sense of what happened to me. I am a writer. I’m putting myself out there all the time, risking criticism and rejection. The reward when I am able to touch the hearts of others, when I can make them smile or think, makes the risk worth it.

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