The quintessential coming-of-age story involves the tug-of-war between belief and experience. That’s true not only in fiction but also in real life. Belief bumps into experience, and we discover that they’re not in sync. Sometimes it takes us a while to figure that out, especially with love. Love is famously blind.
When we were children, we thought in pure polar opposites about every issue, including love. The young girl picks petals off a daisy, chanting, “He loves me; he loves me not.” Either this or that. One or the other. With experience, we discover that love gets mixed with all kinds of other emotions. Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we realize that, in spite of all our good intentions, we misused love, turning it into something self-serving instead of self-giving.
Our first experience with self-serving love probably came in the form of conditional love: “I’ll love you if . . .” We were all born craving love, acceptance, and belonging. Even though as children, we couldn’t logically point out the difference between conditional and unconditional love, we could sense it. Even if our family loved us unconditionally, it’s a good bet that the rest of the world didn’t. We learned that love and acceptance often comes with strings attached. “I’ll be your friend if –.” Or “We’ll accept you if –.” Or “If you love me, you’ll –.” Of course, we’re not totally innocent in this. We learn to do it as well.
Another type of self-serving love is totally of our own making, and we fall into it head over heels: pure physical attraction. In our culture, we’re surrounded by stories in books, movies, ads, games, and websites that formulize love: beautiful girl + handsome guy = love. Ah, insta-love. I’m not saying that’s completely bogus. Physical attraction can bloom into self-giving love. But calling simple physical attraction love is stretching it. I’m reminded of singer Tina Turner’s line, “What’s love got to do with it?” Often the answer is, “Nothing.” Lust is fairly easy to come by. True love not so much.
Pity is another offshoot of love. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with open-eyed, open-hearted altruism and compassion. Our world needs more of it. But when it slides into blind pity, we can easily place ourselves in the role of someone’s savior and call it love. Yes, we should feel concern for people in need. It’s right to want to help them address their problems and alleviate their distress. The desire to right wrongs is noble and good, and acting on that desire is honorable. It uplifts us as well as the people we help. When we take part in righting the world’s wrongs, we feel good and useful and significant. But when we crave that good and useful feeling so much that we take over and play savior, our impulse to help can turn into self-serving love. In that case, we risk being unhelpful, causing damage not only to those we want to help but to ourselves as well.
This savior twist on love can also happen when we try to rescue people who don’t really want to be rescued. Some people would never say they enjoy victimhood, but they thrive on being perceived as victims. So as long as they can draw on our “love” (aka pity), they don’t have to change. In other words, our “love” enables them to continue being the victims. We may claim we are emptying ourselves out of love, but they are using our fuel for their journey and leaving us depleted.
It’s easy for parents or family members to take on the savior role, even for those who don’t see themselves as victims. We truly want the people we love to thrive. We don’t want to see them struggle or get hurt. After all, we’ve been there, done that, and we know the road. We can see what needs to be done, and they can’t. (Or so we think.) So with all good intentions, we guide someone’s life like a director taking charge of a movie. Meaning well, we step in and call the shots. While this may look and feel self-giving, it’s actually self-serving; it serves our need to control. True self-giving honors the rights of others to make their own decisions and live their own lives.
In helping situations, it can be extremely hard to know when to step in and when to pull back. We often don’t realize that our love has stepped out of bounds. I find educator and writer Parker Palmer‘s advice helpful: Don’t evade, but don’t invade. When we realize we’ve overstepped and invaded, it’s easy to turn on ourselves in anger and regret. The way out of that is . . . love. Real, open-eyed, self-giving love is always home base – extending respect, encouragement, honesty, and kindness toward others and to ourselves.
Next week: Is it Love? Questions to Ask if You Wonder
Meanwhile, have a love-ly week!
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Text and photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.