had a fascinating exchange the other day with someone who we can just refer to as mother theresa in a sundress (either that or an expensive cami, but i'm trying to keep this g-rated) and we got around to discussing my particular quirk about being conditioned not to be comfortable receiving gestures of kindness, let alone love. i think i've hinted here about how i've come to understand this as one of the most selfish parts of me, if you can follow my meaning, but more on that in a moment.
her reaction to uncovering my selfish little secret was genuine surprise that i would hold her unconditional expressions of kindness, affection, and, who knows, even love, with such high regard as much for their kindness, affection, and, who knows, even love, as for what i perceived to be their precious rarity in this great big wonderful world of ours. imagine knowing someone who can't even conceive of the absence of caring, copiously and unconditionally, for everyone in her life. imagine someone who could hear of my sad little stories, and have her heart break, for even a moment in my life of not knowing unconditional kindness, affection, and, you know it, love.
the point at which we each arrived, she from her incredulity that love is not understood to be the default human setting, and me from my experience that love is, indeed, not necessarily understood to be the default human setting, at least when it comes to demonstration, was to marvel that a very nice solution would be so easy if only people were better at *receiving* love. who knew--to fix the world, and this is pretty clear to both of us, we don't have to go around telling people to be better people, and to be more loving, blah blah blah, but we only have to convince people to be better at simply *receiving* those acts of kindness, affection, and, indeed, love. "be selfish", as it were. me, i think jesus should have been a bit more clear about "the greatest of these is love" bit, so he could have hinted that love is in both giving AND the receiving. every sunday morning on those hard pews at church, and my whole life for that matter, would have turned out a whole lot different, i think.
here's how the cycle got so broken in my life, that i wound up (at least temporarily) wounded and alone: kid raised by the union of german calvinist discipline with skinflint yankee self-reliance is taught never to accept as charity anything one could do for ones self. (we were supposed to serve god and his creation, not the other way around). the clearest memory of grandparental reaction to tears of any sort is the admonition that "that's beautiful music, and when you cut it out, we can get you down to the hospital for those stitches" (or "resume doing what you're told", as the case may be). gifts of any kind, whether tangible, in observation of a birthday or christmas, or intangible, as with a kind, affectionate or loving gesture, were immediately the subject of discussion as to the specific obligation incurred upon receipt. from thank-you notes, to actually having to say "no, thank you, i can manage", there was never a lesson on how to simply let a feeling of kindness, affection, or, heaven forbid, love cause a lapse in protocol.
fast-forward to married life, where, early on, dinner might have been put on the table prior to a spouse coming home. (funny how this particular story did actually turn up in both mother t's as well as my past). what does said spouse do, and feel? if you're broken, like i am, you might feel uncomfortable, and further replay the lessons of a liberal education in your head, and feel like, "gee, that's a sexist stereotype, and we ought not to fall into that pattern" or something like that. and so, regardless of whether or not you might have truly appreciated a prepared meal at the end of a work day, you don't go down that road of letting yourself feel that true appreciation, let alone show it to the one who worked that stove for awhile to afford you the privilege. so the chef gets no love or gravy for their trouble. (the german/yankee pragmatist would say, "charity is its own reward--get over it"). and they feel like what they've done has been a chore--unvalued and unappreciated, and, because they also likely are playing that liberal education stereotype thing in their own head, they grow a little callous where that love-and-affection reflex used to be, and sooner or later they don't fire up that stove in anticipation of their evah-lovin' comin' home at 5. (well, most likely 7 because this evah-luvin is one of those protestant work ethic types, but that's a selfishness discussion for another time).
it all crystalized for me while i was trying to be earl's better person and save my beyond-saving marriage. see, dishes have always been anathema to me, ever since they were the embodiment of "i don't wanna" among me and my siblings. yeah, dusting on saturday mornings when we could have been out playing was just as loathsome, but that only came once a week, and that hot and finger-pruning slimy dishwater was every single freakin' night. so i hated doing 'em even more than most folks would hate doing 'em, and it didn't matter that the older me had a dishwasher thanks to all those 7pm returns from work, i just had this bizarre semi-subconscious mental psychosis that i'd do anything before i'd move one glass from the sink to that top rack. and would it have made me feel loved that she put those dishes, each and every night, into that top rack *for* me??? of course not!!! it only made me feel, deep down inside, loathsome and lazy, (that calvinist work ethic again) and we all know how quickly we become averse to facing those who make us feel loathsome and lazy, even if it's absolutely nothing to do with them that we're all loathsome and lazy at times in our lives.
so that moment of crystal clarity came when i realized that having glassware and other dishes put into that top rack *for* her made HER feel loved. quelle surprise!!! done dishes wouldn't have made me feel loved, (just relieved it didn't have to be me doing them), of course, as we've covered in all that self-loathing stuff in the last paragraph, but it would have made HER feel loved... and here i was, the most selfish person in the world, physically incapable of feeling the kindness, affection and, indeed, love, that putting dishes into dishwashers represents (because, as any german yankee can tell you, dishes have to be cleaned, and cleanliness is part of that godliness thing that we're all talking about) and, insult to injury, singularly incapable of doing them myself.
dishes weren't a chore! dishes were, perhaps, the single easiest and quickest way to endear myself to someone to whom i craved to be endeared! and endearing ones self to someone to whom you crave to be endeared feels GOOD! for both of you! see, this all could have worked because she equated dishes with love, and though she'd have had to find something else *i* enjoyed, like, say, home prepared food, to make it work for her, it was right there for me in plain sight--the answer to my life's longing.
see, we all want to feel loved. i could have had it all for the simple trivial gesture of doing her dishes, coupled with letting myself feel cared-for when i had a meal prepared for me when i got home, and saying how much i appreciated it. simple!
my mt-in-a-sundress friend was dumbstruck by how incredibly freakin' stupid it is that somebody actually didn't realize this. (there were two of us involved in that train wreck of a marriage, actually, and, yeah, she got that right). however, in my defense, true confessions proved that, earlier in her life, her train had also fallen off that very same track, too, and none of us is ever perfect.
so here's what i know now: the most loving thing you can do--even more loving than making that "selfless" sacrifice that chances are you're really only doing so that you can tell yourself how "loving" you are to be doing it--is to let someone who loves you DO for you. dishes. dinner. gifts. sexual favors. you name it. gordon-gecko it up! greed is good! just don't forget to relish how it feels. bathe in it. savor it. sip it and let it spread all around in your mouth like the nectar of the gods it truly is. and LET THEM KNOW.
because, here's what i know about me--i'm not an un-generous person. i like to do things for people. i love it when they tell me how much they appreciate it, because it makes me feel good, just like the calvinists said it would. and when i feel good, i want to do it *more*. i even loved to do the dishes for a year or two there. 'cept i don't have to do that anymore because the people with whom i'm filling my life these days are the kind of people who will compete for me for the privilege. and who would i be, but selfish, not to let them load up that dishwasher, and then tell them how much i truly adore the way such care makes me feel.