How to love your friends for who they are rather than who you think they “should” be. See The Power of Acceptance – Loving My Friends for Who They Are, the fourth of twelve articles on the power of acceptance written for Sibyl Magazine’s April edition.
My friend Jana believed the man she loved didn’t love her. She might have been right. He was tentative and hesitant and eventually left her. But she might also have been wrong. She’ll never really know because for the six months they were together, she foundered around in the very murky territory that is relationship without awareness.“Awareness, awareness, awareness, awareness. To put it somewhat graphically,” Anthony de Mello writes, “…When I’m listening to you, it’s infinitely more important for me to listen to me than to listen to you. Of course, it’s important to listen to you, but it’s more important that I listen to me. Otherwise I won’t be hearing you. Or I’ll be distorting everything you say. I’ll be coming at you from my own conditioning. I’ll be reacting to you in all kinds of ways from my insecurities, from my need to manipulate you, from my desire to succeed, from irritations and feelings that I might not be aware of. So it’s frightfully important that I listen to me when I’m listening to you.” (Awareness by Anthony de Mello, Fount Paperbacks, 1900, p. 71)
For many, very good reasons, Jana grew up without much of a spiritual core to connect with. Then her man appeared and suddenly life had meaning. She floated up out of a morass of depression and stared into a bright, warm future. It didn’t last long. If the man didn’t call exactly when he said he would, or if he didn’t want to see her every day, that future came under threat. Eventually it disappeared completely.
A year later she’s still trying to understand what happened by analyzing him – Did he not love her? –and what happened between them – Did she drive him away? She goes back and forth, what he said, what she said, scrambling for signs, for ways to calibrate discernment. But there’s no way to get to grips with it this way. Her judgment, shrouded in insecurity, is just too unreliable. The only solution is to stop asking the question and start developing some deeper level self-awareness.
This, for Jana, is particularly painful. But she’s starting to do it, nonetheless. She’s beginning to look at the agonizing insecurities at the core of her being. The tricky bit is to be able to do that without judgment, to see the shapes and contours of herself without interpreting, categorizing or criticizing. The man is irrelevant really. Focusing on him is a distraction, just as self-criticism is a distraction from Awareness. She is her own best compass as long as she can manage to listen to herself first.
Is what we call self-sacrifice always an act of love?
A few years after I met Rose (See The Dance of Self-Sacrifice Part 1), in the midst of a bad recession, my own mother got me a job where she worked in a geriatric home for women. There I met David, whose wife suffered from early-onset dementia. Like Rose and her family, I got to know him quite well during the quiet times on the ward. A vibrant, attractive man full of energy and zest for living, he had cared for his wife at home for thirteen years, until she got to the point of needing full-time monitoring. Forced to put her into residential care, he visited her every day. For a decade before she died, she barely knew who he was, yet he sat with her for hours every evening after work.
Why did he do it, day after day for almost 23 years, I asked him, expecting the usual ‘She’s the love of my life’ or ‘She’d do it for me’.
“It’s how I inhabit life,” he said. “I could be out flitting around and whatnot, but why? One thing’s as good as another if you’re in it all the way. It’s my meditation. It’s who I am.”
I’ve heard this described differently by spiritual teachers: living in the moment, accepting what is, transcendence. They never describe it as sacrifice, and neither did David. For him it was simply living. Or as Anthony de Mello would say, he was just doing his dance.
So is this the great act of love ascribed to people who put others first or is it a different kettle of fish altogether? Back to Rose and her granddaughter. They came from a big, originally Italian family and they were held together by the invisible, complex bonds of family. But I watched different groupings of them together. Because Rose wanted to please everyone, she sided with everyone. When child number 1 complained about child number 2, Rose agreed with them. Then the next day, she agreed with child number 2 against child number 1. The result, her children squabbled and fought and often didn’t speak to each other, each one believing Rose was on their side. It turned everything, from planning her funeral (which they did one Saturday) to deciding what to bring her to eat, into mini-warfare.
Her children loved each other passionately and they loved her, of that I had no doubt. And nobody could have accused this warm, generous, gentle woman of selfishness. She was generous to a fault – I often witnessed her giving money to her visitors and buying chocolates in the hospital shop for patients who didn’t have visitors. But the well of her self-sacrifice nourished a lot of unnecessary and unintended pain and conflict.
Society calls self-sacrifice love, but is it always love?
“The remarkable thing is that we really love our neighbor as ourselves:
We do unto others as we do unto ourselves.
We hate others when we hate ourselves.
We are tolerant towards others when we tolearate ourselves.
We forgive others when we forgive ourselves.
We are prone to sacrifice others when we are ready to sacrifice ourselves”
“You have to care about people. You have to put them first. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices,” Rose told me one hushed summer evening on the almost empty hospital ward where I was a nurse’s aide and she a patient.
I was a student at the time, working a summer job in a small town in Montana. There wasn’t much doing on a Sunday evening, medically speaking, so I had time to talk to the patients and their visitors. Rose had varicose ulcers that got infected every so often which meant she was a regular on the ward. I got to know her on what turned out to be her second to last visit. At least one person from Rose’s large family visited every day and they often came in bunches. She like her food, so they brought treats and ate with her. That night it was her granddaughter.
“What do you want tomorrow, Gran,” I heard her ask.
“I don’t mind. Whatever you want.”
“No, you’re in hospital. You get what you want.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll eat what you want.”
And so began the familiar, infuriating dance of self-sacrifice this lady did in almost every interaction I witnessed with her family. She learned the steps long before, as a child. Nearly four decades later, 5000 miles away, I too imbibed the same message. And twenty years after that, her granddaughter contemplated rejecting a place in the out of state college of her dreams because her grandmother might need her. This despite the fact that Rose had five children and sixteen other adult grandchildren. Where did we get it from, this notion of sacrifice as love?
Two thousand years ago a brave man was handed down a particularly cruel death penalty –crucifixion – because his message threatened the stability of an empire. He understood where his message was taking him, that it would lead to suffering and death. But his message was important, it was who he was. So he accepted his fate. Countless others have quietly done the same. In the intervening centuries, this courageous acceptance of the inevitable, has been turned into the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, of martyrdom.
Maybe this iconic image, this cornerstone of Judeo-Christian society, is the reason all three of us grew up believing self-sacrifice is a good thing, a loving thing, something to aspire to. But is it always good? Is it always an act of love?
Throughout her school years, Catherine, an avid reader, wrote many books –all of them in her imagination. Read More.
- The Power of Awareness: A Journey Through Breathing May 14, 2016
- The Power of Awareness: Witnessing Without Judging March 24, 2016
- The Power of Awareness: Body Awareness February 23, 2016