This is not a story of finding love in all the wrong places, nor is it going to be an intellectual discussion on love and how to define it. For me, love has been a challenging concept, and I am certain its understanding has alluded me. This story lacks the detail to fully describe a life lived, but instead provides a glimpse of a lengthy journey to discover love.
I think as a child I thought love took the form of a new toy, bike, or book I was immersed in. In my family I heard my parents say they loved me, at times they expressed it through hugs, but mostly love took the form of action. My dad acted on his love for us by providing financially and creating opportunities for family vacations. My mom communicated her love through cooking, she made great meals, and keeping the house organized and clean. I knew my dad loved his work, but I am not sure I ever heard my mom express what she loved doing. I learned love is primarily what you do for others and yet this still did not seem to fully embody the idea of love.
Entering my teen years unfolded yet other dimensions of love. Strong feelings for young women developed. I also found myself drawn to print images of women. I learned that my feelings toward other women, once expressed and acted on would fade with time. On the other hand, my attraction to print images persisted and I kept searching for more. The idea of love became confusing. A love for playing sports continued to develop and oddly enough, growing up in Arizona, snow skiing was where I found myself most comfortable. There was always something about being in the middle of a steady snow and the stillness it created.
My sophomore year in college proved to be magical for me. This is when I first met Robin who is now my wife. This first encounter went beyond the physical attraction, touching something deeper in me, I felt completely drawn and in love with her. Soon after there was an encounter, what I call God, that shifted my perspective and created a sense of feeling loved much like I felt with Robin. Later, in my junior year in college, psychology and religion sparked a love for learning about people, relationships, and God. I continued to find being outdoors in nature and allowing my senses to take in all that surrounded me, somehow, resulted in feeling full and loved. Was it possible that I was now beginning to understand love?
Well from here, it was five years of graduate school in Marriage and Family Therapy, at least I was studying love and relationships. Then I found myself working, loving it, but perhaps loving the way it fed my ego. In work, I loved accomplishing, hearing how well I was doing, and clients telling me how much they appreciated my help. When I failed to help clients, it triggered a deep hidden insecurity. Next was the experience of having children. The birth of our children 27 and 25 years ago created a whole new space and depth to my understanding of love. Just listening to them breath while they were sleeping fostered a connection I did not fully understand. For the first 10 years of their lives, work took a back seat as my focus shifted to their needs. Unfortunately, I did not pursue intimacy with Robin in the same way and as the children became more independent, work beckoned me back. As I reflect, it was easier to work and help others than it was to risk acting on my love for my wife and children by becoming more vulnerable with them.
Truth is, I did not fully understand vulnerability. Not until the past three years of my life, I am now 57, have the circumstances of my life taught me love is found through facing my challenges, my shame, my insecurities, and my arrogance. I am facing the reality I am not in control of my destiny. My judging of those closest to me and the resulting distance it created was not as well hidden as I imagined. Sadly, it took more than one life lesson over the past three years to focus my attention. These lessons came to me in my marriage, with my children, my family of origin, professionally, and with my friends. My universe was telling me it was time to change. I am grateful I ultimately paid attention to the resulting hopelessness, confusion, anger and began reaching out to others with greater honesty and vulnerability. This is when I began to let others in, as a sense of helplessness led me to reach out to others for help. Only as I began living more truthfully, with greater self-awareness, and acceptance of my own powerlessness have I found the ability to begin loving myself. In this space I have begun to reach out to my wife, children, and friends and vulnerably love them. Love them for who they are with a willingness to listen, extend the conversation, and support them without my agenda. I am finding this quiets the tension in me, my defenses let down, and I can be more fully involved with those most important to me – I can love. Equally important, I am finding more compassion deep inside of me for those marginalized in our society.
This time of year, we focus on love in the form of cards, dinners, flowers, and other romanticized versions of it. Perhaps love is found in our relationship with self and others as we courageously visit the memories, experiences, and conversations we have long avoided. I believe this is where we discover our tremendous capacity to love.
Article by Dr. Marcus Earle, Clinical Director