LOVE

Almost a year ago, my teacher gave me the task to write a text about love. Love is something that has occupied my mind a lot, especially during the last five years. Five or six years ago, I experienced something that turned my world upside down, and it made me start questioning the idea I had about love, especially what we tend to call ‘romantic love’.

The last weeks, I have been listening to an audiobook called God Speaks to Each of Us which is a compilation of lectures Thomas Merton had using Rainer Maria Rilke’s texts to talk about different topics related to the meaning of life and how we interact with each other.

One of the last lectures is about what Merton calls human love. In it, he quotes from Rilke’s book called Letters To A Young Poet:

‘For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation[…] Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances. Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”), may young people use the love that is given to them. Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? And so each of them loses himself for the sake of the other person, and loses the other, and many others who still wanted to come. And loses the vast distances and possibilities, gives up the approaching and fleeing of gentle, prescient Things in exchange for an unfruitful confusion, out of which nothing more can come; nothing but a bit of disgust, disappointment, and poverty, and the escape into one of the many conventions that have been put up in great numbers like public shelters on this most dangerous road. No area of human experience is so extensively provided with conventions as this one is: there are life-preservers of the most varied invention, boats and water wings; society has been able to create refuges of every sort, for since it preferred to take love life as an amusement, it also had to give it an easy form, cheap, safe, and sure, as public amusements are.

There are many things in this quote that resonate with me. To begin with, the fact that love is hard work. Any love. To love each human being we interact with requires that we are willing to accept the good and the difficult. To love is to observe ourselves reacting and rejecting what we don’t like and be curious enough to discover why we react so strongly. To love is to grow because once we decide we will love, we have to move away from our instinctive way of clinging to what we like and pushing away what we dislike.

We have to accept that our happiness doesn’t come from other people fulfilling our needs, it comes from our ability to see our neediness and work on it. We have to learn to accept the emptiness and fear that come with the realisation that regardless of how much we seek in the other, we are in reality alone. Once we have taken the first step of acceptance, we can gradually feel comfortable in this loneliness and build a relationship of trust with our own self. We are ok on our own. This relationship with the self can then be the bridge between us and the other. We can then see the same vulnerability in the other and show understanding and compassion. That is when the real love happens.

My teacher often says that not all love needs to become a relationship. I think that what we call ‘romantic love’ is a kind relationship and as my teacher defines it, relationship is a contract. We all have our explicit and implicit terms for the different contracts we have with people: mum, teacher, lover, children, etc. There is nothing wrong with it, but we should learn to make the difference between being ‘in a contract ‘ with someone and loving someone from the deepest of our hearts.

I like how Rilke writes that to love is to become world. To me, this means that we become space for the other to be, without judgement and without neediness. It doesn’t mean that we have to put up with whatever the other brings. Some relationships are toxic, some people hurt, and sometimes it is necessary to part, but we can still love without the contract, without the relationship.

Only this kind of love will set us free.

PS He keeps referring to ‘young’ people, I am not in that category anymore, and still, I know that I have a long way to go to be able to fully understand and live up to this kind of love.

17 years and counting

Today, is our wedding anniversary. Seventeen years.

What is extraordinary about our relationship? Nothing, I would argue. Like in any marriage, we have had our good times and our bad times. There had been times where we have really considered going each our way.

Why haven’t we done so? Are we better than other couples that decide to split? Of course the answer is no. Ask anyone what marriage is about, and you will get thousands of different answers. I think that explains why some of us stay together no matter what and others make the choice to part.

At one of the most challenging moments in our relationship though, I came to realise that I didn’t have a clue of who I was and what I wanted in life, and this made me doubt if leaving my husband would make me feel better. Splitting our family in two, sending kids back and forward every other week as it is the common solution here seemed too drastic when I didn’t really know what I wanted. My husband has always given me enough space to be, so I knew that if I stayed with him, I could still be able to start working on myself.

My husband is a very open-minded man that sees the human in me (not just ‘the wife’, ‘the possession’) and was able to show compassion and understanding regardless of my hurting behaviour. Maybe he recognised his own confusion in my confusion? We were able to see the good in our relationship beyond the difficult and painful, and we decided to continue walking together.

So here we are, seventeen years and counting, trying to make some sense of who we are as individuals and at the same time living a common life with quite big responsibilities like any other couple with children. We both work hard on ourselves, we both do our best with what we have. There are no guarantees though. We never know what the future may bring, and I keep reminding myself that this is part of living in this world. Experience what life brings in order to learn and grow but be ready to let go when required.

I am thankful for these seventeen years together. I am thankful for the gift of being able to parent our children together. I am thankful for his generous heart, patience and sense of humour (even though I keep pretending I don’t like his jokes). I am thankful for the space he gives me to be, to explore, to try and fail and try again in many different areas. But maybe above all, I am thankful for the opportunity marriage has given me to observe myself and discover my limiting attitudes and beliefs about myself and those around me in order to at least try to become a better version of myself.

Rejection

About two years ago, I had to take a course for my work and I found that I could take it in Paris. Since I lived in France for a few years when I was a student, it seemed like the perfect excuse to visit the French capital and see friends that I don’t have the opportunity to see often.

One of my closest friends lives in Paris and although we had not seen each other for a long time, we had maintained contact during the years in a slightly irregular way. For some periods, we would talk over the phone almost daily, and sometimes it could be months without we even exchanged a single message.

It had been six months since we last had exchanged messages, but when I knew that I could go to Paris, I sent her a message sure that she would tell me that we could see each other every day after her work.

To my surprise, her answer was rather dry ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have time’. I first asked jokingly if not even for a coffee, but she didn’t seem to like the joke. I wrote to ask if she was angry but the more I tried to find out what was happening, the more it seemed to make her angry. It got to the point that she told me that I was harassing her. Maybe I did insist too much, but I found her behaviour so strange that I even thought maybe she was in some sort of trouble.

I went to Paris and I didn’t see her. I sent her a message to tell her that no matter what, if one day she wanted to be in contact again, I would be happy to do so. But I must confess that her attitude hurt me so much that I erased her from my Facebook friends (hahaha, I know, how old am I?) And I didn’t contact her again…

Until last Christmas when I sent her a message to wish her happy holidays, and then this summer to tell her I was thinking about her, and finally this week, to wish her a merry Christmas.

This time, she answered by saying that she has nothing against me, but that our ‘incident’ two years ago made her realize that her life is better without my friendship.

I am not trying to put her in the ‘bad’ box and myself in the ‘poor martyr’ box, there must be something I did that made her angry, but what is frustrating is not to know what the heck I did. I would have liked her to tell me.

As usual, the most interesting thing in this story is to observe my own reactions. First of all, I felt pain and confusion. Then, I do not deny it, anger because in my expectation of what a friend ‘must do’: misunderstandings are spoken about in order to give the opportunity to repair the damage. Followed by a feeling that she doesn’t really know who I am and what she’s missing, and finally a consuming feeling of self-doubt.

This friend is one of the few who knows everything about me: my achievements and my mistakes, my good sides and my weaknesses. I came to think that maybe she no longer wanted my friendship because of the mistakes I made that made her see me as not worthy anymore. I felt unfairly treated because she didn’t know or seemed interested to find out how these mistakes had made me reflect, and what I learned from them… ‘if she only gave me the opportunity to show her that I’m a better person than I she thinks I am’, I thought. But why would it be so important for me to prove anything to her? Who am I trying to convince? Her or myself?

Finally, yesterday, I started to have some fun observing my thoughts. We all have our weak spots, and I believe that rejection is definitely one of mine . It is as if by rejecting me, people confirm to me what I ‘know’ about myself: that I am not perfect, that I have many flaws, that I am not as good a person as many can think, and so on. How is it possible that from one episode in my life I can waste so much energy on useless and negative thoughts? I do not know.

What is my conclusion? I have to know when to let go. It was a pretty friendship as long as it lasted, but it is over. I am not perfect and I will never be so all I can do is to keep walking, keep learning and try to do less harm than good around me. Accept my mistakes, forgive myself, ask for forgiveness and avoid making the same mistake over and over again. Maybe most importantly, don’t put my self-worth in anybody else’s hands, it will always be flickering and confusing.

Space is magic

Create space for yourself. In all your states. Don’t panic, no thought or emotion will stay forever. Enjoy the good ones and observe the bad ones. What are they trying to say? The more space you create inside yourself, the easier it is to deal with your changing emotions and moods without looking for external answers, they tend to disappoint.

Create the space to see all sides of yourself. Accept and love yourself for who you are. Only by looking directly into your innermost thoughts and attitudes, you will be able to make small adjustments here and there that will bring you to a better place. Only by exercising the art of setting yourself free, you will be able to see other people with eyes of compassion and understanding.

Create space for those around you to thrive and grow. Give love and see it flow. Love is always the answer no matter what. Don’t measure the love you give. Don’t be afraid, the more you give, the more you have. Lead with the example, lead with the heart, and you’ll see magic moments arise. Keep your eyes open though, and don’t stare at one spot. Love will flow from sometimes the most unexpected places.

Create space for those around you to struggle, to be challenging, to show their moods. It is never about you, it is all about their inner life too. Just like you, they have their own internal battles, and just like you, all they need is the space to experience, to learn and to move forward. If you don’t push back, if you are curious, if you are present, you will be able to either help or step back. When we give space to others, magic happens, the other gets time to react, to reflect and then come back in a calmer state.

Space is really magic.

What do you see?

When I was in my early twenties, I lived in France in a student city near the northwest coast.  During four years, my main means of transportation was the tramway.

I moved away from France, got married and had children. Some years after my youngest child was born, I took a housewife vacation to visit old friends in France. I remember so well taking the tramway the first day and being puzzled by the number of kids and young couples with strollers in the tram. I did wonder for a little while if the city had changed that much from having many students to having many young couples with small children…what happened?

I had changed! Not the city. I was now mum to three small kids, and my focus in life was completely different from when I used to take the tram back in my uni years. This really amused me back then. There most probably were children and strollers in the tram when I was a student, but I wasn’t paying attention to them. I was living in a completely different world.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot about how we create our reality through our mind. Whatever it is that occupies our mind influences what we see around us.  We tend to see what we are looking for.

Our perceptions can influence the way we experience the world at different levels. My story about France talks about what was occupying my mind at two different stages in my life, but expectations can also affect the way we experience things.

I was born in a big city, and when I was six years old, my parents decided to move to a completely different place by the coast, about 1000km from the city. They had been there two weeks before on a work trip for my dad and fell in love with the place. My brother and I had no idea of where this was and how it looked like. All we could do to get an idea was to listen to my parents talk about it.

From what my mum said, and out of what my imagination was able to produce, for me, it sounded like we were moving to Disneyland – even though I had never been in Disneyland before.

We drove there, it took two days. For a six-year-old, that was a long road trip. In addition, the closer we got to the place, the hotter the weather, so I remember the last hours of the trip as a little torture.

When we finally arrived, I remember so well my mum being super excited in the car, and me being super disappointed. The place was a small town, the vegetation completely different from what I grew up with, and what is worse, it didn’t look like what I had imagined at all! I think I kept my disappointment to myself, but I remember it took a while before I understood why we had left our big beautiful house in the city for this.

My experience in this new place was affected by the idea I had created in my mind. I eventually came over it  because as it turns out, it was a great place to grow up in, but I often remember this episode in my life and I have to laugh because as an adult, I have experienced quite often the same. I create an idea of how things should be and struggle with the disappointment of how things actually are.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming and having objectives, I can almost hear some of you thinking as you read, and I agree, but we might want to be aware of the moments when our experience of reality is muddled by our expectations.

I don’t know how many times I have spoiled an experience for me and those around me because if this. Either because of too high expectations or because of my biased mind.

I once had a boyfriend with whom I was very very in love but I was sure he was going to end up leaving me for someone ‘better’ than me. I had convinced myself that he was with me to pass the time, and as soon as he discovered that I wasn’t that great, he would leave me for someone greater than me. I must specify that at that time, I wasn’t aware of this, this became clear to me later.

So, most of the time I was with him, I was interpreting all his actions and inactions as a sign of him soon dumping me. If he was kind, he was kind out of pity, if he has distant, he was distant because he was tired of me, or even worse, he had a better time with another woman. It was exhausting, mainly for me because I didn’t necessarily share these crazy thoughts with him.

My point here is, how many times I messed up the nice time spent with him because of my inability to be in the moment without interpreting every action, every word, every gesture?  I was so lost in my perceptions that I couldn’t open up to the here and now.

I have been having fun with these memories this week because, I now know how my perception affects what I experience and how I experience it. This can be a useful tool both to show more understanding of other people’s attitudes and actions and also to be more aware of my own attitudes and actions towards the world around me. Especially when experiencing challenges. Maybe the challenge doesn’t really come from the outer world after all!

This has also led to a mind game I’ve been playing recently. Imagine if we could wake up every day to a completely new day! We would never ever need to travel away to find new things because the reality before our own eyes would constantly be offering us the opportunity to be amazed, to be surprised, to see something new and refreshing. All that is required from us is to open our eyes and let the mind rest.