Can I Love?

February 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, I finished Joan Didion’s work of non-fiction, Blue Nights.  The book was written in the years following the premature death of her daughter and is an account of their lives together and reflections on aging, love and death.

There is a passage in the book that haunted me.  It was the moment when Didion went to the hospital to meet and take home her baby daughter, who she adopted just a few hours after her birth. She looked at the perfect face of her beautiful child, and was struck by the question, Will I be able to love this child?  Is this not the question, that every parent-to-be wonders in the darkest hours?  she asks.

Is this not the question that all of us are called to answer each and every time we enter into any relationship.

We know this is the most important question, and that, as Rilke wrote, “for one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”

When we look into our baby’s face we’re not just asking, Can I love this child? But, more importantly, am I able to love? Do I have what it takes?  Will I succeed at this difficult task of being human?

Yesterday I met a friend in the library, who told me about his misgivings about love.  He mentioned all the externalities: what if I get a job offer in Sweden and she wants to stay in Vancouver? What if after two years I’m not attracted to her anymore?  What if I find someone else?  What if she does?

This is the shaky ground we stand upon when we talk about love, if we look only at the externalities of the person with whom we are engaged.   I could completely relate to his anxiety, as this is exactly the way I used to think about love and relationships too.  I could also tell that this friend was raised in a divorced family, as these are the kinds of questions children of divorce face, because we have not had solid, safe, or secure models for love, family, and relationships. We have, instead, learned to associate love and relationships with loss and chaos.   It means that the foundation for thinking of ourselves in relationship has not been built from the ground up. It means that we are called to rebuild it ourselves, in our own way. The path is longer, though, optimistically,  perhaps the road becomes more conscious and authentic if indeed we are successful (a recent study of children of divorce revealed that only 30% of those who had experienced a divorced family before the age of five went on to ever get married themselves— eek! frightening statistics if left unexamined and if we remain unconscious to the unique challenges we face in our lives).

The question of whether or not I am able to be in a relationship is directly tied to the question of whether or not I am able to love at all.  Do I have that capacity inside of me?  Am I prepared?   What I mean by love is acceptance of another person for who he or she is, truly caring about another person’s happiness and life,   and the ability to set aside narcissistic tendencies and games that hurt people, in an endless quest to satisfy one’s own shifting needs and moods.  It means can I allow someone to be whole and do I respect his or her life and calling?   I am not convinced that any of this is possible without a spiritual practice of some kind and a strong and healthy (in many cases, healed) sense of self and spiritual purpose.

The question of whether or not my partner will want to take a job in Sweden one day, seems to me infinitely less important than the question of whether or not I have the capacity to love another human being at all.  And then, the question of whether or not we will stay together on the shaky ground of circumstance, seems infinitely less important to me than the question of whether or not I am sufficiently healthy enough to rise to the task of loving.

None of this is easy, it is, “the most difficult task that has been given to us.” But learning to love is not just the task of relationships, it is the task of being human, and like all things human, requires that we tend to what is inside us first.  On top of it all, it goes without saying that we are living in a very tumultuous time in history, our relationships with one another and with nature are often dysfunctional; it is very hard to know where to turn to understand what this life is all about and how we are supposed to be living it.

That’s why I try to make my spiritual practice primary, and relationships, and what they hold in store for me, secondary. Doing things the other way around has simply never worked out for me.  My spiritual practice makes all other things possible.

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