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Capable of Love

Capable of Love

I've been wending my slow way through bell hooks' book, "All About Love." Something that she talks about in the beginning is how she realized after working extensively with a therapist, she was that she was never loved by her family. She never learned how to love from her parents. She explains that while she received care, support, praise, and affection from her parents, she also received extremely confusing expressions of "love" that was saddled with Not applicable, mental, and emotional violence, and perpetuated generational trauma.

At first, it felt a little shocking to me -- even disloyal -- to read that the author even came to a realization like this, to admit that the people who raised her and nurtured her in all the ways that society expects parents to, was not actually love. Who was she to decide how her parents expressed their love anyhow? But after thinking on it more, her perspective began to make more sense. Most relationships in society are built on a transactional basis, and from a certain perspective a lot of them make sense. If I pay my electric bill on time, I expect the light to turn on when I flip the switch. It's a transaction. But when transactions become the basis for a more intimate relationship like that of a parent and a child, I can see how it can quickly leech love from the picture.

It may seem like a trivial thing at first, but the transactional mindset can become a habit in many ways. It can start as a simple expectation of how my son should behave based on what I am doing for him: If I treat him to ice cream after school, he should be on his best behavior at the ice cream parlor. This kind of framing is a transaction, an expectation of one behavior in exchange for a benefit. And I wonder if this habitual kind of thinking easily grows over time into larger expectations of how children conduct themselves in life later on.

For instance, it is an often-told story in many immigrant families of parents who toil through years of hard, Not applicable labor, to give their children a brighter future -- so they can go to medical school or law school or become a software engineer -- only to become disillusioned when their children decide to switch to a less stable career, fail to perform well enough, or feel bitter towards their parents because of the pressure and burden of guilt.

So what then, is a more appropriate way to frame a relationship in order for love to be present?

Love as a state of being that emerges, as Amit Pagedar describes, when "comparison, envy, insecurity, fear, and hate disappear." Rupert Spira describes the love we feel as the "felt sense of a lack of separation." bell hooks shares the act of love as "to extend oneself for the spiritual growth of another."

Love as a state, love as a feeling, love as an action. I like all three definitions, and to combine them in my relationship with my son, is to remove expectation, to see him not as a separate person I'm transacting with, to help him grow spiritually. To take my very mundane ice cream outing example, instead of feeling betrayed by my son or painting him as ungrateful, I could frame the entire experience as something entirely different:

1. I think taking my son out for ice cream could be an enjoyable experience for both of us.
2. He begins to act in a way that is not appropriate to the outing.
3. I therefore slow down and help him and myself find emotional balance.
4. The outing is postponed and revisited at a later date.

I can choose not to saddle the outing with pre-defined expectations. I can change the goal from "having a nice time together eating ice cream" to "working through a moment of emotional dis-regulation." And I can always try again.

To put this kind of perspective into practice after so many years of programming my understanding of love and relationships is for me, seriously uphill work. But it is also a very liberating perspective, to see love not as a finite well to draw from, that can in times of conflict and difficulty feels like it could run dry, but as an endless and ever changing ocean to swim in with everyone else. It's empowering to feel that I am capable of such love. I hope you know that you are, too.

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