This was written into the concrete “footpath” atop the breakwater where Elizabeth came so close to meeting her demise last Friday. It doesn’t have much to do with the rest of this post, other than that I really love Elizabeth and I’m glad she didn’t, you know, plummet to her death and stuff. And also I think it’s pretty.
So anyway…when I was in high school I read this passage from William Langley’s “The Vision of Piers Plowman:”
“Counsel me, Nature,” quoth I, “what craft is best to study.”
“Learn to love,” said Nature, “and leave all others.”
“How shall I come by goods to clothe and feed me?”
“If you love loyally,” he said, “you will lack never
For meat or worldly wearing while life is with you.”
I kept coming back and rereading it, and then I wrote it down in the journal where I used to write bits of literature that I liked, and I spent a lot of time pondering it. Because deep in my heart I could FEEL the truth of it, but at the time I was living in a very confusing home situation where we all talked about how much we loved each other and how we were the only GOOD family in the whole wide world but somehow at the same time we weren’t very nice to each other and we always seemed to be running out of money for food and could never afford decent clothes, even though our mom and step-dad did manage to scrape up enough funds to hit the bars every night.
Confusing. And also everyone else in the family did tend to agree that -I- wasn’t particularly good. I was the proverbial Black Sheep, actually trying to make sense of a situation that made no sense, or made the saddest, ugliest kind of sense. I understand now that there was no love in that environment at all, but I was doomed to repeat the scenario with Steve because…well…it was all I really knew at the time.
Except I didn’t really repeat it, and that Langley passage was, I think, one of the reasons why. “Learn to love, and leave all others.” I mulled it over and over, internalized it, prayed for the wisdom to understand it.
Learning to love is difficult and even painful if you don’t really know what it’s supposed to look like. And I’ve discovered that most people truly don’t. I used to think that the opposite of love is hate, but now I know better. There’s no doubt in my mind that the opposite of love is selfishness. There is literally no end to the harm that people will inflict upon one another, not out of hate or malice, but just because they’re only thinking of themselves and believe that their own desires outweigh the needs and rights of others.
So yeah, turns out I married my mother. Ick. And when I became pregnant with our first child and no longer had the energy or desire to hang out in smoky bars, and wanted to start creating a life that children could be a part of, Steve immediately and seamlessly began perpetuating the old notion that I am an intolerant and inflexible wretch who only cares about myself. And hell, people had been telling me that my whole life, so it must be true, right? The reason I couldn’t fit into his pointless alcoholic lifestyle or bond with his never-sober friends or be accepted by his bigoted Aryan father or barfly mother was because I was a deeply flawed, unloving person who just didn’t like anyone. Of course.
So, while Steve was out getting drunk with his parents and his friends (and apparently whoring around with every woman he could get his hands on, I learned much later), I was sitting at home with my children, trying to get a handle on this whole Love thing that apparently everyone had figured out but me. I read books, I reread the Bible, I ventured far and wide on the Internet and did an intense online study of different kinds of people and cultures and how things were going for them.
And everything I learned about love, the stuff that rang true for me, I taught to Elizabeth and Luke. Simple concepts and complicated philosophies. Trust in God. Love your fellow humans. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Your personal human rights end precisely at the point where the next person’s human rights begin. Never forget that, no matter how much you want something at the expense of someone else. Never get into the habit of thinking that you’re more entitled to what you want than the next guy. Always forgive, but don’t keep repeating your mistakes. Be kind. Be honest. Speak up for what you believe in. Even if every single person around you is engaging in a trendy self-destructive behavior, that doesn’t mean you have to. If you see an opportunity to help someone, do it. Be the change you want to see in the world. Sometimes you do have the right to be angry, but you never have the right to be cruel or vengeful. It’s good and necessary to have dreams and goals, but remember that life is right now, today. Live every day, every moment, in kindness and wisdom, and the future will bear the fruit of that. Do what’s right, and God will handle the rest.
And slowly, gradually, something wonderful happened.
I’m not sure how to describe it, exactly. But as I started basing my everyday choices on the well-being of the people around me rather than focusing on trying to fill the pit of loneliness and isolation that I’d carried around inside me all my life, that pit began to fill up on its own. When giving Luke and Elizabeth a healthy, happy, functional start in life became a higher priority to me than my own happiness, I discovered what true happiness felt like. I was filled with love and joy and contentment instead of the old lonely confusion. By the grace of God, I had finally unlocked the mystery.
I stayed with Steve long past the time when my heart knew it wasn’t working, because I truly loved him and I believed him when he said he loved me. (He didn’t. In retrospect I don’t think he ever even liked me much; I honestly don’t know why he kept up the act as long as he did.) But in the end even I had to admit that sometimes love just isn’t enough.
I reentered single life feeling like I’d been buried alive for twelve years, and discovered an intense desire to go forth and rejoin the human race. I volunteered at the kids’ school, joined a walking group, found a church I like, started accepting invitations to stuff. I went out of my way to talk to people, to find out who they were and what their lives look like and how that’s working out for them.
And you know what I found out? This love thing? It’s hard. Most people are still lost and searching, or they’ve simply given up searching and accepted whatever version of “love” they were taught as a child, which, yikes. I’ve talked to dozens of people in the past few months, and every one of them has had something to teach me about the value of love and the many faces of loneliness. I’ve learned that a person can fill every conversation with declarations of giving their life to God, and yet be inexplicably devoid of any true compassion. I’ve learned that the overwhelming majority of people really do believe that personal fulfillment lies in material wealth. I’ve learned that a few people are unable to take me seriously as an adult because the food I put on my family’s table is grown and prepared on my own property rather than being purchased with a paycheck from a “real job.” I’ve learned that some people spend their whole lives dreaming of quitting their jobs and growing their own food on their own land, and yet they keep making choices every day that enslave them to their paychecks. I’ve learned that the folks who really have figured out what matters in life don’t talk about it much, they just quietly tend to the things that need tending to and let others please themselves. (Which just goes to show that I’m still a long way from having it all figured out, because I can’t seem to STOP talking about it.) I’ve learned that I enjoy the company of people from my grandfather’s generation, because so many of them have a value system that makes actual sense to me.
Learn to love, and leave all others. Truly words to live by.
Happy Love Thursday, everyone. May we all find the true happiness within, and show the next generation a brighter path to follow than the ones we’ve walked.