We’re supposed to get a sense of God’s unconditional love for us through our parents. Ideally, starting from birth, a baby receives both the masculine and feminine expressions of this love, and this brand new person is off to a balanced and wholesome start. We need both. I learned that Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son painting shows the father in the parable (i.e. God) as having both a male and female hand. Sadly, nowadays in North America, the culture acknowledges the need for a mother, but underestimates the need for a father. (The movie Irreplaceable showed well the devastating effects on both sons and daughters when the father was not part of the family.)
Anyway, in the family structure, we are supposed to be loved in our very essence, cherished even in the womb – in other words, loved before we even have a chance to flaunt our soft baby-ness with all its delicate charm and yummy smells, and before we even have a chance to make our first little gurgle or coo. And being loved in our very essence is more than being loved for our ‘true personality’ because even everything that we consider our true personality can appear to change. It’s beyond that. Unconditional love is the acceptance of the very soul of a person, apart from their intellect, emotions and body.
And this type of love is what everyone craves, deep down.
And so our love-seeking-behaviour begins, even from childhood. We do different things to make ourselves acceptable.
We make ourselves more externally ‘worthy.’ We make ourselves more acceptable through our appearance, our possessions, our credentials and our connections. When we’re young, we make sure to dress the same way as our friends, and to like the same things. When we’re older, we build up our resume, and our network of connections (and we probably continue to dress the same way as our friends). And of course there’s Facebook, which is, for the most part, a non-subtle version of this approval-seeking.
Unfortunately, these ‘improvements’ can backfire because they add to the competitive atmosphere and build walls. Is it any wonder that the more affluent societies are the ones where there is so much more loneliness and separation? Some advertisers make a joke of it – ‘Make your friends green with envy by purchasing such and such.’ There’s a perfume called Envy (and later all the other vices will have their own scent – here’s Lust, and here’s Greed – hey, have you tried Rash Judgment?) And knowing about the back-firing effect, Jane Austen said don’t buy that new dress to make yourself more appealing, because the men aren’t noticing the newness of your outfit and the women, who do notice the newness, won’t like you any better for it:
She went home very happy . . . the evening of the following day was now the object of expectation . . . What gown and what head-dress she should wear on the occasion became her chief concern. She cannot be justified in it. Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well . . . and yet she lay awake . . . debating between her spotted and tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening. This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which . . . a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown. It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire . . . No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter. (Northanger Abbey, Chapter 10)
This isn’t to say it’s inappropriate to act conventionally, and to obtain the normal external trimmings, but it’s about the motive. An excessive desire for acceptance which accompanies these ‘accessories’ to our personality is bound to be frustrated, because the person will wonder: do these friends of mine accept me or do they just like what I have or who I know or how I look? The kindergartner notices that when she runs out of candy, those friends disappear.
The other method of obtaining acceptance is to make ourselves more internally ‘worthy’ by our interpersonal behaviour. Even a child knows that good behaviour will please people and draw them closer. And because people like people who (appear to) like them, this is far more apt to bring us the acceptance that we want. And here, indeed, most women intuitively know how to put their best foot forward. They know the type of support and empathy that people need, and so they can give it, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. I’m not saying men can’t be empathetic, but for the most part, they’re not as good on the mind-reading front.
But even this socially-pleasing behaviour is often still just a sort of payment in the world of conditional acceptance. Would our friends still be there when we’re ‘acting badly’? Would they still be there when we’re not as socially acceptable? Will they be there for us when society brands us as losers? Would they still be there if they knew us truly, with all our faults?
And this is where marriage comes in. Ideally, there we find the person who accepts us beyond our accomplishments and possessions, and beyond our social know-how. A really great marriage is a place for the expression and experience of God’s love. Ideally, it’s a place of unconditional acceptance, except this time we’re being accepted as an adult. Certainly, this person will know us in a way that nobody else does, and will have a front-row seat to watch our behaviour, and to get to know our strengths and weaknesses, in every department of our life. And of course, we will change, in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse. Yet we nevertheless hope to be loved unconditionally here in our very essence, for a long time, through all our triumphs and failures, and even as we deteriorate in strength, appearance and ability, and enter our second childhood, as Shakespeare says (“Last scene of all/ that ends this strange eventful history/ is second childishness, and mere oblivion/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” – As You Like It)
But of course, it doesn’t always work out that way (since it’s a marriage of two fallible people, both somewhat broken), and divorce causes incredible damage, because it can feel like a failing report card, a statement that, at the core, you weren’t good enough, that at the end of the day, you weren’t worthy of unconditional love. On the whole, both men and women are wounded deeply by divorce, and they are noticeably ‘tougher’ afterwards, which probably sounds like a good thing, but toughness isn’t the same thing as strength. (Women are better at masking their pain, and are also able to tap into the support of their empathetic friends. Men, meanwhile, show divorce-pain right on their faces, for years, if not for life.) And divorce itself is a complicated thing.
So the difference with the saints is that they go right to the source. Whether they have experienced unconditional love from their parents or have sadly been denied it, these men and women and children make their way to a warm relationship with God, where they find the One who loves them for who they really are (which isn’t the same as unconditional approval of all their actions, but that’s another topic). Many of them never marry and instead choose a celibate life. They sacrifice themselves and their natural desires not because they oppose or under-appreciate marriage, but because they discern an invitation from God to live in this way.
And as it turns out, we’re all invited to experience this love, because every person is invited to be a saint (that’s the Master plan). God looks at us lovingly, and sees through all our layers. When Jesus was on earth, and people met his gaze, they just melted, because they knew that he knew them at their core, and yet they knew, at the same time, that he still loved them deeply, unconditionally.
After all, the ultimate and unconditional love that God intended for us to experience from our parents, our spouse and others, is, and always was, just a taste (a Costco store-sample) of the unconditional love that he wants to immerse us in, that he offers to us, at every moment of our lives and then into our next life.
[May 15, 2015]