Last week I found myself struggling in two of my relationships. I was taking things personally. I had failed to set boundaries, and found myself feeling unheard and unseen. After a frustrating and unproductive exchange of text messages, I muted my phone and tried to reset my energy. But as I prepared dinner for my family, I could feel my anger brewing. My thoughts became more and more circular as I argued in my head. I felt trapped by my emotions and couldn’t see a way to change the situation. I also felt a sense of frustration that this is a pattern in my life. I can see how my own reactions limit me.
About the time I had decided it would just be better for everyone if I stopped speaking to other human beings (ok, so I might have a bit of a dramatic flair!), my daughter was at my hip asking to show me something she’d created. I whipped around impatiently and almost snapped at her, but by some unseen grace, I stopped and just tried to be present with her.
“Look what I made, Mommy.”
It was a picture she had drawn: a line of stick people standing on top of the Earth holding hands. Across the top in 7 year-old handwriting it said: “Love Changes Everything.”
I started crying. “It’s beautiful,” I croaked. “You did a really good job. I love it.”
She wanted me to take a picture of it, so I grabbed my phone and accommodated her. She asked me why I was crying.
“Because you’re such a sweet hearted person,” I said.
She scampered away, satisfied. I went back to finishing dinner preparations, and the evening went along without a hitch. But, despite the sweet exchange with my daughter, I was still preoccupied by my relationship troubles. I was preoccupied by the statement on my daughter’s precious artwork.
If love changes everything, why am I still so upset? Because, let’s face it: if I didn’t love the people in my life, I don’t think I’d ever get upset or emotional or overreact in misunderstandings. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy.
Why doesn’t my love switch my focus from upset to calm? I realized something. I can love someone, something, a situation, but I can’t change it. I can only change myself, my limiting beliefs and outlook, and I can only change my own reactions. Change doesn’t come from a desire to love the pain away. I think change comes from a brave awareness to let our own personal darkness out and take a good look at it.
I was also bothered by a belief I discovered in myself that I require a certain show of love. That love means people behave a certain way, which is an unfair expectation and only leads to disappointment. Or that if I love them hard enough, they’ll see me in a certain light and will therefore change their own behaviors. It’s a lovely idea, but ultimately founded in a naïve and codependent outlook.
There are people in my life who I am absolutely sure love me. But maybe they don’t get me sometimes, maybe my choices disappoint them. Not much change comes from judgment or expectation when we misidentify it as love.
So, if the love I feel for the people in my life doesn’t lead to lasting change, what does? I guess the more I’ve sat with this question, I’m starting to think that love can open the door. Love keeps you connected and keeps you putting in effort perhaps, but blind love without anything else isn’t always what we think it is. And I think it’s ok to tell people that we need to be loved a little differently. It’s ok to say that sometimes love is hard. And maybe if we’re aware of all that, love can lead to change.
At the very least, a sweet picture from a child who loves you the most can soften a stubborn heart enough to open just enough to take a closer look, and to be willing to ask questions and try again.