Over the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure of a few personal, deep, and thought-provoking conversations with a couple of friends. Much of what these friends have shared touch on the same themes of my own journey. As I reflected more deeply on my own meditations, the reading I’ve been doing, and these conversations, I felt all the more keenly our common humanity, and our common struggle to understand our life’s purpose in this fascinating but often confounding world.
“Do you think it’s true that we are loved only for our strengths?” That’s a question a friend posed to me a while back. The question of conditional love. And though my first instinct was to give a reassuring reply, that there must be people who would love us for our lack as well, I paused. For lately, I’ve thought much more deeply about this question. And I cannot deny that the message that the world keeps bombarding us with is exactly that. “You will be loved if you are good. You will be loved if you are intelligent, successful, independent, beautiful. You will be loved more than you are now if you learn to become a better person.”
I am widely acknowledged to be one of the ‘good ones’ by the authority figures in my life. Despite my rambunctious and rebellious childhood, I was soon seen to be largely responsible, mature, obedient and intelligent. Although my mind tries to tell me otherwise, it seems that I am loved better when I manifest those traits. Although it does not logically follow that I would necessarily be loved less if I was less responsible, mature etc, that is the subliminal message I’ve been receiving my entire life, even from the people who love me the most.
I send the very same message out. Somebody is immature – I feel disdain. Somebody is irresponsible – I feel disgust. Somebody is talented – I feel admiration and envy. Somebody is wise and loving beyond the norm – I feel admiration and reverence. I may not verbalize my emotions, but I know I am also guilty for ‘loving the lovable’. I’ve internalized this world’s values. And these values lead to self-rejection.
Nobody helps the weak. I must be strong! Nobody likes to be around people who are all gloom and doom. I must be joyful and bring cheer! I must strive to be good, mature, responsible, hard-working, loving… because these are good values? Perhaps the more honest answer is: because I want to be accepted. I want to be loved.
The deeper problem is that deep in my subconscious, I know too well my own sinfulness. Those unworthy emotions of anger, envy, spite, and desire for revenge. These fuel terrifying doubts of self-worth that haunt me. Hence, without realizing it, I’m always seeking for ways to earn acceptance, and hoping to find evidence of being loved. Little acts of rejection can hurt like hell because it’s like a mocking laugh that despite my best efforts, I’m just not good enough.
During the time that my mother was in Toronto, I, for the first time, really understood (i.e. in my heart, not just my head) and accepted the fact that perfect unconditional love cannot be found in this fallen world. Even my mother whom I know would lay down her life for me cannot love me perfectly. And in my relationship with Zibin, we both have long realized how easily and how gravely we can hurt each other even while we love each other so deeply.
A lot of the insecurities and baggage I bear are the result of encountering the conditional love of this world. In the past, I couldn’t bear to acknowledge that, as it almost seems to be playing the blame game on the people to whom I owe the most – my family, my teachers, my friends. Besides, in my anxious quest to be a ‘good person’, I felt that I should strive to be strong enough to overcome whatever insecurities I might have on my own. That was a naive and prideful assumption on my part.
I understand a little bit more now. I have to free my heart from hidden and repressed resentment and bitterness in order to be genuinely grateful. In order to do that, I must first be honest and courageous enough to face the truth that I am heavily wounded by those who love me most. In Nouwen’s words,
As we grow older, we often discover that we were not always loved well. Those who loved us often used us too. Those who cared for us were also envious at times. Those who gave us much, at times asked much in return. Those who protected us also wanted to possess us at critical moments. – “Here And Now”
As long as I run from that truth, I can use all my strength and will, but I will never really see how loved I am. I could be grateful, but it is a shallow gratitude, borne heavily out of duty. And yet, understanding my wounds is not enough. I must forgive my loved ones for hurting me whether or not they desire or even think they need my forgiveness.
It is a strange irony. For as long as I try to convince myself that I’m not that wounded, I deny my pain and the sores cannot heal. When I dare to confront my wounds, I open the door to healing. When I let the people in my life be human, and let God be God, I find that it’s not that hard to forgive. And each time I choose forgiveness over dwelling in my woundedness, I step closer into the light of freedom.
An even deeper irony is this: it is only when I admit my powerlessness that I gain strength. I cannot heal my wounds. I cannot remove my insecurities. I do not have the magnamity and grace to love those who hate me, and to freely forgive those who hurt me. But when I stop clinging on to the illusion of my strength, my clenched fists relax into open hands willing to be led by the One who lives through me – the One who heals me.
Fear can turn to hope. Resentment can flow into forgiveness. Rejection can transform into the deepest love. If I dare to believe in my belovedness, perhaps I will also find, like Nouwen and the priest in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass that “I didn’t know that broken glass could shine so brightly.”
A few months, perhaps even a few weeks ago, I would not have been able to blog about this. One, because it is so painful that my conscious self is not even aware of it. Two, because I would have been too ashamed to admit that I felt this way.
Henri Nouwen’s honest sharing through his writing of his brokenness has inspired and encouraged me greatly to confront my own woundedness and to claim my Belovedness. The process has been invaluable and immensely liberating. I can’t express how grateful I am to Nouwen. Much of even my reflections in this entry are triggered by, and reflect Nouwen’s experiences.
I have no expectation that my sharing would help anyone in their journey, but this is my way of ‘paying it forward’. May we all learn to transcend the messages of conditional love that this world gives us, and to hear the inner voice of love that whispers, “You are the Beloved.” :)