love as a practice

M teases me that I say "I love you" a lot. She turned it into a phrase that we often say instead of those three words now. I am quite an expressive person and both telling AND showing others what they mean to me is important to me. I know that saying something and really expressing the sentiment through action isn't the same thing. But I'm also a rhetorician and I love words and language and I know that no matter what gestures someone offers me, I still appreciate someone saying, "I love you" or "I'm glad we're friends," or "That was an interesting lecture." It's nice to hear as well as see, but without the action the words often feel empty and I get that.

This is what Brene Brown is talking about on her blog Ordinary Courage, which if you haven't checked out, you totally should. Of course with Valentine's Day coming up and the fact that we've been talking about cultural representations of love in my research class, Love has been on the brain. Brown essentially says that as humans, we need love.

We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When these needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We grow numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbness, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.



I think it makes sense. I think, though, we are culturally wired to want love to look, feel and be packaged a certain way. There are many kinds of love, all equally important to our lives but not always represented in our cultural texts. I've been thinking about the importance of my grandmother in my life, particularly the time when I lived with her, but also throughout my childhood. She raised me into adulthood. I learned so much from her that I wasn't able to apply to my life at the time but do in some way, almost every day now. But the kind of bond and familial love we share is typically left out of discussions about love. Instead we get princesses and unrealistic romantic comedies and all of these assumptions about love are promised and we gobble them up greedily and often, blindly. Of course we want the kind of romance that's portrayed in movies, but sometimes romance is having someone pump gas for you when it's freezing cold outside and you forgot your mittens. I don't remember seeing that scene lately. No, in films, love is epic. In life, love is, well, a process and one that, from the outside looks quite like everyday goings on.

I'm reading Donald Miller's brilliant memoir, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years and part of what he explores is the tension between reality, fiction, memoir and fictionalized reality. He writes about the difficulties he faced when trying to turn his memoir into a film and the way the producers and writers kept explaining the Donald of the film was not the Donald of the book or the Donald of real life. Miller writes that his real life is boring, that even the elements of his memoir that were moving and powerful don't translate well to film. And what we typically see on film is a more shiny version of reality where people's obstacles are overcome in 2 hours, where they fall in love in ridiculously cute ways and romance is expressed in extreme and obvious gestures.

Rarely do we see the everyday. Miller explains that the everyday doesn't lend itself to the kinds of escape we seek in our cultural texts like films and stories. In class, we talked about why we need to escape and what would be at stake in not believing in fairy tales and romances. Many of the students said they understood that a story was a story, that they didn't expect their lives to "work out" the same way but also admitted that like to hope that sometimes it might and that they sometimes think of romance in terms of happily ever after and often find themselves falling into the traps of wanting their love lives to be like the movies. One student said she struggles with her sister's beliefs that romance should be like it is in fairy tales. I brought up how embedded these ideals about love become and how they frame gender roles and I think, at that point, the students who had been skeptical about "my love is a construct" lecture started to come around.

When I read Brown's post I realized that some stories are not able to capture the real work of relationships. They don't show love as a practice because even the gestures and actions of love in film and stories are on the level of professing. They're about the show, often, or the visualization (for the sake of the storyline) not about the relationship itself. I realize that I raise questions about how love and romance are represented because the idealized love is dangerous when unachievable. What I do enjoy are the stories of couples still together after 60+ years who walk hand in hand. They've found a way to stick. I am drawn to real stories much more so than the imagined ones even if, at times, they seem just as fantastical and even if my desire for such a relationship may be as equally unrealistic as my students' desire to live out their love lives like a movie; it's a different script.

Ultimately, I agree with Brown that love has to be a practice. She points out that we have to begin within ourselves and though it may be something we've heard a million times before, it rings true to me. She begins her definition of love by saying, "we cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known..." This statement was like a sucker punch of yes! I sharply inhaled and forced myself to breathe deeply as I thought about my own love life. I spent many years uncomfortable with the idea of love. I distanced myself in so many ways from people who loved or wanted to love me. Some I intentionally hurt because I knew somehow that hurting them was inevitable, that I wasn't cut out for love. I was too selfish, too busy, too absorbed in my own stuff. I made excuses, ignored phone calls. I was scared to admit to those I did love how much I needed them in my life. I used to think it was the commitment that scared me. Now I know, it was admitting that I was worth the effort it would take to love me that terrified me. I couldn't cultivate love because I could not allow myself to be vulnerable. It isn't that I would not, I did not know how. Sure, I could put myself on paper. I could talk about all the secrets in poems, in stories, in fiction. But outside of my writing group, I was cold. I took comfort in my intimidating demeanor; I've said before I wore it like a badge, all the hurt and anger and bitterness growing inside me became my solitude.

I still fell in love but I did not allow myself to fall deeply. I moved to England in a wild and restless move to follow what I thought was my heart but in reality, it was another kind of running away from myself. I could become someone else, anyone else. It was my chance to escape all the ways my life was in chaos. I'm sure you know or can guess what happened: all that crap was still there and would be for some time. I'd like to say, however, that being in England healed me in ways I am only just now seeing. It turned me around so I could find my way back to myself. The man I was with was lovely and kind and took care of me until I could no longer take being cared for, at least not in the way he could give. I look back on that time in my life as a great adventure. I feel lucky I was able to experience it. There are days I miss things about my life there but I also know I would be unhappy if I'd stayed.

M was the one who changed everything. There was something about the honesty and openness with which she lives her life that made me instantly feel completely unnerved. I wanted to know more. It took some time for me to come around to my feelings, though. I was too intellectual at the time and deeply invested in thinking about how I felt rather than feeling it. Mostly, it took time for me to admit that I'd met someone with whom I wanted to be vulnerable. More importantly, every time I looked at her, I felt like spilling all the secrets I contained. I understand the line from As Good As It Gets, "You make me want to be a better man" because M made me feel like I could be someone vulnerable and open. And that maybe I was that kind of person all along, I'd just been running so long from it that I had no idea how far I'd gone. I'm always going to be an intense person; it's who I am. I feel things intensely, only now I embrace that intensity instead of burying it. I'm learning to relish my expressive self even if I end up being hotheaded or saying something silly. This vulnerability does not weaken me. It empowers me. And it makes it possible for me to love and be loved in return.






Anais Nin says, "Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings." In essence, love dies because we profess it instead of practicing it.

How do you enact love as a practice?