We are often hurt by those people and things we care about most, and confused about why they cause us so much pain. I see this in the ER with patients, co-workers, and everyone. I also see it in the democracy, in education and in my own life. Love is a good thing. Love should feel good.
Which is exactly the problem. We think love is a feeling, an emotion. It is not.
Imagine that you become very angry with someone you love. While angry, that person calls you, stranded on the highway with a flat tire. Imagine getting up, going and helping them, and sending them on their way, while remaining angry with them the whole time, even as they drive off.
I think we can all imagine it; if we’ve been around a while, we’ve experienced something similar. So if love is an emotion, where is love when we are angry?
Love is not an emotion, it is a commitment. It is a commitment we make, to people, to ideals, and dreams. The evidence of love with the flat tire was not how we felt, it was what we chose to do. Love is what we choose over our anger, over feelings.
So not only is love is not an emotion; it is greater than emotion. And greater than pain, and fatigue, and sickness. As long as we are alive, we will fight to care for those we love, regardless of our ‘feelings’.
So why does love hurt so much? Because what really hurts is precisely the conflict between our commitment, and how we feel. We want one thing, but our commitments force us elsewhere.
On the other hand, imagine someone who claims they love a person, or a job, but who never suffers over them. Really, how deep is his commitment?
We suffer precisely because we value our commitments over our emotions. We want the best for those we care about. But what we want – the best – is often not what we get, and we end up frustrated. In fact, the greater our love, the higher our hopes, and the larger our disappointments. So ‘happily ever after’ does not mean ‘problem-free ever after’. To the contrary, it means increased problems and frustrations.
Understanding our confusion helps, though. There is a Buddhist aphorism, ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.’ Once we realize that our frustration is an inevitable product of our love, we can relax a bit.
And then we need to have some faith. Those we love will often not listen, often rebel, and often stumble. They must, if they are to learn and grow.
Our fear is that those we love will make a crippling mistake, or even the ultimate mistake. It is a very real fear for our family and friends, our bosses and employees, and even our democracy.
I am in my armchair, and philosophizing is easy. But even if the worst happens to those I love, I still must stand by my commitment. If I had not allowed them to live their own lives, to make their own choices, and to suffer their own path in life, I could not say I that truly loved them. That insight might not lessen my pain, of course.
But perhaps I would suffer less.
Antony & Cleopatra by J.C. Leyendecker, courtesy of Kokoro1987 on Flickr.