I think it’s fair to say my mother June was loved. With adoring children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, friends, boyfriends, and colleagues, it only took her 80 years to realize it. She started to pick up on others’ love only after my brother Daniel persuaded the whole family to tell her, “I love you” every chance we got. Even then it took years.
There’s nothing unusual about June’s slow uptake. If you’re like most people, you have no idea how much you are loved. But you are, and I can prove it.
Most of my life, I haven’t felt love easily. Intellectually I know, but in my heart, I’m always looking for more. One day, my partner Aisha drove our then 4-year-old granddaughter Anaya home from preschool. All the way home, Anaya talked about the picture she would make for her Grandfather, because she loved him so much and doesn’t get to see me. Aisha brought me the poster she made with hearts pasted on and strawberry stickers on the hearts. “It’s really nice,” I thought. “I shouldn’t be so hard on her.”
What didn’t occur to me until hours later was, “I am loved. Anaya loves me.” She had said it repeatedly, but I didn’t believe it. Yeah, she was only 4, but it still counts, doesn’t it? (She still does, I’m pretty sure.) I started to think about the other love people give me all the time: neighbors, family, friends, associates. They give gifts; they give kind words; they do things for me. Those are forms of love, but I have ignored or discounted them.
Why do I do miss love that’s right in front of my face? Why do most of us? Sometimes it’s because we don’t recognize love when we see it. Christian marriage counselor Gary Chapman had a wonderful insight which he wrote in his book The Five Love Languages. Each person has learned different ways to express and feel love. If love is given in a different “language” from theirs, they won’t understand it. People go through their lives feeling unloved, while people in their lives try their best to love them.
Chapman lists the five love languages as: gifts, affirming words, touch, acts of service, and quality time. Within these languages are “dialects.” Touch might mean sex for one person and a pat on the back for another. If you don’t speak another person’s language, you will miss their love.
One of Chapman’s clients knew her husband didn’t love her. He bought her gifts; he kept the house fixed up, but he wouldn’t listen to her. He was tired after work and wanted to watch TV. Listening (quality time) was love to her, and for him, love was giving service and gifts.
After talking about each other’s way of expressing love, they worked out a schedule for some regular listening time when the husband wasn’t tired or hurried. He cut back on his house fixing, which she didn’t care about anyway. She started giving him more physical attention.
Chapman’s book focuses on marriages, but the five languages are used by everyone. Aisha and I had a young friend named Kristie who has since moved away. For years, she brought us little gifts or sent us stuff that she thought would help us. I thought her giving was nice, but I didn’t get that it was her way of showing love. It was a warm feeling — “Hey, I am loved” — when the light dawned.
Can you think of anyone in your life who gives you things, or does things, or listens, or says nice things to you? Have you realized that they love you? The more love languages you speak, the more love you will realize.
What Does Love Mean?
Speaking of languages, English has too many words for some things, but only one word for love. This leads to confusion. What do we mean by love anyway? The Greeks have six words for love, and you might be receiving any or all of them. Here are the main four:
Storge is love of family. (Forgive me for oversimplifying, Greek experts.) The web site Totes Cute says, “Storge love is unconditional, accepts flaws or faults and ultimately drives you to forgive. It’s committed, sacrificial and makes you feel secure, comfortable and safe.” It’s motherly love, Fred Rogers kind of love. (“I love you just the way you are.”) If you have parents, children, or siblings, you probably have some storge.
If you don’t have sources of storge, you can still have phileo or affection, the feeling you have for a friend. Platonic love is an intense version of phileo that I’ve been lucky to experience with a couple of women. Admiration is a form of phileo you might feel for a leader or coworker who makes your life better in some way. You may have phileo with anyone you hang out with. Do you recognize your feelings with your friends as love? In Greek, they are.
Eros is sexual attraction. It’s passionate and intense, emotional and sexual. It’s what most people mean by “love” in this culture. It’s what the Urban Dictionary calls “Nature’s way of tricking you into reproducing.” Eros is wonderful, but it’s almost always temporary. It becomes a problem when we want Eros to last forever, or when it is the only kind of love we recognize.
Agape is universal love. It’s spiritual, unselfish and unconditional. It’s the kind of love God has for us, or would have if there were a God. (Take your pick.) It takes time to develop agape, but anyone who has it probably loves you as you are. If you develop agape, you will have more love for others, and also for yourself.
Why is love so hard to feel?
Love starts within. On her site, Tiny Buddha, blogger Lori Deschene writes, “People can only love us if we believe we’re lovable.” If we don’t have that belief, it doesn’t matter how people love us. We can’t accept their love, because it doesn’t make sense. “Why would they love me? It must be something else.”
We can only know what we have learned, and if we have learned we aren’t lovable, it’s hard to change that knowledge, as it’s hard to change our minds about anything. This article in Psychology Today lists several ways we can learn unloveability. Childhood trauma, parental loss or drug impairment, social influences from peers and media can set up barriers around our hearts that love can’t get past.
Any time we’re stressed, we’re unlikely to notice love, because we’re focused on safety. Once traumatized, always stressed. If you’re stressed or traumatized, you will have trouble feeling loved, because you’re too busy defending yourself. It’s an ongoing cycle, one you may be caught in without realizing it.
Just because you can’t feel it, doesn’t mean the love isn’t there. It’s always there. People with really hard lives may lack access to storge, phileo, or eros, but there is still agape. That’s the love Christians mean when they say, “Jesus loves you.” It’s not a personal love, but it is unconditional. The world loves you in several of Gary Chapman’s love languages. It gives gifts of warmth and food and the beauty of nature. It performs acts of service to bring you water and shelter. It keeps your heart beating. It might even give you words through other people or touch through pets.
Life might also bring you a lot of pain. 39-year-old Ron wrote about his pain and loneliness on my diabetes blog, “I really can’t offer anyone anything in any relationship — not that I have any chance to meet someone since I’m tired all the time.”
Ron described his life history. His mother was mentally ill and he grew up homeless through his teenage years. He’s been sick with diabetes since his 20s and has terrible fatigue. “I wish I could remember a better time, but honestly, I can’t,” he wrote.
He manages to work a job, but he is suffering with depression. No storge, no phileo, no eros. He is now considering suicide. If anyone could make a case for not being loved, it would be Ron.
Except that on the blog, a bunch of people wrote in to say they cared about him and were praying for him. Others wrote with advice for his blood sugar and his fatigue, how to feel better and less depressed. Some just sent verbal strokes. We were trying to love him with the tools we had.
I plan to keep in touch with Ron, but judging from the comments, he is loved. We all are. Whether that distant love will help his depression or his diabetes I don’t know. Which brings up the last love lesson I’m trying to teach myself. Love isn’t everything. I don’t need to pursue love the way a hedge fund manager pursues money. I can put some of that energy into other things.
If someone doesn’t love me, that’s OK. There’s plenty to go around. Remember, though, you have to believe you are lovable before you can feel loved. Meditate on that and see what happens.
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A couple stories that came in as I was writing this blog:
From Jon in Santa Rosa: “I keep thinking of my friend Steve. He killed himself 24 years ago. He left a note saying he had no friends and no love in his life. 400 people came to his funeral. I walked off my job and flew to Indiana to be there. The local newspaper ran an article about him and his many contributions to the town on the front page. Maybe we are not as bad as we think we are.”
My childhood friend Donna wrote: “Actions that help others, even over a distance or in a group, are ways we are showing love. We don’t usually think of volunteering or altruism as “love,” and seeing it that way enriches the giver as well as the beneficiary.”