I know. Brave title...
After I wrote Love is Not Fair, I found myself pondering the same question many of you wrote to me, in comments and privately: now what?
It's a good question, a fair question. If love isn't fair but we want to be loving people who receive love and give love, do we live life in continuous frustration? Anger even? This doesn't seem tenable. Indeed it is not.
So... what then? How do we love, really love, and stay sane? Every relationship seems to be a dance of grace and missteps, a ledger of debits and credits, the metaphors go on and on, but the idea remains consistent: it's simply not going to be fair. It's not going to always balance out.
What do we do with the often painful gap between expectation and experience?
The artwork hanging over my writing desk was acquired during one of the most painful seasons of my life. It's a plain piece, crude even. A large block of wood, lightly brushed with a cream coat of paint, and in the lower right corner are written two simple words in a warm shade of gray:
Socrates insisted, as did his student Plato, that to seek to know things, stuff, facts, etc. without the knowledge of oneself is an exercise in futility. He went so far as to say that those who seek knowledge without self-knowledge as a priority appear ridiculous.
What does self-knowledge have to do with love?
"But shouldn't love be selfless?!"
No, it should not. And it cannot be. In the ancient words of a rabbi named Jesus, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." How can we love another unless we know how to love ourselves?
Attempting to love and be loved without the knowledge of oneself is careless at best, dangerous at worst. For them and for us.
To know yourself is to know your thoughts. On a deeper level, it is to know your feelings. Still deeper, it is to know your desires. And even deeper we go... it is to know your needs. *
Every person who has breath in their body has thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. We run into trouble when our consciousness, our self-knowing, stops at the level of our own thoughts. We know what we think, and perhaps we voice it to ourselves or to others. This is largely the domain of opinions. And if we are intellectual types who are limited to that most shallow level of consciousness, we take great pride in our thoughts and offer them as if they are some kind of gift of truth to all humanity. We perceive them as having great importance because they are the only layer of consciousness to which we have access. We are our thoughts, so to offer our thoughts is to offer ourselves. And there is tremendous value in thoughts, but that only skims the surface.
Our feelings are involuntary reactions to our environment. They are the language of the heart, felt throughout the body, useful for communicating our needs to one another (without explicitly asking for what it is that we need). For example, if I tell my boss that I'm feeling overwhelmed, he/she may then interpret that I have reached my limit. If I tell my partner that I'm feeling content, he may interpret that my needs are satisfied by what is happening in our relationship. Feelings are named in the brain, but not usually felt in the brain (unless it's an intellectually related feeling like confusion). Feelings are felt in the body. Think about this: sadness feels differently than hope. Gratitude feels differently than disgust. And so we have another layer of knowing ourselves: feeling our feelings in our bodies and having the vocabulary to name them accurately. If I say I feel clarity when I really feel perplexed, I am misleading those around me. If I say I feel satisfied when I really feel despair, I am misrepresenting myself.
When we are aware of our feelings and have language to express them accurately, we have conscious knowledge of ourselves on a deeper level. Funny thing about feelings is... they come out whether or not we are conscious of them and whether or not we intend to communicate them. They come out in a facial expression, a body position, a slammed door instead of owning our anger, a surprising river of tears instead of owning our sorrow, a feeling of lightness and gaiety instead of owning our delight. They come out in sore backs, chronic headaches, and sometimes even cancer. I had a therapist who used to say, "Emotions are like unruly teenagers. They will always be heard."
Next we have desire, what we want in our lives. What lights us up, what makes our hearts beat more quickly, what bores us, what makes us feel renewed, what saps our energy, what inspires us, what makes us feel that life is on track and worth living. Clients who come to see me who feel they've lost the will to live have often lost touch with their desire (or never had it). Life has taught them that they'll never get what they truly want and that they cannot, for any number of reasons, ask for it. We, by not knowing our feelings and living out of our thoughts, say yes to all kinds of things we don't want. And then we wonder why we feel miserable. And hopeless. The hopelessness makes sense because without the knowledge of desire, a deeper level of self-knowledge, we cannot move in the direction of that which brings us fulfillment in life.
And deepest of all: need. Oh, this brushes up against the very soul of us. This is where safety and panic reside. This is the primal, untouched, animalistic, instinctive, bold layer of us. This is the infant inside us who kicks and cries until he/she is calmed and quieted. And, like emotions and desire, these are played out every single day of our lives, whether we are conscious of them or not. And these, my Friends, are universal. Sure, we have differing emphases based on personality, gender, culture, and a host of other factors, but those are largely nuances. Human needs are specific to human beings and include: safety, connection, sustenance, belonging, protection, stimulation, and many more. How these needs are met may differ from person to person. For example: in my need for intellectual stimulation, I will feel less interested by a book on quantum physics than I will a book on philosophy. In your need for connection, perhaps you feel more satisfied in quietness with another than you will in constant conversation. The means of fulfilling the need differ, but the needs remain the same.
Why all this?
Because these are the layers of us. You and me. We are wondrous beings containing thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs, every day! We are in relationship with others who contain all the same wonderful, elusive, beautiful layers.
When love is not fair, it simply means that we aren't matching up. Our needs are going unmet as we fail to meet others'. Our emotions are unheard as we fail to hear others. Our desires unfulfilled as we fail to fulfill others'. Our thoughts disrespected as we disrespect others'. We miss one another.
In fulfilling relationships, the successful hits outnumber the misses. Perhaps we are largely compatible, and the relationship doesn't require a whole lot of work. Perhaps we are very different but have devised a successful communication strategy. In any number of scenarios, a relationship can be satisfying if the hits outnumber the misses.
When love doesn't feel fair is when the misses are outnumbering the hits. Perhaps we've tried but to no avail. And depending on the importance of the relationship, we may have entered the dangerous (oh so very dangerous) territory of denying our needs, desires, emotions, even our thoughts. Perhaps we have come to believe that to "make this work," we must lose ourselves. No.
Love isn't always fair with another, but we must remain fair with and for ourselves. That means, when our emotions show up, we don't banish them because they are inconvenient. We listen. When we are aware of desire being unmet, we don't deny the desire. We address it, learn if and how we can meet it. Not all desires can be met but must be acknowledged as parts of us. When we can meet our desire, we rejoice. When we cannot, we grieve... perhaps just a little or perhaps a lot, depending on the size and importance of the desire. When our needs are unfulfilled, we pay careful, special, respectful attention. We do not lie to ourselves, trying to convince ourselves that we do not have needs. We acknowledge them. We bring them to our conscious awareness and then to the safe people in our lives who can be trusted to hold our needs with respect and dignity. And through this ongoing, blossoming self-knowledge, we learn ourselves.
And we learn the two words that will save us from blindness, darkness, and loss of self:
Yes and No.
We say yes to all the layers of ourselves, and this profound, brave Yes gives us the knowledge to say Yes and No to that which life presents. Without self-knowledge, our Yes's and No's are arbitrary shots in the dark. But connected to self-knowledge, our Yes's and No's are powerful steps toward wholeness and integrity.
We say Yes to sleep and No to overwork.
We say Yes to healthy sex and No to shame.
We say Yes to nature and No to endless hours of television and smart phones.
We say Yes to opportunities that connect us to our desires and values and No to others that do not bring us closer to those things.
We say Yes to some people and No to others.
We say Yes to an hour with certain people and No to a weekend.
We say Yes to a phone call and No to a visit.
We say Yes to what was and No to what could be.
Do we love them? Of course. We love them as we love ourselves: with a healthy respect and curiosity for their full person.
But we need not say Yes to unlimited time, energy, or most importantly, our deepest hearts. And the only way to know whether or not to say Yes or No, based on who we really are - what we think, what we feel, desire, and need - is to know ourselves.
Then Yes and No become our two most powerful words.
* There are numerous ways to conceptualize the dimensions of the human being. This blog post features this one paradigm of conceptualization.