I think we all fundamentally want the same thing, which is to be loved.
This seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet I think it’s not obvious at all, partly because we have such a vague sense of what love actually is. We use the word for so many things! I love roses, for example. I love them because they’re beautiful, and because of their scent, and even because they can be so difficult. And I do not love the hybrid teas that to me are not really roses. (You know, the roses that you get on Valentine’s Day, which have long stems and tight buds and are impossible to grow. For me, real roses are the old Gallicas and Albas and Damasks.) If only we loved people the way we love roses, or books, or houses! Books and houses we also love because they are beautiful and difficult. And yet, when we love people, we get frustrated by the difficulty . . .
I think that when we say we want to be loved, what we really mean is that we want to be understood, and accepted, and valued. Understood for who we are, and accepted and valued for that . . . And that’s where the difficulty lies, doesn’t it? Because so often when we love people, we want them to be different. We love them despite, rather than because. And yet, who among us wants to be loved despite? We want to be loved with our thorns, and even because of our thorns.
One of the reasons I’ve only been thinking about this recently is that in my family, we never talked about love. We were supposed to behave in a certain way: to become educated and cultured, to dress properly and act appropriately. The emphasis was always on our accomplishments rather than our relationships. But loving well is a sort of skill, really. Truly understanding, accepting, and valuing another human being is not an easy thing to do. Often love has something else mixed into it, a bit of dislike, a bit of disdain. That small thing will kill it, eventually. Because we can tell when someone does not truly love us, when that love is mixed with something else. We always know, even when we try to hide it from ourselves . . . Loving is something that takes honesty and courage.
It would be easy to love a rose without thorns, a book with no complicated passages, a house in which the windows did not stick in summer. A human being without old hurts or habits that displeased us. But perhaps that would not be love, just a sort of easy pleasure. Perhaps love is in the accepting, in the valuing.
Some time ago, I found a quotation from Jeannette Winterson that struck me. Here it is:
“There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other’s names. Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.”
She’s talking about understanding: the first step in being loved is to be truly seen, and understood. You can spend your whole life in a relationship and realize that you’ve never really been understood, that the person you’ve been with has never known your name. That’s a horrible realization to have . . .
But if you can find a person who does . . . Well then, it’s as though you are no longer on a planet spinning through space. It’s as though you’ve found, in this universe that is ceaselessly in motion, a place on which to stand. Solid ground . . .