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Unconditional Love (On Stage!)

May 29, 2010

Today was my daughter’s ballet recital. It has happened every year, in pretty much the same way, for the last 7 years. But this year felt different. This year, she was one of the big girls. With boobs and everything.

When she first started ballet, she was 4 or 5, wearing a little pink leotard with her underwear all bunched up underneath it and spilling gracelessly out the leg holes along with her pudgy little legs. She had a pixie short haircut that had to be coerced into something resembling a bun with a bottle of hair gel and about 1,000 bobby pins. Her rhythm was akin to that of a dog with fleas, who had to pee. The collection of these little pink girls on the stage, trying to dance to the music evoked the image of popcorn more than anything else. Not one of them was on the beat, no two were in the same position at any point in time, and they all lost focus the moment they found a position to be in – not THE position, just any position. It was delicious.

As a parent, you know when they just aren’t getting it right, and you don’t care. You – or at least I – literally weep just seeing them up there, messing up under the stage lights, and  in the eyes of other parents who may not appreciate how perfectly fabulous your child is.

Today, when those little pink children came skipping on to the stage with the precision of the most precious popcorn, I wept. My child was not one of them, and it didn’t matter. I wept because I realized, then and there, that I know what unconditional love is. I do. And I have it.

Well, I have it to give, anyway. I may also have wept a little bit because I don’t know if I have it to receive. (I will, however, receive it, if the opportunity presents itself.)

I may also have wept a little bit because I wondered if it is possible for someone who is not a parent to really know what unconditional love is. While I do not think that all parents feel unconditional love for their children, I do think it is the easiest way to access this incredibly strong force of nature that is unconditional love.  That creates magnificent canyons in our souls into which other souls can move and grow and shape you. That’s not an easy thing to let someone do to you. With our children, we sort of have no choice, we’re stuck with them. With other people, we find excuses to shut them out and not let them crawl in and change us. But when we let it in, it is no less powerful than the Grand Canyon itself, and an emotional process almost identical.

My daughter has done that to me. She made me large and open in a way I didn’t know possible.

Sure, it sounds wonderful – and it is – but it brings with it it’s own sets of hazards. I realized that I use this now as the foundation for how I want to love people. Not like a child, but with the same unconditional openness and strength that I love my child. She has upped the ante.

But, if not everyone knows what unconditional love is, well, that makes it even harder to find. And that inequality is a deadly thing to a relationship.

It’s like raising the finest beef in the world, and only being able to eat McDonalds.

While the parent / child relationship is one with an inherent power inequality – at least when they’re young – the relationships that I want as an adult are based on fundamental equality. I had always thought of that in terms of everything from intelligence to sex drive to ability to stand up for one’s self.

But those things, while incredibly important, may only matter AFTER there is a fundamental equality in WILLINGNESS to love unconditionally. Knowing that someone will love you even when your rhythm is off, or you flunk a test, or are sick and need to be cared for, or are scared because of the imaginary monsters in your head. That they love you for trying, for showing up, for sharing these moments with them. That they won’t change their mind.  That simple fact allows us to grow up together.

Yes, I think that “grown ups” need to keep growing up. Keep learning, evolving, changing, discovering. But we can’t do that if we think we are loved only for a set of circumstances that created the context in which love was discovered.

And when we think we find love that in our minds is unconditional, and find out it was contextual, that is the most devastating thing in the world. I wish I didn’t know that.

So I’m looking at these precious little pink girls popping about the stage, and I’m wondering how many of them will feel that their parents loved them unconditionally. (Whether or not their parents did is not relevant, only whether or not these children grow up feeling that their parents did.) And what that will do to them.

The people I know as adults who have the hardest time forming solid and fulfilling relationships are the ones who have told me that they felt unloved by their parents. It is like they have internalized the need to please, be perfect, get it right in order to earn love. So their lives become a series of tasks and tests in order to attract and retain praise, attract and retain love. And they are empty, hollow. So clearly in need of love, but with no vocabulary to define it, ask for it, give it or receive it. Because there are too many conditions, real or imagined. They assume people are judging them when they’re not, and they judge people when they needn’t.

I also, however, know people who never felt unconditionally loved by their parents, and have made a conscious decision to love unconditionally. In all those cases, however, we have children.

I am willing to bet anything that my mother loved me unconditionally. I never felt it. I think it’s because she never felt it – her parents were cold, manipulative and had so many conditions. You simply can’t do something that you never learned how to do.  I can point to the places in my psyche and my soul where that fact left divets and cracks. However, when my daughter was born, they were all filled with something much stronger than my own self-loathing, doubt, and fear. She taught me the love that my mother didn’t. (I let her do it.)

I wish that I could do that to people. The people I have most loved seem to have been the ones who most needed it, and were least able to accept it – not willfully, they just didn’t know how to.

But I get it now.

So I wept. Is unconditional love wasted on people who only love with conditions? Or is that the best place for it? If I want to love unconditionally, do I need the other person’s permission and participation, or can I just do it, as I do with my daughter?

If I love myself unconditionally, then I have to look at the glaring blunders of my heart – with it’s bad timing and perpetual ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – with the same generosity as the parent watching their child get it all wrong, in such an adorable manner. You go heart! You’ll learn this stuff eventually!

Don’t get me wrong, I do not like everything my daughter does. But nothing she does seems to make me love her less. Or want to be with her less. Or be less excited about seeing what she discovers next.

That seems like it would be good in any relationship.

When she took the stage, I wept again. Where did this poise come from? (Never mind the boobs, and appreciable absence of panty-lines, and pouty lips polished and red.) This seems to have happened quickly and effortlessly. All we did was love her, and look what happened.

I realized that all I want, as her mother, is for her to be an adult who can say, “I know my parents loved me unconditionally.” And for her to have learned how to do that for other people. Because when people love you like that, amazing things happen. You are safe enough to explore everything inside and outside of you.

She taught me that I can love like that. And that I want to be loved like that. And that I don’t need anyone’s permission (or participation) to do so. I realized that I have loved adults like that, and though I’ve not found it returned equally, I am so pleased to realize that I know how to do it, and want to do it, and can do it.

I will do it.

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