18 November 2007

What I'll Give you Since You Asked

This weekend I facilitated a strategic planning workshop for a small nonprofit organization in Biloxi. Contemplating their collaboratively-produced vision statement, a participant took issue with the phrase "unconditionally committed," or, more specifically, the use of the word "unconditionally."

I could appreciate her perspective. Is "unconditional commitment" something that can be required, or demanded or even requested?

It's a huge concept; impossible to verify until we take our last breath. It is a survivor's observation at the bedside of the deceased: Yes, her [love, commitment, faith, generosity, etc] was unconditional. It never failed.

Unconditional is a vow we make in the privacy of our own hearts--to be unwavering, steadfast, reliable until the end.

Today I am thinking about all the people I have disappointed over my lifetime, particularly those who I love. Almost never has it been a situation in which my reneging on an agreement or consciously, intentionally betraying them provoked the disappointment.

Maybe I did or said something which I knew or suspected, from prior events in our shared history, they would not approve of. Maybe we'd never encountered or explored the issue in our relationship to date so I had no idea what their response might be.

Whatever it was, I felt strongly enough about it to say or do it.

In those cases where I knew the other's opinion beforehand, I often assumed there was sufficient love, tolerance and flexibility between us to allow a difference of opinion. Sometimes I knew I risked disappointment (which, with so many people, quickly evolves into a sense of personal injury) but with people I love unconditionally, I proceed with a mostly unconscious confidence that the situation will not devolve into estrangement of the relationship.

I believe we'll keep going. I believe we'll work it out.

But it doesn't always work that way. I am estranged from, what seems to me today, a staggering number of people who I love unconditionally.

The familial estrangements provoke a distinctly dynamic emotional reaction in me. It is as though "unconditional love" comes in at least two varieties-- one denoting "til the end of time" and the other having no end; a "forever, everywhere...and nowhere as well if you go there" kind of unconditional love. An "I am with you and for you and of you always. Amen" kind of unconditional love.

Some would say it is a lot to give. I would respond that, when it comes, it is impossible not to give it. It is mysterious and insistent and gently profound--like air. There's no choice. It isn't even mine to give or withhold.

I'm saying that's the way Unconditional Love reveals itself to me. I can't say how it comes to other people.

I love my immediate blood family unconditionally. I have little to no contact with most of them. In some cases we simply haven't crossed each other's mind with enough vitality to inspire initiating contact. My youngest sister, and to some extent my only brother, fall into this category. I also have easily hundreds of cousins who fall into this category.

I've encountered and internalized some teachings on family and family love in poetry and wisdom traditions. I've also undergone a lot of psychological therapy and read substantially inside the practice. These biases shape my understanding and emotional experience of being estranged from blood relatives who I love unconditionally.

I Googled "quotations about family" and found:

Alex Haley:

In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.

Auguste Napier:

In each family a story is playing itself out, and each family's story embodies its hope and despair.

George Bernard Shaw:

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.

Isaac Rosenfeld:

In every dispute between parent and child, both cannot be right, but they may be, and usually are, both wrong. It is this situation which gives family life its peculiar hysterical charm.

There are times when my estrangement from my mother and father provokes extreme self loathing--what kind of monster or miscreant am I? Normal people talk to their living parents. Don't they?!

Other times I see myself as just another little human whose life story happens to be unfolding this way. My story is not a lightening bolt ripping the fabric of the cosmos. It is one little strand in the tapestry of Life.

It is a small strand and it is not unique. It recurs. It is mostly through biographical literature that I discover the universality of my experience. Estrangement is a bleak plane that others have visited. And written about. Or painted or composed music or danced about.

Sometimes I attempt a therapeutic analysis. What do the "experts" say about estranged adult children? What do the wisdom traditions say is possible for an estranged being?

Perhaps three years ago, it was extremely painful to think of the gulf between my divorced parents and the individual gulfs between me and each of them. Very rarely do I feel that kind of pain anymore. And very rarely does an urge come to "fix" the situation. It is what it is. Tragic, sad, ridiculous, paradoxical. It is the way it is.
I love them. We do not talk.

Who is to blame? A dead-end, deadening question.

What did I do? I disappointed them. Deeply. Early in my life. They were hurt and disappointed because of something I was or said or did. And I experienced their wounded disappointment as a fatal wound to my heart. And, as soon as I could, I set about placing as much space and time between us as possible. I ran from the scene and the source of pain.

But I was young. I still needed them psychically. I loved them and needed them. And I felt wounded by their disappointment. For a few years I reached out through occasional letters written in raw, reaching language trying to reconnect to what felt like essential, life-sustaining relationship. My father never responded but his wife sent a friendly handwritten card saying thanks for writing and best of luck always. My mother never responded to letters but was full of smile and surface chat when I saw her at my son's wedding after at least 3 years of silence between us.

I learned that I could survive without an engaged relationship with my parents.

Perhaps my parents feel the same unconditional love for me and each other that I feel for each of them. What proof will exist as we each breath our last that "yes, our love was unconditional. It never failed"?


  1. this post really struck home. i share that feeling of estrangement from my mother (dad's dead and gone, but felt it from him too, most of the years when he was alive) and accept at least half of the responsibility for the current state of affairs. it is rare that i call her, even tho i tell myself to do so regularly, and even rarer still that she will call me.

    i don't know why she doesn't call. i wish she would. at least then i'd know that she actually wanted to hear my voice. i don't call because i get caught up in my own life and previous experience has taught me that she has little interest in what's going on in my life. other reason: i weary of the health-challenged confines of her "conversations" and her unwillingness (she would probably say, inability) to do any of the things i think would make her happier. another: we don't really seem to have anything to say to one another that is particularly meaningful. another: i feel guilty for neglecting her. another: i feel helpless with regard to doing anything that will prompt "lasting" joy in her.

    thanksgiving is near. the penultimate family holiday in my history. because there are so many family realities to be thankful for, even tho they live their lives a thousand miles away and we rarely talk. only once that i can recall in all the years since i left "home" (the place where the family lived together when i was still embedded) have i missed a thanksgiving with my family. that year i was in such a deep funk i didn't want to share and didn't feel strong enough to mask that the thought of being cheery and thankful was oppressive. still, being in this family (maybe being in MOST families?) is emotionally conflictual (if there is such a word). i know what you mean.

  2. Oh My Dear. So many things come up for me in this & the "normal" post. My heart goes out to you. It's a tangled web, alright, deceiving or not.....
    what comes up:
    * there's never any "proof" of unconditional love- or any other love, for that matter. There can be actions we perceive as loving....and actions that are grounded in love that we misperceive as hurtful or whatever.
    *It's probly more "normal" than not to be estranged from our blood relatives, "normal" being that swelling many at the top of the bell curve.
    *we can NEVER be- although we often feel like it- responsible for someone else's disappointment. Disappointment isn't something we can package up and deliver to another's heart or mind.
    *The estranged parents, kids, friends may be feeling just as awkward and hurt as we do.... may even feel they've disappointed us deeply, and deeply feel that wound in themselves... a whirlpool of our own wounds, projected on the other so that our OWN disappointment at not being understood, accepted as we are, is all we can experience- personal disappointments swirling around drawing us under to deep waters of....well, estrangement. from each other AND self. Frinstance, might not DRKVP's Mom be feeling much the same thing the same thing as DRKVP? Feeling that if he/she'd call, at LEAST she'd know that her offspring wanted to hear her voice... and may be feeling too guilty, too harried & hassled, too boring a conversationalist to call....
    *When we tell someone we're disappointed in them, or otherwise register disapproval, we're registering feelings we have of hurt, frustration, or whatever. In this culture, it's an easy leap from personal feelings to judgements of the other- "YOU did this or that", "you MADE me feel this way", and then to "You're a mean awful perverted not-normal person". If you REALLY loved me, you would.... and that's a trap. It's much easier- and comfortingly familiarly painful- to just pack it in, leave, end the conversation or relationship. Much scarier for most of us to simply say, without judgement of the needs/responses/feelings of ourself or Other, This is what I feel. MY feeling. AND sticking with true feelings- sad, angry, frustrated- rather than judgemental descriptions like "I felt like you couldn't see me, understand me", which put the responsibility for our feelings on another person. Harder than it sounds- there we are, nakedly expressing our own intimate needs, with no recourse to diverting into "but you always....", "You're just.....". Just simple human feeling. Then we can go on to "I need (whatever specific behavior we'd be more comfortable with)and "would you be willing to......"
    * Unconditional love doesn't mean total acceptance of all behaviors. It just means LOVE. You said it. We can object to a behavior, a dynamic, we can strongly disagree..... and still LOVE. In the end, our blood relatives are just people, more alike than not, all with the same needs of love & acceptance, the same range of prejudices and blindnesses and, to some, meaningless conversations that cover our own feelings of inadequacy,fear,disappointment....
    * Trying to behave more "normally" is a deadend street, like you said-an exercise in futility, masking- and disses the other's human capacity to accept & understand differences, each of us in our own time, in our own way- love DOES seem to open the way to compassion, understanding, when we have the will and the courage to stick it out with our eyes open- to OURSELVES as well as the Other.

  3. ah yes, a timely post.
    thanksgiving and unconditional love.

    but first - apologies for the misspellings in my last post. and in advance for the ones in this one.

    I'm reading Don Miguel's "mastery of love" - it's got a fair bit on unconditional love. and I am still confused. you should have it for yourself first, and then for others. you gotta love yourself the way you are first, then you can work on changing what you want to change.

    I gotta tell ya, I'm getting perty damn tired of this inner work stuff! De says it should be called inner play instead. and I keep thinking I need a vacation from inner work. if we take one from regular work and it's so beneficial, why not from inner???

    so this week I was supposed to be on vacation in gulf shores with my MaineMan. but alas, we called it quits last week. I knew he didn't ever want to marry again and "would NEVER EVER change his mind" but then I also found out he doesn't want to live with anyone for 5 years until the kids are out of the house. His first wife cheated on him and eventually left him, the second was bipolar and on and off meds and she eventually left him as well. He had tried the 'blended' family with her, and it failed. So, he has self-determined there will be no more marriages and no more living together for 5 years. so, for me, that basically meant he is unavailable for me until 5 years - not available for me in the way I think I want, anyway.

    and that's where I started playing around with unconditional love in my head. if one of his children died, would he stop loving the other two? to prevent himself that possible pain? I know the analogy isn't quit fair, but it seems to me that because 2 loves failed, he assumes others will and protects himself and his children from the possible pain. and these 'rules' aren't open for discussion or investigation. they just are.

    I mean, I get it and all, but ... aargh. It rings of fear. perhaps understandable. but where is the love, much less the unconditional love?

    so where does fear play into unconditional love (UL)? can you have UL and have fear too?

    UL seems easiest to relate to children and parents - parents seem to be able to love their children no matter what they do. it's a safe thing to know - that your parents will love you regardless. I don't know that it absolutely floats the other way for me - do I love my parents unconditionally? mmmm. probably.

    but I have chosen to not spend time with them anymore. and I read something the other day that made me feel better about that decision - something about being able to know that you aren't obligated to be with people who act as a toxin or poison on your soul. it makes it easier to be at peace with my decision. my mom keeps calling to see if I will be in for T-day. I already pre-briefed them that I wouldn't be doing Xmas this year. I haven't told them I don't intend to ever do it again tho. Because I just might change my mind.

    so, while I want to have UL for myself and for my partner, and for my partner to be able to have UL with himSelf and with me, I don't seem to be able to feel it well yet. if I can have UL for my parents, but not want to be with them, will that be what happens with my partner? we UL each other, but end up not wanting to be together? ick. double ick.

    man o man - I need a vacation!

    but thanks for the post Alex - it was good to write my reply - to get some of that goo in my head down in words. no answers, of course. but some shared experience.

    sometimes doing all of this inner "play" stuff makes me feel like I am moving farther and farther from "normal society". and how will I ever find a partner if I keep getting farther and farther away. so, having friends who are vocal and open and sharing helps me feel not so alone and so "far away".

    peace, love and vacations,


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