It was at a relative’s funeral over 15 years ago that I began to wonder about my ability or inability to love. The spouse of the deceased, an awkward and unlikable man, cornered me. He began to explain my relatives to me in critical terms. She doesn’t know how to love. They are such cold people. He would never understand love. Grieving requires latitude, so I stood there, numbly, and listened as he described the people I loved as terrible. And maybe they were.
I’ve written before about my upbringing and childhood. And it is only significant in the fact that it had consequences. I was a sensitive, shy kid in a household where tears and really, any emotion, were mocked or ridiculed or punished. When I laughed I was too loud, when I cried I was being too sensitive, when I was sick I was faking it, when I was angry, I was unjustified. Toughen up was the order of the day.
So I did. I took up sarcasm and cynicism as weapons and armor. I worked when I was sick. I cried in private. I muffled my laughter and subdued any excitability. I smoothed out the sheets until there was not a wrinkle in sight. I grew up, muted and self-conscious of any outward indications of emotion.
I did well in the Army. No drill sergeant could yell me into anything more than a look of stony silence. I’d stare placidly as my bunk was torn apart and an angry man got up in my face screaming about my worthlessness. It was nothing to me.
Once I started college, I couldn’t relate to the excitable undergrads and buried myself in work. The cracks were beginning to show. I began to suffer chronic depression. The emotions that I’d suppressed had begun to curl inward and were finding their way into toxic relationships and self-destructive behaviors that left me gasping for air.
But I was tough. I could survive. I could make it through anything, especially the self-generated miseries. Two decades of muted smiles and disdain for anything sentimental or emotional. I was still me, sensitive to not only the moods and whims of others, but of the environment, of sounds and smells and shifts in the wind. I just had a hard shell.
This is what we’re told as children – grow up, toughen up, be like an adult. A generous interpretation is that we fear for these little, soft beings going out in the world. So often, though, we’re re-enacting our own childhood pains and fears, wishing on our children a kind of protection we never had.
It would be easy for me to say that being in a happy marriage and having a healthy child was what changed me. It did. How could it not? But the change began happening before he came along and she was born.
It started with decisions. A decision to leave a dead-end job that made me feel stupid. A decision to leave a relationship that would have gone nowhere, a relationship that made me feel inferior and worthless. A decision to leave a town where I’d worked through a lot of permutations and none of them fit.
Then there was therapy. Talking about things I’d never talked about, to a person who didn’t have a horse in the race. Crying a lot. Often feeling worse than I’d ever felt in my life. The cracks became canyons and I feared I would never get out. But every gaslight was extinguished when the therapist leaned in, with a quizzical look on her face and said “You do understand that they were trying to hurt you, right?” The elemental difference between feeling worthless and not.
I’ve softened over the years. It’s uncomfortable to me still. Sometimes I’ll hear myself laugh and I’ll think stop that cackling, a phrase I heard repeatedly as a child. But I split my heart wide open when I committed to a marriage. I laid all my vulnerabilities out on the table when my child smiled her first smile.
The softening of middle age isn’t just happening around the middle. I seem to be leaking tears and flashing smiles at the most inopportune moments. It feels like an odd awakening to the exquisite beauty of this fragile existence.
I will never be an effusive person or greet Valentine’s day with much more than a grimace. But my family is well-loved year round and I laugh a lot these days. I’m at a point where repairs are no longer underway, my psyche no longer under construction.
There’s a peppy little song by Cathy Heller called “Gonna Be Happy”. The lyrics are saccharine sweet, but there’s a line that has burned itself in my brain.
How can we set each other free?
I’ve been thinking about this as I go about my day. I’ve been watching people – at the grocery store, at concerts, walking their dogs, talking to their children, using their walkers, and blasting their car radios. And that line pops into my head.
It’s realizing that a smile can make a difference in a person’s day. It’s understanding that most people are not out to intentionally hurt us, that we are all on our own orbital paths and sometimes that makes us careless of other humans. It’s assuming the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, of attributing things not to malevolence, but to inattention.
It’s love turned outward. It’s that moment when it cannot be contained and wrangled into submission – when the impulse to smile or laugh or cry is no longer embarrassing or shameful. It’s startling when it happens. My first thought is always “Who is this weirdo and what do they want?” But defensiveness obscures my vision, makes me miss the moment, the connection. Curiosity is the antidote and is, in some ways, the best gift of love we can offer each other.