Last week’s post ended with this question – ‘What would love do?’
So today I want to explore that a little bit more.
And to do that, I need to take you back a few years in my life to winter of 2015, when I decided to try giving up fear for lent.
It might seem an odd idea, but I was dealing with significant amounts of anxiety at the time, and had lots on my plate. I was balancing home, work and school, and there was a lot going on in each of those places.
I realized that I kept finding myself reacting out of my fear. So I spent six weeks trying to be intentional – trying to notice whenever I was afraid and ask myself the question ‘What would love do’ instead – and then try to act out of the answer to that question.
And what I realized is that I didn’t really know what love would do. I had lots of answers to what control (fear) would do. Control would try to micromanage and direct, call all the shots or bring order out of the chaos.
I had lots of answers to what avoidance (fear) would do. Avoidance would chill out and watch Netflix. It would find extra errands to run after work or reasons to go into the office early in the morning.
I had lots of answers to what anger (fear) would do. It would lash out at the people I loved, blaming them for their “mistakes” and their “negligence” without taking any ownership for my own emotions or choices or struggles or fears.
So I started doing some research. And eventually I came across a school of thought in psychology called ‘Attachment Theory’. And at the centre of this idea of attachment theory was a way to know the answer to my question – what would love do?
Attachment theory, it turns out, suggests that the need to feel loved is fundamental to human functioning – and that we feel or experience that love through three basic mechanisms: we need to know that we are safe, known and precious.*
So what does that look like?
Safe is having our basic needs met. Food in our bellies. Clothes on our back. A roof over our head. But safe is also feeling emotionally safe. Like there is a space for us to be real and honest and that our vulnerabilities won’t be manipulated or capitalized on if we let them out. Safe is a space where you can be you without fear of judgment or ridicule or anyone trying to change who you are. Safety makes us feel like we can relax all of the muscles in our body – our face, our shoulders, our hands, our legs – and be completely free to be ourselves.
Known means someone understands us. They know that when we come in at the end of a long day, we just need five minutes by ourselves. They know that when we hurt ourselves we need someone to rub the small of our back just so to help us through. Known means showing up when it matters, sending a text at just the right moment, making the right food the night before a big exam or an important presentation, or that look of compassion that the passes across a crowded room when someone makes a hurtful comment.
Precious is worth fighting for. Precious is a parent showing up every morning for a year at their teenager’s bedroom door with a glass of water and a morning wakeup hug because they know their teen is conquering mountains of mental health challenges every morning when they successfully walk out the door to go to school. Precious is taking the time to listen to your partners hurts and pains, fears and foibles, and then draw them a bubble bath or make them a hot cocoa or massage the stress away at the end of a hard day. Precious hears the hint dropped casually in passing and does what it can to make it a reality. Precious is tenacious and has a thick skin because it’s what gets you through the hardest moments in life.
But putting this into practice for ourselves and for those around us is hard, because it’s not about the action, it’s about the source of the action.
Fear might want to step up and tell us that if we don’t let that teenager get up on their own then they’ll be dependent on us forever. But equally, fear might be telling us we have to get that teenager up otherwise they might never go to school. Only love can show us which is right. Only love can tell us that for a kid facing all of the challenges and difficulties that this one is going through – a kid who wants desperately to succeed in life – a dose of safe, known and precious first thing in the morning is just what is needed.
Fear might want to step in and tell us that we can’t stop at the end of the day – that there are no ‘five minutes’ to spare, and that if we don’t push ourselves 17 or 18 hours straight every day, then the whole world will collapse. Fear might also keep us on the couch, afraid to get up and try. Only love can offer us an alternative. Only love will know that we are human, will see that we have worked hard at our day job all day, and that if we want to offer love to the tiny and not-so-tiny humans in our trust at the end of the day, that those five minutes (or ten or fifteen) are crucial. Furthermore, love will know that if we take them in the parking lot by the waterfront (or wherever your sacred space is) that they will be all the more likely to happen, and all the more effective when they do.
Fear might worry that you’re spoiling your favourite someone if you pick up on their hints. It might worry that they’re not going to give you anything nice, so there’s no point in giving it to them. It might come up with all sorts of excuses why that thing or that meal or that walk or that time isn’t really an option right at the moment, or why it’s frivolous or unnecessary or silly or whatever else. Fear might show up as jealousy or as tight-fistedness, it might show up as worry or with overtones of guilt (you have to do that – remember last week when you completely failed because …) But whatever it shows up as, fear can never know the right answer. Only love can tell us what is best. Only love can see the big risk they’re taking for your family this week. Only love can see how every time you respond with precious, they blossom a little bit more. Only love can see the end goal of a whole, healthy person, in a whole healthy relationship and realize that this is the next right thing** to getting us there.
So when you sense yourself becoming afraid – the shoulders are going up, the mouth is getting tensed – what would love do?
When you see your kids bickering with each other and you’re tired and frazzled and it’s only eleven in the morning and it’s hot and there’s no money left until Friday – what would love do?
When your partner is coming home empty and doesn’t have anything left to give you at the end of a long day trying to pay the bills (and coming up a little bit shy) – what would love do?
When you’re trying to figure out the next right thing – what would love do?
*For more on attachment theory, I can’t recommend Dr. Karyn Purvis enough – she was my introduction to this world, and I am so very grateful for the impact of her work in my life.
**If you haven’t yet read Glennon Doyle, please take a look at her work. She is all about the next right thing.