Suppose you have lived your entire life for others; suppose selflessness virtually defines you. Now assume that after a lifetime of selflessness, you are sometimes unappreciated by, or taken advantage of, or not as close as you would like to be, to those others. And this causes pain. After a lifetime of love given you sense that it wasn’t enough. What do you do?
First you want to be sure that your views corresponds to reality. Are you really unloved, unappreciated, or abused? And if so, to what extent? All of us are probably loved or appreciated less than we would like, but one might be misreading the situation. Perhaps your loved ones love you unequivocally but they are busy, stressed, distracted, unhappy, or like all of us, simply imperfect.
However, most likely your view is at least partly correct, and your feelings wholly legitimate. So what to do? First you might talk to those hurting you; tell them what’s bothering you since they can’t read your mind and may be unaware of how you feel. This may be the problem. It is hard to understand each other when we do talk with them, and that much harder still when we don’t. Yet communication is only a starting point and has its drawbacks–you can’t talk everything out. Often its better to “let sleeping dogs lie.” (This relates to my previous post here.)
Assuming then that talking doesn’t completely rectify the situation–and it usually doesn’t since words don’t fix the world–what do you do? Here the gamut of responses probably runs from hating to accepting, forgiving, and continuing to love those who sometimes hurt you. You could even direct these responses inward, for example by blaming, hating, loving or forgiving yourself.
Hating is obviously self-defeating, as the Buddha taught long ago: “In this world, hate never dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law,ancient and inexhaustible.You too shall pass away. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?” Negative emotions directed toward others will consume and hurt you; hatred and anger are futile emotions. On the other hand, if we look past the shortcomings of people, if we accept, tolerate, forgive and love, we will be happier.
This leads to the answer to our question. We should accept that relationships, like life, are imperfect, and that everyone disappoints us eventually, especially if our expectations are too high. We should lower our expectations and forgive others for their perceived sins against us. We should love as best we can those who are probably trying to love us as best they can. Again, if we expect that our loved ones will love us unconditionally or never be rude or never hurt us, we will be disappointed. Similarly, we should accept ourselves too.
Thus we should accept, forgive, and love both ourselves and those that love us, however imperfectly. Tolerance springs from the realization that we all have flaws and blemishes. But these do not make any of us unlovable; they make us what we are. And if we love and are loved in spite of all our shortcomings, then we have something that few have–imperfect love. No it is not the love of fairy tales; nothing can be as good as what’s unattainable. But it is real love, messy love and, hopefully, enduring love. Perhaps that is what the bard was getting at in sonnet 116:
… Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken …
It is the kind of love I’m trying to send out with these feeble words to those I love most. Words are so inadequate … but love is not.