Pretty regularly my three year old Olivia will tell me, “Michaela loves me.” Or Noah or Dad or whoever in the family she’s just been dealing with. Believe it or not, this doesn’t just happen when someone hands her a piece of candy. Often it’s just after being hugged or read a book or being talked with. Just simple things that seem to make her realize that she is cared for. As a mother, I don’t think I’ve ever heard more reassuring words come out of a child’s mouth than Olivia’s, “everyone loves me.”
I know people who would probably think it is unseemly to declare oneself loved. We’re supposed to tell other people that we love them, not proclaim ourselves as loved. Even if it’s sweet for a 3 year old to say such a thing, it would seem weird and awkward for us to say it. However, as much as we tell people we love them – and we should! – what a gift to tell people that we have received and experienced the love they have for us as well. I know from experience – and I’d bet most of you do too – that there is little which is more hurtful than a loved one rejecting our love. To be a parent who realizes that as fervently as they have loved their child, that for one reason or another that child doesn’t feel loved. A spouse whose partner feels unloved after they’ve poured themselves out heart and soul for them. Or a friend who prayed over and sat with a dear one only to hear, “no one cares about me.” As wounding as never hearing, “I love you” can be, “I don’t feel loved” can be even worse.
Sometimes the people around us don’t feel loved because we’re doing it wrong. But I know a lot of people who simply struggle to experience the love directed their way. They may know that their own love for others is true, deep and passionate. Yet they tell themselves that others are just being nice, don’t know any better, or simply saying what they think they are supposed to say when people direct love towards them. I know I’ve done this. It wasn’t until I had my own daughters that it dawned on me that my own mother might actually have meant all of the kind, encouraging things she had said to me over the years. I knew she loved me, but I had rarely allowed that love to actually touch me – to feel it. Even with my own children, I’ve tended not to allow their love to reach me. After all, kids will love even the crappiest mom – it wasn’t personal. Except of course, it is personal to them.
It took me a good amount of time as well as being on the receiving end of the “your love can’t touch me” phenomena for me to realize that I was doing this. And that’s it’s not OK. I’d like to say that I realized that it’s not right that someone as lovable as me would not feel loved. But really, what finally got through to me was my middle daughter. She’s a sensitive, passionate girl who sometimes reminds me of myself as a child. And she loves me. As a preschooler she would regularly set-up and invite me to “I love mommy” parties with water in her tea set, crackers on napkins and stuffed animals wrapped in blankets as presents for me. For a while I figured this was her way of getting me to play tea party with her. Then one day I looked at her and remembered how fervently I loved my own mother as a child. And it occurred to me that it was wrong for me not to allow for my child’s love to be just as real and intentional as my own had been. Whatever the reasons for not allowing love to touch me were, it was wrong. And I needed to stop.
Now I very intentionally pay attention to the love which is directed my way. And as I am given a hug or kind words or a gift, I follow Olivia’s example and tell myself, “s/he loves me”. I will myself to actually experience the love being directed at me – to feel rather than simply know it. And more and more I am able to feel the love that comes my way. But in doing this, I’ve found that there’s something very, very deep in me which resists receiving love. I’m sure I could come up with all sorts of ideas as to why – self-protection after being hurt, lack of trust, not feeling lovable, my sister sneezing in my hair that one time when I was three. Who knows? But of all the false ideas and beliefs which I’ve confronted over the years, this one seems particularly deeply embedded. There’s something about allowing myself to feel loved that feels very uncomfortable and dangerous to me.
Often when my brain is filled with toxic muck as it is sometime wont to be, I will use a mantra to crowd out everything else. I’ll focus so strongly on a particular phrase or prayer that my brain simply can’t get another word in edgewise. Often I’ll use the Jesus prayer. Or if I’m really struggling, I’ll tell myself over and over, “all you have to do is take a breath. And then another. And another.” The other day I woke up from a night of bad dreams to the sound of my dog vomiting up what looked like squirrel hair on my bedroom floor. And somehow I just knew that I needed to focus my brain on one thought: “God loves me.” Over and over for the last couple of days I’ve repeated to myself, “God loves me”, breathing in on the “God” and out on “loves me”.
It’s been like magic. Within a couple of hours, I felt better than I have in I’m not sure how long. Yet in the quiet moments, when I’ve been able to really pay attention to this mantra, I’ve found myself wrestling with the idea that God loves me. And it’s felt an awful lot like that same struggle I have with allowing myself to feel loved in general. It feels dangerous, I realized, because some of my hurt has become bitterness. Because at times God’s love has felt like a lie. And maybe the truth is that it often feels like I’m serving a demanding God who just takes and takes from me, until I’m completely drained. Just like I often feel with everyone else in my life.
But it occurs to me that the real problem is that I don’t get to dictate the terms of God’s love – I just have to accept it as it comes. I don’t get to hold out for something more to my liking. To feel loved by God, I need to forgive God and myself and my life for not being what I thought it was supposed to be. I just have to allow myself to ease into what is and enjoy the ride. Because that’s all I have – the right here and now. Where God loves me. And might my struggle to accept love from other people in my life have its roots in the same realities?
I’m still wrestling with this hard part of myself that doesn’t know how to be loved. Perhaps it’s like loving itself – it’s an ability, not a feeling or even a choice. Something that has to be learned and nurtured. And yet, here comes Olivia telling me, “you love me.” It makes me think that perhaps if we’d focus a little less on convincing each other of our love for them and a little more on offering the gift of letting each other know that we see and receive their love, we’d all be better for it. And if our own love is received, perhaps it won’t be so hard to allow ourselves to receive it from others as well.