Conditional Love

I’ve been re-reading a book I read some time ago, about 6 or 7 years back, called Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. When it comes to nonfiction, I really like personal essays and memoirs best. I have a special shelf on a bookcase reserved for my favorites. I was adding another book by Don called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years to that shelf recently and discovered Blue Like Jazz was gone. I vaguely remember loaning it to someone, but who? No idea. So I ordered another copy from Amazon and when it arrived, I thought, “it’s been a while, let’s see if it’s still good.”

It is still good but it strikes me differently somehow. There are chapters and paragraphs that resonate as if I’m reading them for the first time. It’s funny how some books are like that.

What I like about Don is his ability to write about faith and Christianity in honest, human terms. His thoughts are not religious; they are real life observations.

This time around, the chapter on how to really love other people is a standout for me. Don makes the observation that many of us use love like money. We withhold affirmation from people who do not agree with us and we lavishly finance the ones who do. We withhold love in an effort to get someone to be what we want them to be. If someone does something we disapprove of, we roll our eyes, talk about them behind their back, give them the cold shoulder, exclude them from get-togethers, ostracize them, put them down, and ignore them. We withhold love to change them. And this rarely ever works. Because when we behave like this, people feel judged, mistreated, and abused. Rather than being drawn to us and wanting to change, they are totally turned off.

This is the way, Jerri and I grew up. Love, in our family, was conditional. If we behaved in a way that reflected positively on our parents, if we made good grades, were polite, didn’t cause trouble, minded our manners, believed what our mother told us, didn’t argue, didn’t talk back, then we were accepted. If, however, we chose to be ourselves which sometimes meant disagreeing with our parents or calling someone out who was using us or not politely backing down when we were wronged—love was withheld in sometimes inexplicably ways.

For example, when I was 16, I took a job at McDonald’s. My dad bought a little Toyota truck for me to use and I needed gas money to drive it to school. I hated riding the bus and for years I’d bummed rides with various other kids. Now I wanted control over my own schedule. I wanted to participate in some after-school activities and the constant effort of organizing transportation was exhausting.

My mom didn’t want me to work at McDonald’s. To this day, I’m not sure why. When I took the job despite her disapproval, she said, “since you’re making your own money now, you can use it to buy your necessities–shampoo, toothpaste, tampons, make-up–I’m not going to buy that stuff for you any more.” This was not a parental decision to help me learn how to handle my own money. The job barely paid $20 a week after taxes. This was my Mom’s way of withholding love in order to make me behave the way she wanted me to.

Don makes the observation:

God has never withheld love to teach me a lesson.

For me, that’s mind-boggling. It’s not what I’m used to. And it got me thinking. I don’t want to be in relationships where I have to work vigilantly to earn approval for my very existence. I mean, really, does anyone?

20120219-213942.jpgNo, I want to be embraced for my quirks, my talents, my eccentricities, my tempers, my moods, my insecurities, my dreams, my hopes, my heartbreaks, my me-ness. I want to be in relationships where the other person gets a kick out of who I am.

Likewise, I don’t want to be that person who loves with conditions. I don’t want to love Jerri only when she takes her medication or only when she pays her bills or only when she avoids negative influences or only when she is in her right mind. I want to love her because she is herself. Because she likes quirky second-hand coats and bright orange overalls. Because she’s a chocoholic. Because she gives her neighbor her last can of soup and is kind to the schizophrenic man at the bus stop. Because she can crochet snowflakes. Because she makes funny cards out of construction paper and colored pencils. Because after everything she has lived through, she still laughs.

Don said that after he repented from loving conditionally, he was set free to really love.

I didn’t have to discipline anybody, I didn’t have to judge anybody, I could treat everyone as though they were my best friend, as though they were rock stars or famous poets, as though they were amazing, and to me they became amazing . . .

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4 Comments on “Conditional Love”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Luv ya man!

  2. Susan says:

    When someone will only love you if he/she can control you (for isn’t that what the conditions really are – control?), RUN. Otherwise, you will spend the rest of your life trying to say and do things the exact right way so others will love you. That, well . . . that is exhausting. If it is a parent who will only love you “conditionally,” it makes experiencing true love — you loving others and you allowing others to love you — a challenge for the rest of your life.

    • So very true. I have felt like I’ve had to earn people’s acceptance my whole entire life whether at school, work, church. It’s very hard for me to do something that feels right for me when I know another person will object. I’ve even struggled feeling that way about God, like if I decide to skip church, he’s going to pout and turn his back on me the rest of the day. I’ve worked really hard to reprogram my way of thinking. I actively imagine, for example, God delighting in me. I wonder if this will ever come naturally.

      • Susan says:

        You know the funny thing is . . . your words “I have felt like I’ve had to” – say it all. You really haven’t had to – but you have “FELT LIKE YOU HAVE HAD TO.” For you, it is the same thing (having to or feeling like you’ve had to). I say this, because, I have FELT the same way. Love has always been something to be earned instead of something to freely receive as the great gift that it is. There were times when the “gift” of someone’s love came too easily, I didn’t value it. Like – there must be something wrong with him/her because how on earth could he/she care about me so easily — really. I think this is a very hard thing to un-learn with people and with God.


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