There’s a stanza in a Tracy Chapman song, At This Point In My Life, that goes like this:
At this point in my life
I’ve done so many things wrong I don’t know if I can do right
If you put your trust in me I hope I won’t let you down
If you give me a chance I’ll try
I think of this song often, usually when I don’t feel like I’m doing much right. I find it to be such a poignant description of the human condition, of human relationships, and the vulnerability that comes from yearning to love well – despite our shortcomings.
This is one of the fundamental challenges in being human: our mistakes can make us doubt our ability to love. One of the hardest things to do in the world – at least, for me – is to go on loving and offering our love even when we’ve hurt people, made mistakes, and have loved imperfectly. This is especially true with our closest loved ones, who, by their very nature of being so close to us, are the ones we hurt the most.
And yet to not do so – to not offer our children, our parents, our siblings, our lovers, our neighbors, our friends our imperfect love and care – is to forget that we are not defined by our shortcomings. To not love them is to believe that our mistakes are all we are. It is to cut ourselves off from the flow of love and life and grace itself.
To not love is also to deny the people in our lives the opportunity to be loved by us – no matter how imperfectly. It is to cut them off from the web of love, from the web of our particular love, from the unique way that we express it and wrap them in it.
One of my favorite treats is going to the movies. This week I saw St. Vincent, a film about a cantankerous older man and the friendship he develops with his neighbor’s son, Oliver, whom he agrees to babysit. Vincent gambles, cheats, steals, lies, and drinks way too much. You have to look below the surface, but he also loves, and loves well, despite – or because of – his shortcomings.
The film brought to mind a line from Rachel Naomi Remen: “Over the years I have learned that ‘cleaning up one’s act’ may be far less important than consecrating one’s life.” You could easily look at Vincent and think of all the ways he needs to clean up his act. But look closer, and you see a man who has consecrated his life in the best way he’s known how. I left the theater thinking his way was enough, and a beautiful one at that.
For so many years, I searched and searched and worked and worked on myself. So much of this working was about getting to a place where I both loved myself and believed I was worthy of love from others. I was frantically trying to clean up my act. It was exhausting and very, very lonely. What my mistakes have shown me is that they may not be the most important thing. What loving – loving within my mistakes – has taught me is that it is the way – perhaps the only way – to consecrate my life.
Couples therapist Stan Tatkin says something radical and deeply healing: that the self help myth that we can’t love another until we love ourselves is completely untrue. If we believe that we can love and be loved only after achieving the mantel of loving ourselves then we do not understand what love is, or how love works.
Love is not something we have to work to build – like storing enough grain in the cache for winter – before we can snuggle up and rest by the fire. Love is not something we have to practice, like learning to play the violin, before we earn the right to perform.
More painfully, when we believe that we can receive love only after we’ve perfected it we can spend our whole lives outside the circle – waiting rather than entering into the current of love. Perhaps this is one of the fundamental myths that keeps us so, so lonely.
It is hard for the self to love itself into wholeness. It is only in the giving and receiving of love – of being in the current – that we come to love ourselves.
Love is what we belong to. It blesses everything it touches. It is by being loved that we are able to love ourselves; it is by loving others that we come to feel love in our own hearts, and it is in this circle of loving that we remember the love that we are.
During these times, I often call my friend Maureen. Maureen was my children’s first teacher – I carted my children up and down the road to her magical school on a hill for over 11 years. She’s known my children – and me – for even longer. She’s been in my house just after a new babe was born. She’s been in my house when I was in pain and pregnant with another child and at my wit’s end. She’s been at my side when I’ve been at rock bottom, in the shadows of darkness and despair.
She is my wise woman friend, who holds me over the phone as I spill out the regret and sorrow – and sometimes the guilt – over all those moments when I’ve lost my way. She listens a lot, and offers a well of compassion. And she also brings me around to the other side: “Karly, remember your mix. You are not the sum of your inequities.”
So she tells me stories – stories even I’ve forgotten – about watching me with my children when they were younger or stories of how she sees me with them now. She gives me her eyes, because when mine are fogged with guilt or grief or exhaustion – which is a very easy thing to do – they don’t always see that clearly, and they forget the wholeness that contains it all.
Through her stories, I feel my guilt soften. In the same way that being loved enables us to love, being seen and forgiven enables us to see and forgive.
In truth, what she’s really offering is a blessing. In giving me her eyes, I gain a new perspective: I am not only my failures. I am also my wholeness. It was never either or. Renewed, I can hold both my mistakes and my love in my hands; I can walk forward in my wholeness. Like Vincent, I can offer my imperfect love in my imperfect vessel in my imperfect way, and it is enough. It is something that consecrates.
No, it is not easy. And it’s possible. The answer, of course, lies in each other. Like Vincent, what calls forth my courage to love is someone else’s need for my love. It is the people in my life – my children, my beloved, my family and friends – who pull out my love. Whether I think I can do it is almost inconsequential, for their desire and need to be loved powerfully calls forth my love, like a call and response. It pulls me to them and pulls out the love that can lie hidden under the doubt of my mistakes.
And that’s why we shouldn’t wait to love another until we completely love ourselves: because it’s the very act of loving that pulls us out of our habitual tendencies and conditioning and elicits something greater. It reconnects us to the deeper self that lies beneath our defenses and distractions and brings this deeper self up to the surface.
The call to love another is how we embody our wholeness, the better angels of our nature, who we most want to be in the world. It’s how we bless and are blessed.
Can you help me with this heart inside my chest?
It ain’t perfect, but you should see me use it
But it only works when I make a mess
When it looks like I’m about to lose it
My heart isn’t perfect, your heart isn’t perfect, but oh – do you see how we use them?
Who knew? It is by loving that we feel whole.