Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Loving "Across" Is Hard

Growing up, our family wasn’t the best at showing love.  We were, after all, a Plymouth Brethren, middle-class, Canadian family from Ontario.  Not known for warm, effusive outgoing affection, really.  Of course we had as much love inside us as most folks, but we really didn’t know how to let that out, much of the time.

One thing you couldn’t miss: we loved animals.  Infants. Old people.  People who needed our help.  All that was obvious.  We had a lot of family pets and a hobby farm, and we lavished pretty much all of our affection on those miscellaneous kittens, puppies, gerbils, calves, piglets and lambs.  And people’s kids and old “shut in” folks. 

We doted on babies and small children.  Anything too young to disagree with us, or be willful or rebellious or disrespectful to us, really.  Anything young enough to really need us.  We cooed and oohed and ahhed over them.

And really old people.  We went and visited them, and took them food and sat with them and listened to them for what seemed to my young brain to be centuries at a time.  If they’d grown old enough to really be lonely and needy, to be frail and sick and helpless, this melted our hearts and we were right there to pour out time and care and affection.  It made us feel like angels in time of need.

And if anyone’s car broke down, or anyone got injured or sick or something, we were absolutely delighted at the chance to be a rescuer of that person.  To swing into action and make their life better, because we could.

Loving "Downward"
I’m going to call that “loving downward.”  Loving someone or something that needs you, or is under your power in some way.  It’s easiest.  It’s easy to love kittens.  If they try to scramble away from your fond touch as a child, you can just grab them and hold them.  Hopefully they won’t scratch or bite.  Ultimately, they’ll likely starve if you don’t feel like feeding them.  They need you.  And if they really don’t warm up to you, you might have to eventually just “get rid” of them.  Or for now, you can go pet the dog instead. 

You aren’t obligated.  It isn’t a duty.  If an old person is nasty or ungrateful, you just don’t come visit the following week.  If an infant is aggressive or standoffish, you just ignore them and don’t bother to bring them treats.

“Loving downward” is easiest because you have all the power.  It’s very black and white.  They are needy, and you have stuff they need.  If you don’t like how things are going, you change things up.  They can’t really do that.

Loving "Upward"
“Loving upward” is a bit harder, because it’s the opposite.  Your teachers, your uncles and aunts, family friends, your parents, people at your church.  How to love them? 

In my experience, these folks often had love to offer you that was very, very conditional.  The roles were reversed.  Now you were the kitten.  You had to know what they wanted, if you wanted to give them anything they’d like.  In some cases, it was friendliness, helpfulness, respect and warm smiles. In other cases, it was correct answers to math word problems, or emptied garbage pails and made beds. In other cases, it was being able to memorize chapters of the King James Bible.

Some of these people were capricious, cruel and unfair, but the fact is, if they were your teacher, your aunt or someone important at your church, you couldn’t do much about that.  At all.  Same thing if they were your parent.  So you tried to work with them.  Tried to gain love or be in the right place at the right time, or catch them in the right mood to get their approval and favour. 

Tried to keep a bit of dignity and individuality while still doing this, of course.  Tried to stand up if you didn’t think things were fair.  But sometimes that latter situation didn’t work out well.  Became a fight.  And when you’re trying to love and be loved by someone with power over you, if you fight, you almost always lose.  Especially if you have a tantrum.  All because you got fewer cookies, or a B+ when you wanted an A.  The tantrum seldom wins you love.

Loving "Across"
This brings me to the most complicated situation of all: “loving across.”  With cousins and brothers and sisters and friends and other kids at school and church, you started to realize that there were a finite number of kittens, a finite number of kids who got to smack the chalk brushes against the brick wall of the school, a finite number of kids who got prizes for memorizing Isaiah 53.  There were, at home, a finite number of cookies, a finite amount of cake, and a finite amount of time parents could spend focussed on each child.  This caused problems, to say the least.

Thing is, hating siblings, cousins, other kids at school and church certainly happened, but it didn’t help.  Hating Jared Hayhoe didn’t help you get Isaiah 53 memorized before he did.  Hating Sheila Thompson didn’t mean she somehow didn’t get to smack the chalk brushes, water the rink or feed the classroom goldfish.  Hating your brother Steve didn’t mean he suddenly didn’t get more cookies than you after all. 

So hate didn't help, but “loving across” was very hard.  Because there was a lot of competition.  You didn’t have the kind of control and power you did when feeding a kitten or choosing to spend an hour with a dying, senile old person.  And it wasn’t just a case of you trying to please someone with more status and agency than you, as with your Sunday School teacher or the grandparent who might buy you things.  You were supposed to love your brothers and sisters, and the students at school, and the church kids.  But they were sometimes selfish and annoying.  And they could mess up every “loving upward” relationship you had.  The “loving downward” ones too, often.  They could upset the kitten and cause it to run and hide.  They could be rude to old people.  They could spread rumours about you.  They could, Heaven forfend, outperform you at soccer, or spelling or bible verse memorizing. 

We’re full of love.  What to do with it all?  Easy to mishandle having all of it.  And we need love, too.  What to do about that?  Easy to get needy and nasty and jealous.

I find I reach middle age very delighted by cute little animals and babies and little children and old people and anyone who needs help with anything.  I know how to “love downward,” because it's easy.  And so I do.  It’s simple.  When you’re giving food or money to someone who’s hungry, when you’re hanging out with someone who’s lonely, you know you’re doing a good thing.

And in middle age, fewer and fewer people have authority over me.  I find I still get disproportionately, childishly furious with anyone in authority over me who, to my mind, is being unfair.  Is squashing my good plans or ideas.  Is doubting my good intentions or competence.  It makes me feel like I’m ten again, railing against an unfair teacher of mine.  Or against my dad.  Or both.

And “loving across” is still hard.  People at work can compete, can complicate things.  People at church can get you ostracized.  And if you don’t actually have a wife and kids, it’s like you haven’t managed to start your actual adult life yet.  You’re a failure.  (Until someone needs help with something you’re good at, or needs your time or money.  Then you can “love downward” to them and feel like you know what you’re doing.)

So, what about people you don’t agree with?  People who disagree about abortion, gun control, gender issues, washrooms and so on?  How many different ways can you love them?  So easy to hate them, and that doesn't help.  At all.  So many people suggest the bible (or something they've made up themselves) gives them the right, or even the duty, to hate people, or what they believe.  But that doesn't help.

If you judge them and feel that you are more correct, this puts you in an ideal position to “love downward” to them, rather than across.  In fact, if you decide a president or prime minister or senator or boss is wrong, you might even be able to view them as beneath you, and do the same thing there too.  Condescend.  Console yourself with the idea that you have correction they need, if only they’d see that.  So you’re loving downward, or would if they let you.  It’s comfortable.  Simpler.

What if we're all citizens living in a country and we have to love other citizens “across”?  What if we really can't all have our way, no matter how right we think we are?  Do we hope to do better with our country than we did as kids in our family?  What if there’s a finite number of things?  Is it tantrum time?  Will some hate help?  Does the bible, in fact, assign us the duty of hating?

And what if it’s God we’re trying to deal with?  Seems like we have to get our problems “loving upward,” our problems with pleasing people, with shame, with our daddy issues, with past bosses and abusers, sorted.  If we want to deal with Him, that is.  If there isn’t a Him, that’s easy.  If there is, we’ve got work to do.