When was the last time you hugged your partner tight and thanked them for the myriad ways their presence illuminates your life?
When was the last time you looked them in the eye and told them how much you loved them? When was the last time you did this with your parents? With your children? With your friends?
And when was the last time someone close to you showed you any unprompted appreciation just because they wanted to convey their joy at being with you?
When was the last time someone close to you showed you they loved you without any hint on your part, surprising you with a kiss, a cup of tea, or a kind word?
With the annual exercise in self-inquiry and gratitude that is the holiday season upon us, these questions want asking. Lest we should lose sight of what matters most in life, we could do worse than pause and consider the state of our relationships.
How can we ensure love remains center stage when we’re all so busy and so wrapped up in ourselves we often fail to consider those closest to us?
And why do so many of us even need reminding that love is what matters most?
While complete acceptance and belonging should be self-evident, few are those of us who are secure in this knowledge.
I am not, I have never been, and it shows. Looking down at the park down below at a black and white canine playing with his two humans on a golden fall day, I realized I have the temperament of a dog.
I played fetch with love from an early age, my primary caretaker always trying to take away or destroy what mattered most to me. It happened in subtle ways, through belittling whatever made my heart beat faster, or even banning it.
And still, I never lost the habit of running whenever the promise of love was dangled in front of my nose. If you hide or bury it, trust that I will sniff it out, find it, dig it up, and bring it back to you all pristine, albeit a little sticky with effort.
Blood, sweat, tears; the effluvia of enthusiasm is often undistinguishable from the effluvia of pain.
I learned as a child that love hurts; I am neither surprised nor do I recoil when it does now because unlearning toxic attachment patterns is painful. Especially when you’re going it alone without the help of a mental health professional as is the case for those of us too cash-strapped to afford therapy.
Love doesn’t shy away from fear, it tackles it head on and sometimes even gets socked in the jaw for being so self-assured.
And sometimes, when love believes it is enough, it gets lazy and complacent; while all living organisms continue to fight daily for their survival, it stops.
It is strange to me that we should adopt such a cavalier attitude toward our life force; we’re more considerate with money than our relationships.
Many of us place great importance on the opinion of strangers but we’re quick to discount those of the ones with whom we share our lives. We seek to impress random people but we no longer make an effort to awe and delight the ones we wake up next to, the ones we live with.
Worse, we ration our attention and deny them the gift of presence while we squander it on social media and the lives of others we will never meet. How many of us have rolled our eyes at a parent going off on a rant; if we hadn’t, might we have noticed they had finally plucked up the courage to open up to us?
How many of us have rolled our eyes at a partner struggling to make sense of life; if we hadn’t, might we have noticed they trusted us enough to ask us for help?
How many of us have rolled our eyes at a child asking for another story, another hug, another cuddle; if we hadn’t, might we have noticed they felt lonely?
Time and again, we ignore those we profess to love, we turn our back on them, and then we wonder why they question our commitment.
I am spending Thanksgiving away from the US this year but the self-reflection tradition endures.
Out of necessity, it has become a daily practice. To deflect suicidal ideation, you need to pick a side because we are rarely able to consider life in a non-dualistic way. If we did, we’d accept that every emotion is a spectrum; good love sometimes includes annoyance and frustration but neither endangers it.
I’m not that evolved yet.
But even though it happened subconsciously, the side I chose was love, not fear, no matter how insistent fear got. And it did when cancer killed my best friend, yanking the training wheels off my mental bicycle and leaving me to my own devices.
To have the shelter of this love disappear from one day to the next left me bereft and more isolated than ever, caught between never-ending grief and the chronic depression that was already there. When I understood grief was itself an expression of love, things got a little easier; even dead, Anthony is still teaching me that love doesn’t give up.
This is how I live now, doing battle with the parasite in my head and worshipping at the altar of our shared humanness in print, thankful to still be alive and loving.
Unexpectedly, my parents too are still teaching me how to love.
My father’s devotion to his wife knows no bounds. At 72, he’s her sole carer as she continues to undergo treatment for Stage IV cancer; he manages her treatment with schedules, reminders, and spreadsheets. He monitors the hospital appointment app like a hawk to make sure he isn’t missing anything. Sometimes, extra consults appear before the letter has arrived but Dad is on it, the wellbeing of his wife paramount to his happiness.
This is love, observant, thoughtful, generous with its presence and support; you can trust this love to always have your back even when it loses its temper.
But trust doesn’t take away the duty of care we have toward those who breathe life into us with their benevolence and kindness. Trust doesn’t mean we should dispense with showing them appreciation the same way we would show a stranger we’ve just met. Why should we be less courteous toward our loved ones than random people? Is it because we know someone is a permanent fixture in our emotional landscape that we stop making an effort?
Everyone needs to be seen; everyone needs validation and love to thrive. That need doesn’t lessen with degree of closeness, time, or age. It just takes on a different shape perhaps, familiar, comfortable, and less prone to grand displays of affection. Which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen, quite the opposite.
Maybe this is hard to understand if yours is the kind of family you can always rely upon to provide a safe space when you’re in trouble. Maybe this is hard to understand if yours is the kind of relationship that has endured in sickness and in health. Maybe this is hard to understand if yours is the kind of life where love informs everything you do on the professional and personal side.
Maybe this is hard to understand if you have never known rejection, abandonment, or an absence of love so all-consuming it makes you question your own humanness.
But even if you are lucky enough to be on the receiving end of good love, why not acknowledge it, honor it, and cherish it every single day? Celebrating love begets more of the same; what we focus our attention on grows and expands.
Love is a gift. More than likely, the love that comes your way will be the result of years spent figuring out what matters most in life combined with a deep desire to share this knowledge with you.
In an individualistic society more concerned with the simulation of life than the living of it, daring to love one another in person is a revolutionary act.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.