Posts Tagged ‘Unconditional Love’

In a recent interview, Warren Buffet was asked, “What was the best advice you ever got?” I watched hoping for some investment insight that would allow me to profit as the Oracle of Omaha has done. His answer, however, had little to do with finance. What he cited as the most important lesson in his life was in fact, the unconditional love he had received from his father growing up. “Knowing you can always come back.” I gather everything else, his enormous success and happiness, was built upon this foundation. How fortunate for Warren Buffet. If only I could have bought shares in his father. Which is my way of saying with understandable envy, What about those of us who didn’t get that lesson? Who did not receive unconditional love in our tender years? I was adopted around two and half. The people who adopted me were good people. My father provided for me and my mother, saw that I was well-fed, clothed and had dance lessons. But as for unconditional love? That sense of safety, of “knowing you can always come back.” Well, I can do a passable Cha-Cha …

Adoption for any child at that age is an emotionally fraught issue. You are simply incapable of consciously processing what is happening to you. Why do the adults keep leaving the room and coming back as different people? No doubt it fostered insecurity. But I believe that insecurity was compounded by the punishment received from my adoptive parents when I misbehaved. I was told to go into my room, drop my pants and bend over my bed. The bare backs of my legs were then whipped with a folded leather belt until tears could no longer be held back and I would curl into a ball on the floor; my humiliation complete.

In spite of this, I would not characterize my father as a cruel man. He would even turn to me and say on his way out the door, “This hurts me as much as it hurts you.” And though I would have gladly switched places with him at the time, when I look back, it must have cost him a portion of his humanity to see what he’d just reduced a defenseless child to—glaring at him with hatred. But these punishments were sanctioned by the tradition he had been raised in, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” My father thought he was doing the right thing. Doing what had no doubt been done to him. He was terribly wrong.

It is my current belief that spanking should be between consenting adults only. No child should ever be hit or humiliated. As the therapist Alice Miller has pointed out in numerous works, the child will only go out in the world and do the same to others. She’s right. That’s what I did, treating every thing from my dog to the odd kid at school just as I had been treated. I went on to have a very insecure adolescence that persisted well into my twenties. Mistrustful of others though longing to connect, I harbored a brooding anger that was often misdirected and only served to alienate me further.

I examined this issue while writing my book Marker. The question that came up was: When one hasn’t been the recipient of unconditional love, but in fact its opposite—abuse—then how do they overcome it? How do you build a bridge over that empty hole where a sense of safety, of “knowing you can come back” was supposed to reside? The short answer is You don’t build a bridge over it. You go right down into that hole for it is not empty. It contains the truest part of you. It is where your anger at being humiliated— along with all the feelings you suppressed in childhood reside. As Miller points out, there was no choice at the time and you had to rely on the very people that hurt you for your survival. You could not help but want, as all children do, for these same people to love you. So the “inappropriate” feelings get stuffed and you don’t know what you feel anymore other than that a large part of you is not “lovable”.

As a young adult, a surprise birthday was engineered by a female roommate. I recall asking her why she had done this; gone to all the trouble.  And she said because she loved me. My response at the time was, “Why?” And I really wasn’t being flip—I wanted some hard evidence of what was lovable about me.

There are those who might have the impulse to label all this as feeling sorry for yourself. Life deals in hard knocks, pick yourself up and get on with it!  Toughen up! In fact, those of us who didn’t get the UCL are the ones who most often say this to ourselves. Stop feeling weak. Buck up. Only to find, after flagging efforts, that we tumble back into that same place: sadness, depression, disconnected not just from others, but from ourselves; left feeling that something is wrong with us, something is missing.

So how do we repair the psyche that thinks itself unlovable and more likely than not, keeps reproducing events that confirm that? No, I really am an asshole just stick around. For myself, it required an understanding of what had actually happened to me; how I had been damaged and who had done it. And by ‘understand’ I mean allow myself to actually feel all the feelings of what happened to me as a child.

During an acid trip in my first year of college, the power of speech abandoned me. Someone had asked me a question and the act of speaking involved a knot of considerations and implications—what to say, and there was so much to say and so many uncomfortable feelings that I was terrified to open my mouth and let it all begin to spill forth like a crazy person. I’d be institutionalized and my parents would be mad at me. After all, “If you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all,” was Mom’s default injunction. So I clammed up and allowed fear to smother possibility. Better to risk nothing and keep your mouth shut than to speak and be humiliated. Not exactly a recipe for success; and certainly no way to live. In many ways it was my anger that saved me. I knew I was killing something inside myself. So I decided it was time to take a risk.

At that time, I had the good fortune to room with a young man named Bruce McGill, a well-known actor now, and the voice of California Edison—a company I contribute to monthly. Bruce had been blessed with a 4F by the draft board, allowing him to take a year off between high school and college without being sent to Vietnam. In that time, Bruce discovered exactly what he wanted to be—an actor. It was also abundantly clear as you watched his theatrical performances that Bruce had received UCL. To move with such freedom; to feel so fearlessly before the eyes of others—I wanted to be like that! But my ego was far too fragile to enter the Drama Department with everyone competing for the spotlight. So it was a less flamboyant speech class I signed up for, one that required you to stand-up before the class and read a short story.

I chose The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, a visceral story about a doctor who uses physical force to examine an uncooperative female child; humiliating the child and losing his humanity in the process. Seemed right up my alley. When my turn came to read, I stood and began to walk towards the front of the class uncertain whether my feet would stop at the podium or continue right on out the door. But I arrived determined to open my mouth and speak. And so, in a shaky voice, I began to read.

At first, I clung to the words on the page, swinging from sentence to sentence as if traversing a fearful chasm. But as I read, the story of the child’s abuse came to life and the emotions I had felt during my own childhood surfaced. They filled my voice and charged my telling of the story. My rage at what had been done to me was released out into the room. When I finished there was a rapt silence and I looked up to find all eyes upon me. And then, like a nourishing rain, came the applause.

Through the medium of the story I had connected to something vital and human within myself—as if some larger self had burst through the confines of the smaller person I had previously considered myself to be. I now stood before others naked, but more alive than ever before. My emotion connected to these people. And I knew that I was not alone with these feelings.

In a sense, I had found a place that I could “always come back” to. A place of emotional honesty within myself and an acceptance of that by others. Though it was not a home in the traditional sense of a family, or the abiding trust of a deep personal relationship, it was a big step on the road to finding human connections; a taste from the well-spring of unconditional love that dwells within each of us when we break through and allow ourselves to feel again.  Unconditional love can be found if we have the courage to step out of what we have been taught to believe is our only acceptable self and share those inconvenient feelings whether through art or communication with others.

As I say in the opening lines of Marker, “There is who you are told you are. There’s who you discover you are. And there’s what you do after.”

Peace be with you.