A few years ago, not long before my wife and I moved to the other side of the planet in search of a new adventure, I was out with a friend to celebrate his fortieth birthday. It was a very gentle affair, a nice dinner followed by a few drinks in an unfussy pub. We touched on the usual stuff, covering work and home life, mutual friends and reminiscences, hopes and fears for the future. In the middle of it all my friend hit me with his theory that every person has one piece of wisdom to impart to the world. Their little gem of knowledge might not be unique but it is a solid touchstone of certainty the usefulness of which they are convinced. A neat little idea, my friend succinctly concluded that his bit of wisdom was the theory he had just shared. I thought it was quite clever and the conversation quickly moved on to other things. We saw out the night, went our separate ways and that was that.
Several months later, now firmly transported to the Antipodes, I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment when I suddenly realised my friend had in fact given me an astonishing piece of wisdom that night but its full significance was only dawning on me now. He had unknowingly dropped a depth charge in my subconscious and it was simply a matter of time before I bumped into it and kaboom! – my orthodoxy of belief and understanding was smithereened into an ocean of wonder. Fantastic, really. And what was this little pearl that blew my mind? Read on.
During the course of our conversation that night my friend asked me how my family felt about our imminent move overseas. I trotted out the usual platitudes about them missing us and wishing us well. I added that I knew they loved us which I felt was ‘the main thing’. I have put that in inverted commas to highlight that it is one of those tricky little euphemisms that are useful for deflecting deeper probing, ‘the main thing’ representing a conclusive and fundamentally resolved state of affairs. Unfortunately for me my friend was having none of it. “What does that mean?” he asked. I repeated more or less what I had just said but my friend pressed me for evidence. “How have they shown that they care? What have they done? What have they said? In what way have they demonstrated this love?” Before I had a chance to answer, respectively, “They haven’t. Nothing. Nothing. In no way,” my friend said three words which amounted to his actual piece of wisdom: “Love is action.”
Love is action.
I feel like I engaged with his concept at the time but now as I reflect on it I suspect my subconscious was having none of it, that it was simply too big to digest at that time. Rationally, no problemo. But emotionally and psychologically? Not quite ready. I have a sense that he qualified the bejesus out of it on the spot but as I have written above, it took several months before its full chime rang true. Essentially he was saying that if someone really loves you, they will behave in a way that leaves you in no doubt about that love. I suppose we could say that the love would show itself in care, compassion, regard and support. Actual, real engagement. It was and is, a devastatingly simple notion. An unshakeable equation to apply to the love dynamics in your life. As I sat down to do the math, so to speak, I quickly understood the two courses open to me. Course number one involved some wallowing and wailing as I shouted “where’s the Action?” The second course seemed to be to ask the question “why is the Action so difficult?”
I was already in a very lucky position to deal with these conundrums in that I had learned a bit about how to direct ‘the Action’ towards myself some years before so I was no longer so concerned with approval and affirmation coming from the outside. I was also in a strong, loving relationship with my then and still, wife(still as in ongoing, not motionless). So lucky me, I was holding some good cards in the Action stakes that enabled me to shift towards analytical rather than hysterical. Which brought me to that second position of wondering what made it so difficult for people to embrace ‘the Action’. But before I hold forth on what other people are capable and incapable of doing I will explain how I’ve interpreted ‘love is action’ for myself.
Keeping it simple is my answer to a lot of things. Overcomplication leads to pressure and a lack of clarity. I therefore try to clean up the equation and reduce the possibility of grey areas. I start by expanding my definition of love to take in positivity in general especially when it comes to responding to positive impulses. You feel like doing something nice for someone? Do it. Feel like saying something nice? Say it. Had a good thought or feeling about someone? Share it. I’m not talking about random acts of kindness or charity work. I’m talking about family and friends. Your significant other, your life partner, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, mother, father, son, daughter, cousin, aunt, uncle, whoever. The crucial thing to remember here is to be absolutely clear you are doing it unconditionally. Don’t give to get. Don’t do it expecting or wanting reciprocation. As soon as you are seeking a result it has become a dishonest transaction. And that dishonesty is what will bring us to why it can be so difficult to engage with ‘the Action’.
Why is it so difficult? I believe it is difficult because it is so profoundly important to so many of us. It is absolutely, undeniably central to the person you are this very second. The love in our lives has shaped us. The receiving of it, the lack of it, the seeking of it, the abuse of it, the misunderstanding of it, the elusiveness of it. I think a lot of us deal with its impossibility and potency by ignoring it. We become jaded and cynical, arch and superior and we tell ourselves that love is just some naff Hollywood construct or something the excess of which we wince at when we see its demonstration. Naturally, we are being disingenuous because as soon as someone acts on their love for us we are stripped naked; exposed, humble, and utterly grateful. These are, I believe, moments of grace. There is true power in that exchange, that process. The people who struggle so badly with ‘the Action’ are the people who find it impossible to admit they care because admitting they care means they will have to face themselves and acknowledge, with real honesty, that there are areas of emptiness and pain in their lives. They proceed to lock themselves in a shape that best protects those wounds and by definition anything locked cannot be opened. I’ll let your own imagination take that analogy as far as you like.
When I’m firing my judgement guns I can be scathing of humanity and its endless chorus of fools and grotesques. But then I catch myself on and remember a little humility and laugh at my own lurch towards a locked shape. And as soon as I do I am open to love/positivity again. When I get to that place I am grateful for whatever love I receive and I don’t judge the offering of it.
My own piece of wisdom? Your baggage is just that. Yours. Don’t let it define you. Find a safe place to put it and get on with enjoying the journey. And don’t fix your destination, let yourself be surprised by the unknown. Let’s call that one and half pieces of wisdom. What is wisdom anyway? There’s nothing wise about wisdom if it doesn’t mean anything to you. I think what we really respond to is recognition. Wisdom is merely the recognition of something you have already understood but have yet to articulate. Love is surely understandable the same way – it is the recognition that you are ready to act on how you feel about someone else. Later, in a more ‘interior’ way, we learn how to do that for ourselves.
It’s tricky stuff. But I love it.
You’ll forgive me a little addendum to this post in which I would like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts and reactions to my last post when I wrote about my depression. Whatever about the personal satisfaction and gratitude I felt to be on the receiving end of such good will and genuine support, what was very evident was that depression touches a very real nerve in people and I am delighted if what I wrote has been considered a positive contribution to any discussion of depression and its many guises.
Thanks again, Dara