It can take a long time to learn how to love, to really love, to not be so scared of what’s happening to you or what is being asked of you that you don’t dart.
When we are young, we do not necessarily know this truth. We think that we already know how to love, we think that if someone leaves us it is only about what they find lacking in us.
Over the past few weeks, I have read my students’ Beautiful You journals. In them, they share the trajectory of how and why they feel the way they do about themselves.
They peel back their layers, expose themselves. It is a lot that I ask of them.
I understand this.
But I also understand- know without a doubt- that the first step towards radical self-acceptance begins with awareness, with looking at yourself without flinching, with listening to yourself without covering your ears, with understanding that you are not too flawed, too bad, unworthy
That is the thing that damns us. The idea that we are unworthy. But we aren’t. Worth isn’t earned. Worth is a birthright. We just don’t always understand this. We aren’t always taught this. Sometimes, we refuse to believe this, even as we acknowledge the worth of others.
I just want someone to think I am worth staying for or with… we lament.
But here is the thing. We are the ones who must believe this about ourselves. We are the ones who have to commit to stay. When we do that, everything shifts. When we decide that we no longer have to run- with our mean words, substance abuse, personal disrespect that comes in any of a number of flavors- from ourselves and our truth, when we are finally able to bring our eyes up to the mirror, lock our souls with those deep true orbs and say, “I am all in” is when everything changes.
And that moment is when we really, truly can begin to understand how to love.
Nobody stays for me, we lament.
And yet we miss the point. It is not that boy/young man/man with those ceaseless green eyes that first needs to stay or that girl/young woman/ woman with that smattering of freckles that remind you of the night sky that needs to believe in you.
Before you will find love that can really, truly stay with you, that can keep you company, that can hold you in both the literal and figurative darkness, you have to find yourself. You have to stay for you. You have to believe.
And so, I want to tell my students who are both twenty years my juniors, my contemporaries, or even older than me, the first step in finding a love that lasts is finding a relationship with yourself that is respectful, honorable, drenched in your worthiness.
Find that, I want to say, and you can find your way to everything else you want in your life. Maybe it is a life partnership. Maybe it is a commitment to a cause whose very course you will alter. Maybe it is the sensation of drinking in all the world’s wild. The infinite actually becomes possible.
I once felt this way, too, I write back to them after reading their pages. I once felt broken and unlovable and wretched, I say. And then I realized that we are all broken. That brokenness is the most basic stroke of life. That we are actually each a slate of stained glass, and if we would just allow the light to shine through our cracks, we could make something even more brilliant because of what we have experienced
You are not broken, I want to tell them. Do not be afraid to let the light in through the opaqueness.
We believe that our beauty lies in our opacity. But it is not the opacity that moths gravitate towards, is it? The opacity is impenetrable. It does not let us in. We worry that lightness, that truth, reveals our fault lines and that if someone sees our truth, if we see our truth, then we cannot be loved.
And so we keep ourselves from loving and being loved. We punish ourselves.
Years ago, a young man that I was not ready to love- because I had not yet learned to love anything without fear, myself most of all- traced the outermost limits of a wretched scar on my knee.
I said something to him like, “I know; it’s awful.”
And the way he looked at me was so broken open, so adoring that it probably was the moment that set in motion that I would not be able to stay because I saw how much more capable he was of love than I was. It may have been the thing that ultimately repelled me but it is one of the gifts he left me, one of the ways he set me up to fall in love after him, not so much with another man as with life, with myself. I wanted to marvel at my scarred self the way he marveled at my knee.
A few years before, I had told another young man that I adored that we could never make it because he needed someone who was more broken than I was. I thought my observation was so astute in that moment. In fact, it was a story that I was selling myself.
“You need someone who is higher maintenance than me,” I said, as if I was above the maintenance that comes with love.
Later, I would come to understand that because I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable, because I wouldn’t let anyone see my fault lines, because I was, in fact, so scared of my very brokenness, I kept missing out on love. Not because it wasn’t coming from other people but because it didn’t come from myself.
So as that sweet young man traced the fault lines of my anatomy, the living embodiments of my scars, something in me began to come into focus. Within months, I told him that I could no longer be with him, as I became exceedingly aware of the fact that I needed to be comfortable being with myself.
It is not you, it is me had never been a more true concept. Because when I glimpsed his capacity to love me, I realized that I owed myself and possibly some “him” down the road the capacity to love myself. That I needed to recognize that love, acceptance, care of myself welcomes everything else.
At the end of every semester, I try to find words to tell my students. I like for those words to be that class’s words—words found and defined from our unique journey together. Though I have taught this class more than a dozen times now, though some of the stats and subject matter and readings are the same, each class is its own unique embodiment.
And so when I look at this class for the last time on May 3rd, I will tell them that our scars reveal our character. They show our strengths and not our weaknesses and that the greatest gift we can give ourselves is the capacity to honor the journey that we have taken, to honor all that life has taught us, to aim each day to do good rather than be willing to do harm to ourselves or others. That the very thing that makes us feel lonely is the thing about which someone else feels most alone. And that when we begin to radiate, when we no longer feel like we must disguise our cracks, then we no longer hide our light. And when we offer our light, the flower heads and moths turn to us, the birds sing, and our capacity to love warms like lightning, like fire, like life itself.
Shine on, I will tell them. Radiate love.