I would like to talk about
love today. We live in a culture that emphasizes the
negative and treats the positive as if it were a lurid
secret. We are allowed to complain publicly, but not to
discuss our successes. It's OK to say, "I wish I had
more money," but it's not OK to say, "I have
all the money I need." It's OK to tell people you
feel fat, but it's not OK to say how great you look. And
it would be unthinkable to tell people that you're
gifted, that your children are wonderful, that you have a
fabulous sex life, and that your spouse loves you
unconditionally. We're taught that sharing good things
about ourselves, or our families, is
"bragging," socially inappropriate, and would
make others feel bad. Good is taboo.
Well, in the last few months I met three women from
Nebraska who broke at least one of these taboos. They
talked about their husbands loving them unconditionally.
I was amazed. I have been fortunate to enjoy
unconditional love from my husband, but I could never
talk about it openly. As we discussed how this
unconditional love manifested itself in our lives, one of
the women said, "You must love him unconditionally
as well." That was true. When such a love exists, it
usually goes both ways.
Unconditional love is not a popular concept. We are more
comfortable believing that if you love "too
much," you will be "co-dependent,"
"an enabler," etc. How is it possible to love
too much? From my perspective, there can never be too
much love. It is a sad commentary on our societal values
that so few people have experienced unconditional love in
their lives that many refuse to believe it is even
Perhaps our best model of unconditional love can be found
in grandparenting. The incomparable joy of being a
grandparent comes from the thrill of just being on the
planet with this little person. Grandchildren don't have
to do anything to earn a grandparent's love. Grandparents
are allowed to tell anyone they please how wonderful
their grandchildren are. They can whip out pictures in an
elevator filled with strangers. They can
"spoil" their grandchildren without any guilt,
because they are not "responsible" for shaping
them into "responsible" adults. They can
concentrate on the good, and ignore or laugh at the bad.
How lucky children are who have grandparents who dote on
them, and how lucky grandparents are who have
grandchildren who love them "just because."
Here again, unconditional love is a two-way street.
How can we bring more unconditional love into our lives?
A few months ago, I gave a presentation to parents in
Missouri, in which I talked about how the goals of
parenting passed down from generation to generation have
changed as the lifespan has increased. In our great,
great grandparents' generation, you had completed the
task of parenting if your children managed to reach
adulthood and become self-supporting. Today, the
relationship between children and parents must be more
robust, strong enough to survive many decades and even
role reversals. Let me give you an example.
At the age of 59, I am blessed to have both of my parents
alive. They are 92 and 88, and they live in an apartment
two doors away from my sister's apartment. My sister is
65. She has had a relationship with our parents for 65
years. Most of that time she has been an adult. And she
has spent as many years being responsible for their
welfare as they spent being responsible for hers.
Remember that the child you are hollering at today for
bringing home a B may be making the decision someday as
to whether you go into a nursing home!
Childhood is usually a small part of person's life,
gradually becoming a smaller and smaller segment of life.
If all goes well, the major part of the parent-child
relationship is shared as two adults. With this in mind,
I asked the group in Missouri, "When your children
become adults, what kind of relationship do you want with
them? How would you like your adult children to feel
about you? Take a moment and write down what you hope
your relationship with your children will be like during
their adult years."
These were their responses:
Love doing things together
Knowing that it's OK to make mistakes
Being a good listener
Having common interests
I had anticipated two parts to this exercise - the goals
and the means to achieve them. However, when I looked at
the goals that this group generated, I realized that the
goals and the process were identical. This is what you
must do with children now in order to enjoy a loving
relationship with them in their adult lives. As I
reviewed this list again, I realized that this is also a
blueprint for a good marriage. All of the others could be
subsumed under "Unconditional Love."
This week a sobering event occurred in my life, which
made me look at all of this a little differently. An
exuberant, brilliant, fun-loving eight-year-old boy died
quite suddenly of a massive heart attack. Jonathan Sher
left behind his two older brothers, Nick and David, and
his parents, Bev and Marc, both professors at the College
of William and Mary. There were no prior indications that
Jonathan had a weak heart. Jonathan was assessed at our
Center when he was six, and he had one of the highest IQ
scores on record. Our Director of Training, Bobbie
Gilman, who tested Jonathan, remembered him as a
delightful boy. He had a great zest for life.
I reread his file today. Jonathan could be the poster
child for the profoundly gifted. When he was six, his
mother described him as "a relatively introverted
child who forms warm friendships slowly, but holds onto
them for a long time,... prefers to play with older
children,... closest sibling relationship is with his
brother Nicholas, three years older than he is. Jonathan
admires Nick and wishes he could play games and do work
at the same level Nick does... a rapid learner who does
NOT like to repeat work he's already done... In a new
situation, he prefers to watch from the sidelines for a
long time before he joins in... He hates making mistakes,
and sometimes cries with despair when errors are pointed
out... He loves the puzzle maps at school and has a map
of our home town in his room. He is also interested in
math... He likes reading history, and frequently asks for
books about it... One of the best times of day for him is
bedtime: he and I (Mom) spend a long time together
talking about his day, which helps him unwind. He's also
my cheerful assistant in the garden."
In a recent email, Bev recounted what Jonathan was like
at eight. "The little boy I described at six was
still present at eight: he was still cuddly and needed to
have quiet talks at bedtime. He still had high standards
and loved history and geography; math was also a favorite
subject, and he was halfway through EPGY Algebra I (he
hated factoring!) when he died. He was very interested in
politics and current events, and was beginning to enjoy
reading articles in the New York Times. One of our last
detailed discussions was about the recent missile defense
system tests. I could see both the adult he would have
become and the young child he had been, often
"A new development was his sense of mischief. He
would tease his brothers until they retaliated. He had a
wide grin and a twinkle in his eye whenever he thought of
doing something he shouldn't; I saw them for the last
time during the water fight in his room in PICU. He had
two nurses that afternoon, Nancy and Debbie. Debbie was a
stern woman whose nickname was 'Grumpy.' While Grumpy was
with another patient, Nancy was rummaging in one of the
equipment drawers and came up with a 5 milliliter plastic
squeeze tube of saline; she told Jonathan that when
things got slow late at night in PICU, the staff
sometimes used them for water fights. He was obviously
delighted by this information, and so she handed him one
of them and said that if he promised to soak Grumpy the
next time she came in, he could have it. The grin and
twinkle appeared, and he clutched the tube under the
covers; when Grumpy came back, he soaked her. She put her
hands on her hips, trying to look angry, and said, 'Why
did you do that?'
'Nancy told me to!'
Grumpy filled a 25 ml syringe with saline, gave it to
Jonathan, and called 'Nancy....'
Jonathan soaked Nancy as soon as she walked through the
door, and ended up soaking the chief resident as well.
The water fight was instigated by his nurses, but he
clearly won, and we laughed for the next forty-five
minutes. It was the last time I saw his mischievous side,
and I'll always treasure the memory."
Jonathan loved life unconditionally.
In trying to come to terms with a loss of this magnitude,
I wanted to do something to commemorate Jonathan's life.
When another boy we had worked with, Jimmy Trinidad, was
killed by a drunk driver in Boulder, I tried to set up a
scholarship fund in his honor, but it wasn't effective. I
want to set up a living memorial for little Jonathan,
something that represents who he was and what he came to
teach us. I want all of you who read this column to
commit to bringing more unconditional love into your
family and into the world. Whether your children live to
106 and move into the retirement community you are living
in at the time, or their lives are much shorter than
anyone expected, every moment is a gift. Every moment
with your partner is a gift. Every moment with your
friends is a gift. And every moment, you can celebrate
their existence or you can be disappointed because they
failed to meet your expectations. The choice is yours.
Don't waste energy on pointless guilt. It doesn't matter
what you did or didn't do yesterday or an hour ago. Just
ask yourself, "How can I express unconditional love
to my loved ones right now?" Every "I love
you," every hug, every shoulder rub, every act of
kindness, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and appreciation,
will be a living testament to this precious child who
graced the Earth for such a short time. Thank you,
Jonathan, for the gift of awareness you have brought us.
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