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Love is a favorite topic year-round, but around Valentine’s Day, it becomes a product signified by hearts and flowers and chocolate and lots of red and more hearts in every configuration possible. Romantic novels featuring rustic men embracing women with snarl-free flowing hair are popular—so is sexy lingerie. But sex that can express love isn’t love itself. When I asked my mother how to raise children to be good people, she said, “Just love them.” But love comes in endless flavors. Many are no healthier than sugary, fat-laden candy. Some versions are destructive.
First, we have no firm concept of what love is—because we use the word about everything from tasty tacos to a sunny day. Directed at people, we’re sometimes talking about admiration or loyalty or fringe benefits. Much of what we call love is circumstantial. Like friendship, it can arise from availability…which changes. Lately, I’ve had occasion to realize that we say we love a person—maybe a family member or co-worker or neighbor—when we love what they do and say or how they fit into our lives. They please us. To my way of thinking, that ain’t it. Love that disappears or fades when you disagree or marry the wrong person or fall on hard times was never healthy love to begin with. Love that’s dependent on conditions is affection. It can slip away. It’s a paper greeting card. So many declarations of love might be like or even need.
This week I finally experienced what it means to love yourself. It isn’t admiration: “Gosh, I’m beautiful… or smart …or successful.” It isn’t indulging yourself in new shoes or travel or outings with friends. It isn’t empty affirmations you say to your mirror. None of that is, in itself, bad, but it isn’t self-love. Consider this: If you are or have been a dedicated parent or step-parent, there was a moment when you first held your baby and felt an overwhelming surge of emotion. One mother told me, “I never knew I could love anyone so much.” Some pet owners have the same type of experience when they adopt a new puppy or kitten or horse. You feel a wave of joy that wells up from deep within…a mystical, magical connection that warms the world. You don’t think, “I love this baby because she has dimples.” There is no because. You just love the baby for being. No requirements. Your love simply is. When you can feel that for yourself, then you’ve reached self-love. You don’t have to earn it. You take better care of yourself if you have it, as you would nurture your baby. You stop criticizing yourself or feeling inadequate or punishing yourself for not being more. You can enjoy the person you were sent here to be. You’ve become your life-long friend.
Perhaps we’ve stumbled upon unconditional love. No qualifications needed. You love people because they’re there. Your love can’t disappear because it arises from you and them and the fact that you’re connected as fellow human beings. However, unconditional love doesn’t mean you allow yourself to be used or abused. If the other person can do that to you, the love you share isn’t healthy much less unconditional. Unconditional love doesn’t control or manipulate. You can love someone unconditionally without allowing their toxicity into your life. You learn from them. You don’t hurt them or you. Loving yourself purely and completely is behind the lyrics of the song claiming it’s the greatest love. You live in kindness, or try to. So, instead of valentines, I wish us all that kind of unconditional love for self and others. The hearts and flowers are optional. But about the chocolate…