On many occasions I’ve heard people propose the idea that we should love other people more than ourselves. On the surface, this sounds like a potentially attractive idea. When people hear it, they almost uniformly nod their heads in deep thought. On further examination, however, this profound insight proves to be the orphan of romance novel and fortune cookie wisdom.
The only kind of love that can produce happiness and healthy relationships is Real Love. This is love which is given and received freely and unconditionally. The moment love is required or given out of obligation or guilt, it is no longer given and received unconditionally. Then Real Love no longer exists. With this understanding, allow me to illustrate the problem with loving other people more than ourselves. I will use this example of a call I received from a woman named Barbara.
Barbara’s aging mother, Sylvia, was becoming unbearably demanding of Barbara’s time. If Sylvia had her way, Barbara would be over at her house all day every day, serving her and keeping her company. Barbara couldn’t see how she could love her mother and still have her own life.
“Why can’t you do both?” I asked. “Why can’t you love your mother and still have your own life?”
“Because she’s constantly demanding that I do more for her,” she said.
It became obvious that the reason Barbara felt pressured in this situation was because she believed in the wrong definition of love. She believed that if she truly loved her mother, she would love Sylvia more than herself. But the instant she believes that, look at the position that puts her in. She then feels an obligation to do whatever her mother wants — from a sense of guilt and duty, not from genuine love.
And is there any doubt that her mother doesn’t feel that? Of course she does. When people spend time with us only because they have to, only because they feel obligated to, we know it. I somewhat regret the graphic illustration, but do you think any man doesn’t know the difference between having sex with his wife who adores him and having sex with a prostitute? That’s the difference between Real Love and any attention that’s given with obligation.
When we feel that we have to love other people more than ourselves, we set ourselves up to be constantly torn by the expectations, demands, obligations, and guilt of everyone around us. Barbara was constantly shredded by those demands — from her mother, her husband, her children, and from herself.
In Real Love, there is no more than. We’re not required to love other people more than ourselves. We’re required only to learn to love people as well as we can and as well as we choose from moment to moment.
We do have a responsibility toward people, to love them as well as we’re able, but we’re never responsible for people, never responsible to make them happy, which is an enormous misconception that seems to be held almost uniformly in relationships. We demonstrate our belief in this misconception every time we become irritated at another person. Without being aware of it consciously, every time we’re angry at someone, we’re declaring that we had somehow made that person responsible for some measure of our happiness, and they failed to live up to their responsibility.
Barbara’s mother was irritated at her all the time. Why? She claimed it was because she didn’t call her enough, didn’t spend enough time with her, didn’t do her errands right, and so on. But those are just the details. The common thread uniting all these complaints is that Sylvia believed that Barbara was responsible for loving her and making her happy, and when Barbara failed to do that, Sylvia was angry.
The belief that we’re responsible for other people’s happiness is a lie and is responsible for a great portion of the misery on this planet. Now, when I say that we’re not responsible for other people’s happiness, this is not meant to give us an excuse to be uncaring. Not at all. We are still responsible to care about their happiness, and this is not just a play with words. Let’s apply this to the situation with Barbara, for example.
If Barbara thoroughly understands Real Love, how will she feel and behave toward her mother? Barbara will freely, unconditionally offer whatever portion of time and effort that she chooses to her mother. She’ll offer that as a gift because she cares about her mother’s happiness. Then if Sylvia complains that she wants more — which she almost certainly will, judging from past experience — Barbara will not feel the slightest bit guilty, because she understands that she is not responsible for her mother’s happiness. Barbara will understand that if Sylvia continues to be unhappy, that’s is Sylvia’s choice. The difference between caring about and feeling responsible for someone’s happiness is huge.
As you make choices to care for the happiness of others, you will recognize that it’s a learning process. You’ll make lots of mistakes. And then you’ll simply tell the truth about those mistakes and learn from them. There’s no need for guilt. Gradually, you’ll learn to love better. And it becomes more and more fun, for you and for the people you love.
Learn how to truly care for the happiness of others.
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