March 7

Love is a Choice

March 7, 2018

Personal Growth

Recognize When Love is a Choice

Kendra wrote me a two-page letter telling me what terrible situations her son was in: using drugs, homeless, unwilling to find a job, and on and on. The email began with, “I just spoke with Jack [the son], and our conversation was so upsetting.”

Although I did read the remainder of the email—two pages—I responded only to the first sentence. “Kendra, the CONVERSATION was not upsetting. Yes, Jack was upset, and he described circumstances that were unpleasant for him. But no conversation alone is upsetting, because if that were true, that would mean that you have no choice in life. Circumstances would always control how you felt, and we’ve proven on uncounted occasions that that is not true. 

"The truth is that you chose to forget that Jack is experiencing the natural consequences of choices he’s been making for a long time. He chose to use drugs. He chose not to get a job. He chose to skip school on uncounted days, so he couldn’t graduate from even the minimum schooling necessary to get a job.”

“But he’s my son, so of course I’m upset,” she said.

“That is very tempting reasoning. Recently my wife experienced the sudden onset of symptoms from food poisoning that took her from feeling normal to being as close to dead as you can get. I’ve never seen anybody with blood pressure that low who lived. This was all happening to her in another room, on the other side of four walls of our house, and it was a miracle that I finally heard her faint cry for help. I administered first aid the best I could—I did work in emergency rooms for six years—but then it became obvious to me that she needed immediate hospitalization. I called the ambulance, helped them get her on the device to get down the stairs, and then hurried to be with her in the emergency room.

“Throughout all of that,” I continued, “was I upset? NO. Why? I made a CHOICE to care about HER, whereas being upset would have made it about ME. And being upset wouldn’t have helped. Her life was at stake, and my being upset would only have made her more afraid, and it would have made me less able to make wise and quick choices. 

"I chose to love and help her, which proved to be far more beneficial than being upset. Having worked in emergency rooms, I’ve seen families stay upset long enough that they actually contributed to their family member’s death. You’re at that place with Jack. You are so paralyzed with fear that you can’t think clearly, and you only add to his fear, which is his worst problem.”

How to Choose Love

I have written at length about love being a choice—feeling loved and being loving—and Kendra is just one illustration of that. So how can she choose love? Most people can’t because they’ve never seen it, but Kendra has. I have loved her extensively, and I’ve introduced her to other people who have loved her. Moreover, at least in her head, she believes that God loves her.

So, in the midst of anything “upsetting,” she has learned that she can stop, put her hand on her chest, and remember all the people who love her and that her life is really pretty good in a great many ways. She can remember that her fears will contribute nothing positive to Jack, while her steadfast loving can. In short, she can choose love.

Now let’s change the scene. Today I talked by Skype with Sandra. The happiness in her face radiated through the screen, quite a change from a year ago. She’s happy, she’s loving other people, and she has a real sense of purpose in life.

During the conversation, she mentioned that recently she had spoken with Ellen, so I asked how Ellen was doing.

“She never stops complaining,” Sandra said. “About everything. One thing she asked me was whether I’d had an intervention with you, and I said I had, not long after Ellen had experienced hers. In a really snippy tone, she asked me, ‘Well, did it do any good?’ I told her that it had changed my entire life, and Ellen said, ‘Didn’t do me any good, so he must love you more than me.’”

Again, more proof that love is a choice. Sandra chose to accept—even treasure—every bit of love and time and effort given to her. She expanded her network of other people to love her. Soon she was surrounded by love, she was happy, and she was busily occupied with sharing what she had with others. Sandra chose to feel loved and to love others.

Ellen, on the other hand, found fault with everything she got and with the people around her. She not only failed to expand her network of loving people, but people increasingly avoided her, because all she did was complain and create a conversational burden that most people didn’t enjoy. Ironically, after her intervention, I spent considerably more time with Ellen than with Sandra. Ellen chose to continue her lifelong habit of complaining, rather than to choose the love offered to her.

Often people will try to give to you their choice to feel loved. People often say to me, for example, “Tell me again that you love me.” Early on in their process of learning, I might do just that, but eventually and gradually I require them to make their own choice, and I will reply with something like, “No, you tell me the many ways by which you know for certain that I love you.”

Love is a choice, and it’s a choice we can make only for ourselves. I couldn’t choose for Ellen or Kendra to feel loved. I can’t choose for you either. Some people, no matter how much you help them, don’t make the loving choice. Notice I didn't say they can't or won't choose love, because how would we know the difference? People often look like they have both the knowledge and ability to choose a thing, but we can’t really know that. We can’t know the unspeakably intricate connections between their DNA, epigenome, past trauma, what they were taught as children, what they’ve experienced as adults, and more.

It nonetheless remains a fact that some people can’t or won’t choose love—they’re too damaged or distracted or whatever—so how long do you keep trying to help them? When do you give up? There’s a question for the ages—and the sages. It’s a question only you can make when trying to help someone feel loved, and sometimes you never will know—not in this lifetime—whether it was the right answer.

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