As Marie sat down in my office, she launched into a fifteen-minute account of a recent conversation with her husband, Brandon. With a torrent of words she painted an exquisitely unflattering picture of Brandon that thoroughly justified her own angry feelings and behavior. She also peppered her account with numerous references to past offenses that Brandon had perpetrated upon her. If I hadn't finally interrupted, I'm confident she could have talked for hours.
I taught Marie the principles of Real Love, and she began to practice them. Within two weeks of our first meeting, I asked her to describe a recent conflict with Brandon.
"Yesterday," she said, "Brandon was angry at me because I had interrupted him while he was speaking. So I told him that I'd been thoughtless and hadn't been truly listening to him. Then I asked if he would be willing to continue the discussion, and this time I would try to really listen to what he was saying."
In contrast to her previous lengthy monologues, she delivered this account in maybe twenty seconds. Her tone and attitude were also quite different. What had changed?
When I first met Marie she saw everything from the perspective of a victim. She complained endlessly about how people—notably her husband—and circumstances had inconvenienced her. People were always doing things to her and failing to give her what she wanted. She felt victimized almost constantly and was most energetic about presenting her wounds and her innocence to the world. Her presentations required a great number of words, because she had to provide piles of evidence that would prove without doubt her position of victimhood.
I have observed many people engage in this pattern of behavior. When we are empty and afraid, we focus on defending ourselves and on gathering whatever sympathy and power we can find. With each word we pick up a brick, which we then use either to throw at the people who have offended us or to build a wall to protect ourselves.
We become quite skilled with our bricks. As we throw them at others, we drive them away and even get the additional satisfaction of injuring those who have offended us. With our words of justification, we also build a wall that briefly creates a feeling of self-righteousness and safety. Most of us engage in both processes simultaneously, building a wall and tossing our missiles at others from behind its protection. As our wall gets big enough, in fact, it becomes a castle, and then we can point to its size and elaborate design as further proof that we're "right."
As we acquire more Real Love in our lives, however—both receiving it and sharing it—we discover that these words we use as bricks will never give us genuine safety or happiness. We realize that the more bricks we use—either to throw or to create walls—the more we are alone. With our defensive words we succeed only in isolating ourselves, and with our attacking words we emotionally wound everyone around us. And so, in the end, we find that we are alone behind walls, surrounded by the injured and the dead.
We can begin to change all this when we realize that the mountains of bricks we use—no matter how elaborate the castle we build—are all illusions, a form of self-deception. The truth is that other people don't try primarily to harm us. They're just doing the best they can to minimize their own pain, and in their attempts to protect themselves and get Imitation Love, they often engage in behaviors that are inconvenient for us. When other people are in pain—when they are emotionally starving or drowning—they simply don't think about our needs. How could they?
When we thoroughly understand and believe this, we realize the futility—the silliness, really—of proving to the world that we are being injured or not being served by drowning people. It becomes especially foolish for us to convince the drowning people that they should stop their efforts to survive and instead give us what we want. When we succeed in making this change of perception, we lose our need for bricks. We can set them down and step out from behind our walls with no bricks in our hands.
When we feel loved and confident, we become open and honest. We distill the essence of any interaction into few words, for rarely is a river of language required to capture the true meaning, as illustrated by the second conversation I described with Marie. With sufficient love—or, in the beginning, just a bit of faith—we realize that we don't need a multitude of bricks anymore. We can simply share the truth about ourselves and experience the fruits of genuine intimacy, which is what we've wanted all along.