The wreaths were not yet down from front doors when Valentine’s Day decorations sprang up in the local supermarket. Red remained but the green had been replaced with pink - and lots and lots of candy hearts.
In the cold, dark days of winter, it is nice to have something to focus on other than the salt that we’ve tracked into our homes and our frozen bones. In addition to providing an excellent excuse for eating chocolate, Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity to consider the state of our important intimate relationships.
Contrary to common conception… loving someone can be really hard work! Relationships take great care; they must be developed and nurtured and sometimes suffered. Loving someone does not mean that we always like that person, or their decisions and behaviors. It does mean that we honor who they are and that we value them – at times because of their differences and at times despite them.
Thinking of the person over the problem is a tool to keep things in perspective – what is more important to you, this person or this particular issue/debate/conversation? The goal in intimate conversations is not actually agreement, it’s respect, understanding and connection. Don’t get me wrong, agreement is nice, it’s validating and feels good – but it is not critical for closeness. You can be close and happy without agreement but you cannot be close or happy without respect.
We’re all familiar with (and probably occasionally guilty of) the ‘kick the dog’ phenomenon; All day long we are nice to strangers, to our bosses and co-workers, we are polite and witty, we are on our best behavior. Then we come home, to the people who we are committed to – our wives, husbands, children, parents, friends, (dogs) and we release all of our pent up frustration and crankiness. We behave in ways that we could not get away with in other environments. Perhaps we figure, these people have to love us – they’re stuck with us…think again.
A relationship is a living thing, kind of like a plant, it must be tended to if it is to stay alive. If we dump toxic things into it or neglect it, it will be damaged and could die. Like our plant, our loved ones will show us whether or not they are getting what they need - we can gauge the state of our relationships if we take the time to look and are brave enough to see.
In his book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about the importance of being fully present, with the self (fostered through meditation) and with the other (achieved through deep listening). This presence is to what is, rather than what we wish, what we think we might need or what we had hoped to avoid.
In actuality, I believe that people spend a great deal of time trying to hide the truth from themselves and from others; They fear that if this were known, it might make them unlovable. Ironically, I think that our efforts to hide the truth are more distancing than the impact of shared complex and painful truths. I think that we actually connect through our shared vulnerabilities and insecurities – the realization that we are not alone in suffering.
Perhaps you are familiar with the research of Dr. Brené Brown; she is a social worker well know for her TED talks on shame and vulnerability. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Dr. Brown says “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection (p26).”
As we approach Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to explore how you treat yourself and your loved ones. I invite you to offer and to allow yourself to receive the four Buddhist elements of love that Thich Nhat Hanh delineates: loving kindness, compassion, joy and a sense of freedom. Take care not to take for granted the dear ones in your life – even in their imperfection, and perhaps because of it.
Consider establishing a gratitude practice where you take a moment each day to think of a few things that are right, that you are grateful for, that make your life easier or bring you joy. This change in focus can be tremendously powerful, as we tend to get stuck on the things that irritate us. You can be grateful for anything… a sunny day, a hot cup of coffee, any part of your body that happens to be working well that day… and those in your life that enrich and sustain you.
Wishing you a Happy Valentine’s Day