Certain questions bring us pain. The question of love is frequently one of them. Have you ever experienced a love that gave you the sense that you were lovable despite everything that is weak and lacking in you? Have you ever been loved unconditionally? Often times these questions make us ache. We look at our lives and see a searing lack of unconditional love. The impression is that nobody loves us in a way that assures us at our deepest levels that we are lovable. Our friendships, our loves, our families, our marriages appear to be anything but matrixes of unconditional love. At least, so it seems. But there is a confusion here. When we think of love, we think of affection. These are not always the same thing.
One kind of love is generally expressed through affection, through positive stroking, physical caressing, emotional affirmation and sexual intimacy. But our experience of these is usually weak, only rarely is there enough physical touch, emotional stroking, expressed affection or satisfying sexual expression in our lives. Because of this, most times we feel unloved and perhaps even unlovable. But these gestures of love are not identical with love. Sometimes in our friendships, marriages, families and communities, there is beneath the lack of physical and emotional stroking, beneath the sexual frustrations, and beneath the harsh and angry words which are frequently exchanged, an unconditional concern and commitment. There is unconditional love. Unfortunately, because the love isn’t expressed in affection, that love remains largely unperceived.
When that happens then we do not feel that we are loved and there are negative consequences for our self-image. One part of us – the physical, emotional, sexual and affective part of us – begins to lose confidence and progressively atrophies. We begin to feel that nobody loves us and we begin to identify love entirely with what we are lacking, namely, with physical, emotional, sexual and affective stroking. Just recently I dealt with a middle-aged lady who felt like this. She had grown up in a family in which care and stability abounded, but physical affection was never expressed. She had remained single and, save for a few dissatisfying sexual encounters which had been entered into because of depression and desperation, had never expressed physical affection in her life. Now she was convinced that she had never been loved. When she thought of love she filled with pain, aching and bitterness. Yet, when she was able to move beyond the hurt and look at her life objectively, she saw some things which surprised her. She had always been loved, solidly, deeply, unconditionally. She was also very lovable.
Her strict Irish family had never been able to tell her through words, physical touch or emotional stroking that they loved her. But they had in fact loved her despite being affectively inarticulate. Their love had expressed itself in commitment, generosity, concern and fidelity. But these were given too starkly, without affection being expressed, and this experience had remained constant throughout the rest of her life. In her friendships and relationships invariably the same pattern resurfaced. She had indeed been loved through more than 50 years but, at one level of her being, had not known it. But at another level of her being she had known it. While she protested that she had a weak self-image and felt unlovable, she radiated stability and confidence and lovableness at every level of her being, save the physical and sexual one. There she felt insecurity and lacked confidence. Her story is a paradigm for all of us, God’s poor, the little ones who go through life too-starved for affection, convinced that we aren’t loved nor lovable, burdened with a bad self-image. We think we are not loved, but beneath it all we are strongly loved and lovable and possess a tremendous confidence and stability because of it.
Equally as tragic is the reverse: Many persons have a lot of physical, emotional and sexual affection in their lives. Yet, underneath that, they do not feel loved nor lovable.In their case, the self-image inflicts the opposite demon upon them. It lets them operate with considerable social, affective and sexual confidence, but it strips them of confidence and stability in virtually every other area. There are many lessons in all of this, not the least of which is that we need to express affection, we need to touch each other physically and we need to affirm each other more explicitly. We need to express affection more, to stroke each other physically and emotionally into wholeness. But we need also to realize that love is more than this. Even when there isn’t a satisfying affection in our lives, our eyes need not fill with tears every time we contemplate whether or not we are loved.