344. reboot the bot (part 2) – a (Ru)Pauline theology of love
I’ve been writing lately (here and here) about how I’ve been reworking the way that I relate to myself and to other people. In short, I’m trying to unlearn some really bad ideas that I was raised with – ideas that have been with me for decades and are deeply ingrained and hard to unlearn. The last two posts were about one of these wrong ideas – the idea that denying myself means neglecting myself and only focusing on the needs of those around me.
Another bad idea that I learned in church while growing up is this one: “You get love by giving love.”
I don’t believe that anymore. I think it’s a really poor way to read the Golden Rule.
Wanna know who I think has a much better theology of love?
How about RuPaul, who says, “Remember to love yourself, because if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Amen to that!
I think that’s a brilliant way to interpret 1 John 4:19 which says, “We love because [God] first loved us.” We don’t receive love by giving love, we give love becuase we are loved…if we are loved.
That last phrase, “if we are loved,” is difficult for me to write because it feels (yes, feels) like heresy. Because God is love and one of the central tenants of Christian theology is that God loves everybody and so how can I ask “if we are loved” by God?
I ask because some people, Christians even, don’t feel loved by God. And I understand that there’s a difference between being loved and feeling loved, but how big is that difference? Because if the one you love doesn’t feel loved by you then isn’t a part of loving that person adjusting how you love so that your beloved feels loved?
And I know that love is more than a feeling, but it IS a feeling, isn’t it? At least in part? I mean, I get that love is more than feelings. I get that maybe part of why there is such a high divorce rate in America is because people think that when the initial giddy joy of love’s feelings fade then love has left the marriage and so what’s the point? I get that love means commitment that transcends feelings.
I get all of that, but again, there are feelings involved aren’t there? At some level?
Because…and this is also hard to write…its been a really long time since I’ve felt the love of God. And it’s hard to write that because in the past, when I’ve shared something along those lines to other Christians, the immediate admonishment was usually some variation of “are you praying enough, are you reading your Bible enough, are you harboring sin, are you giving enough love to other people?” The blame was always put back on me. And okay, I don’t have everything together. Yeah, I could be more of a “better” Christian, sure. Totally. Granted.
But who’s supposed to make the first move? Do I have to love first in order to feel loved by God or is it possible to feel loved because I am loved first?
And again, I get that love (even God’s love) is about more than feelings but I’m tired of a clinical, theoretical conception of God’s love. Yeah, I do know, in my head, that God loves me, but I have a head and a heart.
And what did Jesus do? He didn’t love through rhetoric, or theory, or theology – he loved by loving, by putting his hands on people, by healing them, by forgiving their sins. His followers went on to love and spread the Gospel because they knew, that they were loved and they knew that because Jesus loved them first. And I wasn’t there and it’s not explicitly in the text, but I have to believe that they knew they were loved because they felt loved.
Am I wrong here?
And I totally get that Jesus died on the cross to show, in no uncertain terms, his love for me. Yes, amen, granted. And I feel like a selfish, ungrateful asshole for sounding like I’m dissing the crucifixion, but do you see what I’m feeling now? I’m feeling like a schmuck, I still don’t feel loved.
I’m in a bind here. If I say I don’t feel loved by God, I feel like a selfish jerk. If I don’t say that, I’m dismissing myself. And besides, it’s not like God doesn’t know what’s going on. He knows exactly what I’m thinking and so it’s like there’s no out for me.
Well, that’s not completely true.
I mentioned in my last post that my counselor has been telling me that one way we work out our relationship issues with God is by working them out with people. And I hope he’s right because I don’t know what else to do.
Here’s the deal. I can sum up most of what was wrong with the way I used to relate to people with just two words: “for” and “with.”
See, up until recently, I’ve been living for people. When I was hanging out with someone, I was hanging out for them. I was always thinking about what that person wanted out of the relationship. I kept trying to find ways that I could help this other person or somehow give them what they wanted from me. This happened in all my relationships and all my interactions. I can see this now, but at the time, it was the only way I knew how to move through the social world. My needs and my issues were for me to work through in my own time. Problem was, “my own time” never came.
Actually, there were some rare relationships and contexts where I could actually be myself, but they were few and far between. And even there, I felt a kind of caution. Even in these open, safe moments of relationship, there were still places I would not go. Foremost among these was any kind of conflict I felt with the person I was interacting with. Say I’m meeting with Mark and maybe Mark owes me thirty bucks and it’s been a while and so I’m wondering if he’s forgotten or if he still doesn’t have the cash or what. We start talking about whatever’s going on in our lives but that thirty bucks is buzzing around the back of my head, trying to get out because maybe I’m short on cash this week and that thirty bucks would really help.
In this situation, I feel fine talking about frustrations with coworkers or other friends or with the church or if I’m feeling depressed about something, and it feels good to share all of that and I’m glad for this friend and this time. But that thirty dollars is buzzing and a part of me is thinking that I should just let it out because it’s not really all that much money and maybe Mark just forgot and needs a reminder and, wow, that cash would sure come in handy right now, and it wouldn’t really be a big deal for me to bring it up…Bzzzz….
But I never say a word about the cash because…because…
I’m not sure why, exactly. But it’s something really deep and entrenched and unfortunately, it’s getting between me and that thirty bucks. And if I feel this weight with something as insignificant as a bit of cash, can you imagine how hard it would be for me to bring up some deeper, larger conflict I may have with him? And again, it’s not that I have a problem sharing other frustrations or troubles with Mark, it’s just that when it comes to sharing a frustration or trouble that I’m having with Mark himself that I edit myself. And I think I edited myself because on some level, I was still there for Mark and because I was there for him, I wasn’t able to confront him (even with something small).
I’m only now beginning to realize that if I’m only there for other people then I’m not really there (for) myself. I evaporate, I become invisible, and I’m down thirty bucks. And I’m learning that there’s another way to be in relationship with people. Instead of just being there for them, I’m learning to be there with people.
Those are just two small words, “for” and “with,” but the difference between them is huge. The difference is, if I’m there with Mark then I feel free to say, “hey man, remember that thirty bucks I loaned you a few weeks ago? I could really use some of that this week – can you repay any part of that?”
A simple, polite, reasonable request for a lot of people, but for me, saying something like that is like trying to shit a bowling ball. Because up until now I’ve only known how to be there for people, not with people. And it’s a mammoth paradigm shift, but I am starting to make the turn.
For a few months now, I’ve been attending an informal Monday night men’s group meeting. (We call ourselves the Luv Machine.) It’s been a really good place for me because in a lot of ways, the main purpose of the meeting is for a few people to just be there with one another. There’s no real agenda, we just meet up and talk about what’s going on in our lives. And we listen. That’s what we do: we talk, we listen. We don’t judge, we don’t fix. We listen. We with.
In software development, there’s something called a sandbox. If software engineers are working on a new feature for a corporate network and they need to test this feature on the network itself, they create a sandbox – an area of the network that’s isolated from the main, active bits so that they can see how it behaves. The great thing about the sandbox is that even if the feature being tested crashes, it doesn’t take down the rest of the network since it’s been cordoned off. Well Luv Machine has been a kind of sandbox for me in my movement towards being with people. It’s a place where I can sort of experiment with and learn about me bringing myself.
I remember this one meeting where one of the guys was all excited and talking about some ideas he had for a fundraiser. He wanted to raise funds to help build houses in Haiti and the group was getting caught up in all the excitement. One idea led to another and the project was getting larger in scope and wow, won’t this be an awesome thing to put on? I was all for the project, I thought it was a great idea and that it could do a lot of good. But. But something was buzzing around the back of my head and I knew what it was. I was feeling a conflict between the good of this project and my own good. I wasn’t showing up to Luv Machine to do charity work. I was showing up to learn how to be with people and I felt that this project was getting in the way of that.
And as the others in the group continued brainstorming the fundraiser, there was a mini battle going on in my head. It went something like this: Randall, you should say something – raising money is not why you’re here. But this fundraiser would do so much good and helping the poor is Gospel work, it’s kingdom building work. But you know where this is going – you’re going to get caught up in this and help out and you’re going to secretly harbor resentment towards the others for sucking you into this. But what will they think of me if I criticize this idea? What kind of selfish Christian will they think I am for not wanting to help make this happen? Dude, you’re doing it again. You’re discounting yourself. You know what you want out of this group and you know that this isn’t it. Say something! But all those people in Haiti… Say it! But helping those in need is also something I want for my life… Say it!
And then someone in the group asked me what I thought.
I paused. And then. I said…
I said something like, “you know, I think this is all great stuff that we’re talking about and I think it’s great that we’re thinking about doing something for the people in Haiti.” And there was another pause here. “But you know, raising money isn’t why I come out to Luv Machine. I’m here to listen to what’s going on in your lives and talk about what’s going on in mine and neither of those things is happening right now.”
And then I braced my self for the backlash…that never came.
It was a turning point in that night’s meeting. I thought they’d call me a selfish bastard for not wanting to help Haiti. Instead, they called me a hero for bringing the group back to its core mission.
It was quite a moment for me. A triumph, really, because not only had I spoken up for myself, it was received warmly, graciously, appreciatively. I was expecting them to bite my head off. Instead, they thanked me. It was a surprise – a sandbox success.
You know, one of the things I’ve been realizing as I’ve been writing this post is how really awful I’ve been towards myself. All the ways I beat my own feelings down, discounting them, censoring them, editing them – it’s all a cruel sort of violence I’ve been inflicting on myself. And I’m beginning to see that if I treated others the way I treated myself, I’d be a monstrous asshole. I’d be pathologically antisocial. It’s scary. And sad.
Which brings me back to RuPaul and the statement, “…if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” And it makes me think of all the other times I’ve written about troubles I’ve had with knowing how to give or receive love or even knowing what love is. And I can see now that a lot of those troubles were rooted in the fact that I did (do) not know how to love myself.
But it begins with learning to listen to my own voice. And it continues as I allow that voice to actually speak, unedited – polite, perhaps, but unedited. Because that’s how I show up in a relationship as opposed to evaporating. That’s how I learn to stop being my own worst asshole. That’s how I begin to learn to love myself. It’s how I learn to be with people.
And if my counselor is right, and he’s been right so far, as I learn to love myself and learn to be with others, I’ll also learn to experience God and His love.
And I’ll admit that right now, that all sounds too good to be true.
But I wonder.