Some people play a cunning game with those they love. The game is called, “I am only saying this because I love you”, and then they damn the person with their criticism of him or her.
“I am only saying this because I love you: You should not read thick books because boys don’t like girls who read thick books. You want boys to like you, don’t you?”
“I am only saying this because I love you: You must accept Jesus as your savior or you will go to hell.”
“I am only saying this because I love you: You shouldn’t spend time playing basketball. Basketball is for wimps. Football is for men.”
Almost all of us know someone who plays the game of, “I am only saying this because I love you.” We might even play the game ourselves because we were taught to play it by our parents, our siblings, our spouse, or someone else. It is very difficult to break a habit, isn’t it? Especially when those around you have the same habit.
Whether we play that game or not, most of know – deeply know – that it’s not real love speaking when someone plays that game. The person who is playing that game might kid themselves, but even they usually know on some level that they are not being authentic when they say, “I am only telling you this because I love you.”
What do you do if someone plays that game with you?
You try to put as much distance between them and you as you can, don’t you? But what if that’s not possible? What if they’re your parent? Or, your spouse? What do you do if you cannot physically avoid someone who plays that game? When we cannot physically distance ourselves from someone, most of us will try to psychologically distance ourselves from that person, and we have many ways of doing that.
I am not concerned here with most of those ways. I want to focus on just one of them. Last night I came across an interesting blog on which someone was discussing this very problem of love and criticism. Something they said reminded me of one way many of us psychologically distance ourselves. They defined love as, “I understand you without judgment”.
That’s an interesting statement. If we look closely at it, we see it is a direct and forceful contradiction of the “I am only saying this because I love you” game. By insisting that love is understanding someone without judging them we knock the wind out of that game, don’t we? We expose it for what it is. We show how it lacks real love.
Yet, is it completely true that love is understanding someone without judging them? You’ll notice I asked if it were completely true. For there is a great deal of truth in the statement, and my only quibble with it is that it might not be the complete truth. So, to put the question a bit differently, is it at all possible to criticize someone out of love?
If we are serious about answering that question, then perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves what love is. Specifically, is love just a feeling, an emotion? Or, is it more than an emotion?
I think genuine love is more than an emotion. It is as much a way of looking, a perspective, a way of seeing, as it is a feeling. When we love someone, we see them very differently than when we don’t love that person. Sometimes we say we see their soul, or their spirit; their inner self or their true nature. Whatever we call it, love has a tendency to reveal to us what is authentic in another person. Or, to slightly paraphrase Iris Murdock, love is the difficult recognition that someone besides our self is real.
Yet, love is more than that, isn’t it? It is also the unconditional acceptance of the real in another person. That is of their real, authentic self.
So, is it at all possible to criticize someone while at the same time unconditionally accepting them?
At the least, that would seem paradoxical. But let’s quickly resolve the paradox. When we unconditionally accept and love what is authentic in another person, we can still criticize what is inauthentic without thereby in any way changing the fact that we unconditionally accept and love what is authentic in them.
To put it differently, we might decently criticize them for not being true to themselves. For instance, if a girl put aside her love of reading because she was afraid that boys would not like her if she read thick books, we might point out the folly of that decision to her and encourage her to continue reading. Again, if a friend ignored her normally sound reason in order to believe in God out of fear of hell, we might point out how that was a betrayal of herself and encourage her to return to her senses. Or, again, if a boy gave up the sport he loved and excelled at in order to please his father we might point out to him how lame that was, and encourage him to pursue his excellence. In short, our criticisms would be encouragements to be true to oneself.
If I am right about this, then loving someone certainly does not preclude us from at times criticizing them when they fail to be true to themselves. If I’m wrong about this, then I shall fetch myself another cup of coffee and re-think the whole thing, for it’s early in the morning as I write this, and it seems quite possible to me that I am not yet awake enough to write knowingly about such things.