“Every man on this planet is taking his initiation in love.”
– Florence Shinn, The Game of Life and How to Play It
Initiations in love can be painful because they require that we learn disturbing things about ourselves, that we confront our selfishness, self absorption, and destructive behaviors. Shying away in fear, we may resist our needed learning and even reject it completely, abandoning our very soul.
But once we discover that learning to love is the purpose of our life, it is pretty easy to identify what we need to learn next.
We often need a personal crisis to catapult us into learning what we must learn next.
I remember the moment clearly when I realized fully what a crisis I was in. I was splitting wood behind my beautiful new house in the middle of a lovely wood.
Normally, I was joyful splitting the hard, knarly, black ash, feeling strong as I hurled my splitting axe over and over into the resistant wood, then triumphing as the log came apart, releasing an amazing fragrance hidden inside.
But that day I was empty, almost paralyzed with grief and self-recognition.
My third wife had left me.
I was stunned. I was in my fifties, a mature man who thought he had wisdom, a CEO of a national laboratory, a coach to leaders, a father, a grandfather.
I stopped chopping and gazed off into the fading twilight. I had never felt more forlorn, unconfident, lost.
The full knowledge of my failure to love my wife became clear to me at that moment.
I was in a crisis.
I wondered if I had blown my chances permanently—failed one too many times at love to be able to recover.
I couldn’t see how my life might again be successful and happy.
My only hope was that I could learn what I had to learn and would get another chance at love.
Luckily, it wasn’t too late, I would learn what I had to learn, and I would find the love of my dreams.
Here’s what I learned:
First, even if you have been slow to learn what you must learn about love, it’s never too late.
I grew up watching a painful marriage. I never heard my parents say to each other, “I love you.” I did hear lots of arguments. I felt loved by my caring but bound-up parents even though they never said, “I love you” to my sister and me. I don’t remember any hugs. There were never any conversations with my parents about what my future might be. Not one.
So I jumped into a marriage at 18 with my 17 year-old girlfriend whose family was not much more of a model of a loving family than mine. We improved on our parents’ family life, learning something about love, but ultimately failed at it and ended our marriage in a bitter divorce after 18 years.
I read about marriage research. I studied the great masters of awareness in various religions to discover what they knew about successful living. I read The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm and many other beautiful treatments of the subject.
And I jumped into a second marriage barely out of the first one, wanting to be loved no doubt, and only a bit more able to give it. We didn’t learn more about love together, and the love we had wasn’t enough to hold us together for very long.
I exchanged love with several more partners, gaining knowledge, but remaining more interested in getting love than giving it.
Finally, I met my third wife, a woman who left loved people in her wake wherever she went. I learned a lot about love from her generosity, warmth, and joy of life.
But I didn’t learn enough, and she left after 13 years, letting me go as gently as she could.
I was finally humbled enough to wake up to my incomplete initiation in love. I saw that I still had been unable to say, “I love you” easily and fully.
I saw that I still lacked the physical warmth needed to convince someone of my affection.
I saw that to love someone is to see and pursue his or her potential, even if pursuing that potential meant moving away from me.
And then I met Mary and she loved me and invited me to love her. And when I didn’t do love well enough, she showed me how to do it with a firm faith in my ability to learn.
I can now do most of the things that love requires. Mary says she feels loved by me every day. Every hour.
My memoir could be titled, Awake at Last!.
Second, I’ve learned that feedback is a gift from heaven.
We need feedback from others about how we’re doing in our relationships. We probably can never get enough honest feedback.
Lots of people in my life have given me feedback about my thinking and behavior—wives, my children, friends, and colleagues. But I usually thought I had deeper insights about me than they did: I usually thought that they were somewhat off the mark.
One wife told me, “You’re the hardest person to imprint that I’ve ever met.”
When Mary used to say that I was being critical, a pattern of mine that had infected many of my relationships, I finally heard someone who loves me say that I was not being loving with her.
I needed lots of feedback. It took me way too long to finally get it about my predilection to criticize. But Mary’s love saw enough potential in me that she didn’t give up.
She kept giving me feedback. We talked at length about what each of us needed to learn. In the give and take of learning, I gradually let go of my ego resistance.
I finally saw my own weakness behind my criticisms.
I finally stopped needing to be right.
At last, I am able to hear this kind of feedback the first time I receive it.
And I am able to act on the feedback immediately, without resisting, arguing, or self-justifying.
Now I can say, “Thanks for the feedback. I see that you are right. I think I’ve got it, and you won’t have to encounter that negative pattern in me anymore. But if you do, please let me know right away. I’m lucky to have your careful attention. I love you.”
I’ve learned that love requires that I be humble and alert, wide open to how I’m effecting others.
Finally, I’ve learned that I am loved when someone sees my potential and goes after it by shinning a light into my dark corners.
Nothing is more valuable than loving feedback about our next steps in learning.
I am enjoying my initiation in love.
Every day seems like a good day to love.
How lucky I am to have Mary to love every day.
What good fortune to have my family to love. To have my friends, acquaintances and the human race to love.
To all of you who have given me love in the form of insight, kindness, generosity, helpfulness, understanding, encouragement, and—at times—tough love, to all of you who have assisted me in my initiation into love, I say thank you. I love you.