The last item on my daily to-do list is to read the day’s meditation from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. He is a teacher and a poet who has distilled the wisdom he’s gleaned from living with and nearly dying of cancer into a 365 short essays that explore every facet of human life and the human heart.
Today’s essay is titled “Unconditional Love,” and it has illuminated for me a concept that has always been dear to my own heart but that, I now realize, I’ve never fully understood.
In truth, unconditional love does not require a passive acceptance of whatever happens in the name of love. Rather, in the real spaces of our daily relationships, it means maintaining a commitment that no condition will keep us from bringing all of who we are to each other honestly.
I have always thought it meant putting up with the most outrageous mistreatment from others and perpetually turning the other cheek, but Nepo clarifies that, in fact, “Unconditional love is not a hole in us that receives the dirt, but the sun within that never stops shining.”
Unconditional love is not so much about how we receive and endure each other, as it is about the deep vow to never, under any condition, stop bringing the flawed truth of who we are to each other.
I wish I could have offered this kind of love to every friend and lover I’ve ever had–and if any of them are reading this, I apologize for being too afraid and too dishonest with myself to be able to give it to you. Had I known better, I would have done better.
I did get it right, though, once in my life. I once had a friend with whom I shared a complete and uncompromising trust, which meant we were in the business of full disclosure: how we felt about ourselves, how we felt about each other, how we felt about our relationship, what we wanted, what we needed, who we were beneath all our layers of imitation and artifice. I have never had another friend with whom I have been so emotionally honest, and who not only reciprocated that honesty but also allowed me to love her to the fullest capacity of my heart. As it turned out, that was quite a lot. Unfortunately, she had no love for herself and therefore nowhere to receive my affections past a certain point. Loving someone who doesn’t love herself is a trail of tears that ends in loss, and inevitably she sent me down that trail and through a shattering series of losses because she was too afraid both to feel what she felt and to receive how I felt.
But for that brief, shining moment when I stood with another human being inside the same circle of trust, I was able finally to see clearly who I am and what I was made for. I had always camouflaged myself and my most tender feelings for fear of scaring others away, which is what usually happened anyway, but this friend would not be scared away no matter how much I revealed to her. I thought–we both thought–that ours was a friendship for life that would illuminate all our days going forward with joyful warmth. I have never looked forward more eagerly to anything in my life than what I believed would be this long walk together.
Nepo has another meditation for late November that describes perfectly what happened between me and my friend:
When we can look into each other, however briefly, without any agenda or scheme of desire or need, something indescribable and essential makes us more than we are by ourselves. … It seems the angel of relationship can only appear when our hearts pump our eyes open. It is such a powerful feeling that many things can go wrong. I can feel an aliveness that I think is only in you because it has been awakened between us. So I might only want to be with you and thus abandon myself. Or you, feeling stirred way down in your depth, might be frightened by such a feeling, and thinking it is I who poked you there, you might run from the most beautiful thing to come your way.
We did indeed summon the angel of relationship and it folded its wings around us for a short time in which, I believe, we both experienced a profound healing of places broken deep inside. I will always be grateful for that time and for that healing. I was not frightened by it, and I never wanted to abandon either myself or her. I wanted to live in that feeling for the rest of my life.
What I think happened–although I will never know for sure because my friend would never tell me–is that the angel stirred something down in her depth that she did not want to see or face, and out of that stirring arose a lie that, once spoken, had to be defended. The defensiveness soon turned to hostility that shattered our circle of trust and sent the angel of relationship away. The loss we have both suffered cannot be counted; our hearts will always bear the scars of the choices we made in our ignorance, our pain, our anger and our fear. There is no going back now to the place where only truth lives.
The gift I have received from this heartbreak is the knowledge that what I was with her, I can be again with others: open, honest, fully transparent, and committed to bringing all of myself to my relationships each day. Loving another person with all my heart was the best gift I have ever had the grace to give or to receive.
My hope is that I will, in time, transcend this loss and rebuild the circle of trust within myself from which my light and warmth can shine into the world. The angel of relationship demands nothing less.