Never Saying Sorry?
When I was 13 the movie Love Story was in the theaters. The most famous phrase from the movie was, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” At 13 my personality was prematurely cynical. And I thought that phrase stunk. All these years, I never felt like I understood my own visceral reaction to the statement. I just “knew” that saying you are sorry was important. Neurologists would tell you that you remake your memories every time you revisit them. So the memory may be a complete fabrication. But my memory of the film and my reaction comes back every time I sit down to think about love and forgiveness.
There must have been plenty of grown-ups who liked Love Story because it was a big box office hit. But the most important adult opinion in my life at the time was my mother’s and she thought the entire movie was stupid. (I liked the movie a lot. Just hated that tag line). I remember her telling me the story was completely unrealistic. She was always looking for a “realistic romance”. The movie was perfect for teenage girls. There are two star-crossed lovers, Oliver and Jenny. Oliver is rich. Jenny is from the working class. He goes to Harvard. She goes to Radcliffe. There is a lot of verbal sparring. She’s gotten to Radcliffe on her intellect. He plays hockey. She is very defensive. He is emotionally open. They fall in love. His father practically disowns him over the relationship. They get married anyway. He becomes a lawyer. They moved to New York. She gets cancer which they discover when they go to the doctor to see if she is pregnant. She dies. Son is reunited with his father in grief. Lots of romance. Lots of tears. Just enough conflict to move the movie along.
Amends and The Family Foundation School
The concept of love is central to everything that we do at The Family Foundation School and I have this fantasy that it is possible to derive all other important values starting only with love, just the way my 10th grade geometry teacher brought forth an entire geometry starting with only a few simple postulates. So it is important for me to have a good answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the statement, Love means never having to say you’re sorry?” I need an answer that goes beyond a gut feeling that it’s wrong.
With love comes the possibility of intimacy and trust. Intimacy requires openness and that takes trust. To be trustworthy means to be responsible and to follow through on my commitments, to honor the relationship. But I am human and the people that I love are also human. We are all fallible, and separate. We don’t always live up to our word. In our separateness and uniqueness we misunderstand each other, and we disagree. Conflict is inevitable. And while we may strive to resolve conflict skillfully and with as much compassion as possible, because we are human, injury is inevitable. So, inevitably, human love implies conflict and hurt.
For me, the measure of my true love is my willingness to apologize. When people who love each other are making up after a fight, we use our reservoirs of love to re-approach each other with trust and understanding. Therefore, an apology may be unnecessary to hear. But, nevertheless, the apology, will be said. The feeling of love will compel the apology. When I was 13 and “in love”, the words, “I love you” were in my heart ready to gush out. It took all of my strength to hold them back since girls were never supposed to say them first. Today, If I am wrong and I know that I am wrong and I love you, then the words, “I’m sorry” fill my heart in exactly the same way—ready to gush out. Love might mean that you don’t have to say you’re sorry, but it also means you won’t be able to help yourself.
Love not in the steps, or is it?
We use the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to teach core values at the Family Foundation School. The word, “love” never appears. Yet it’s there, especially in steps 8 and 9.
Step 8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
I wonder if AAs founders left the word “love” out on purpose, knowing that it would be too mushy and sappy for the typical alcoholic of the day—the 1940’s white male. Even my mother, who got sober in 1968, would have been turned off by a program that was all about love. That’s not surprising. The object of our addiction is our love object. It’s a false love to be sure but it’s all we have. So many of us are turned off by talk of love, and seem to avoid love. Yet, if we are to recover, then we need to replace our addiction with real love. The steps do that in a sort of underhanded way. If you work the steps, you will back into love. It hits you and you never see it coming.
I brushed up against the 12 steps when I was a teenager. I put off doing the eighth and ninth steps for a long time because I thought I knew what I needed. The child of an alcoholic and a very dysfunctional family, I was full of hurt and resentment and I wanted love. Since I had been injured, I would be healed when the people who injured me, my parents mainly, made it right. They tried—they were in the program of AA too. But I could not forgive my father. I wanted to. But I was missing something. I thought I loved him. But I did not, not enough for the relationship to mend. My heart was full of grief and longing for love lost or never felt.
I did not understand any of this at the time. I only knew that I was sad. Sappy statements about love made me mad. and the steps made no sense to me because I was the injured party. They seemed backwards. Why should I apologize? Yet I believed in the steps—or I had hope in them. I saw the miracles that the steps were working for others. I had to make sense of them for myself. So, I reframed myself as the villain. I focused on my character defects, my shortcomings, my wrongdoings. I thought that if I could see myself, and the part that I had played in our family’s drama clearly enough, that somehow the equation would balance itself out, my wrongdoings = theirs. And I would be able to forgive my parents. It didn’t work. Although this exercise taught me tolerance for others. Tolerance is not love. And the nasty side effect of this approach was that I confused resignation with acceptance. I was resigned to the fact that we are all sick people. But there was no comfort in that belief. I felt bad about myself and bad about everyone else.
I was no longer fantasizing about how I was going to get even with dad but I didn’t feel open, warm and loving toward him yet either. I lived in limbo. I was stuck because forgiveness requires that we already have love in our hearts and I did not have enough. What to do? It turns out my adult sponsors were giving me the right advice all along, even if I twisted what they were saying. Apologizing and being open to the forgiveness of others without any expectation of receiving it, creates the conditions necessary for love to emerge. I may have harmed you without you even knowing it. But when I come to you and apologize, I am vulnerable to you in that moment and the possibility of a relationship is created. The emotion or energy sustaining that relationship is love. And that ability to be in loving relationships gets better with practice. It’s as if you could store up the love you experience in one relationship in a battery and then use it to create or to heal other relationships. This spiritual truth is present in all religions and in much psychotherapy as well.
My early sponsors told me to work the steps to the best of my ability and I would feel better. I didn’t feel better for a long time. I misinterpreted their message and it’s nobody’s fault. There is a big gap between adults and adolescents. What my sponsors and therapists and the great religions of the world were saying made perfect sense but only from a perspective that I didn’t have. And because I didn’t get it and I am now the adult, I must accept that many of my students won’t get what I am trying to say here. All I can do is hope that I don’t create the possibilities for the same misinterpretations that I suffered from. That my mistakes will be different. I hope the kids at the school can understand this. If you are in serious conflict with people who you are supposed to love and who are supposed to love you– people like your parents–your instincts are going to mislead you. Revenge, restitution, getting even, are not the answer. It is if there is a hole in your heart, regardless of where it came from, regardless of whose fault it is, you have it in your power to fix it and to fill it with love. Love can be created when say you are sorry and make amends. Don’t try to make sense out of this because there is a good chance you will misunderstand. Simply try making amends wherever possible and see if it doesn’t get easier to love and feel love in return.
(image from Prairie Cottage)