“If you love somebody, set them free. Free, Free. Set them free.” — Sting
It’s been said that the most important love of all is self love. I’m not referring to the self-absorbed, narcissistic love where the theme song is “Do re me, me, me, me, me, me.” I am speaking of the kindness one needs to show oneself in order to love the rest of the world. As we all know, not everyone in the world is going to love us back, so first we must love ourselves.
I remember my mother’s love. She was a good strong woman who held fast in her religious beliefs and practiced what’s commonly called the Golden Rule: love others as you would have them love you. She died far too soon at the age of 52 from a relentless cancer that she could not overcome. After her death, I felt an enormous vacancy in my life for the longest time as though I had been cheated out of the — excuse the expression — undying love she had for each of her children.
I remember the loves I have had for the women in my life, not that there were that many, but there were a few for whom I held a romantic love. Or so I believed that’s what it was.
My definition of love was something like this: I love you. You love me back. Love doesn’t include anger. Love doesn’t allow for growth outside of the relationship. Love is something to be held onto, fiercely. Do whatever it takes to keep it together. And woe betide any transgression outside of that very narrow, extremely well-defined boundary.
After leaving, and being left by, several girlfriends in my adolescence and carrying that storybook notion of what love is into my adult years, I married. It started out well and produced two beautiful children, both girls. There were the usual problems with growing up and adolescence. Money always seemed to be an issue. Eventually it seemed like the marriage had reached an impasse and I took the initiative to divorce. The point for me was the love I had come to expect in a marriage simply didn’t exist in my marriage anymore. That’s the simple story line.
Then there was the second marriage. I vowed that the shortcomings I had in my first marriage (and I take full responsibility for them) would not be allowed into this marriage.
I was really going to work at keeping this one together, no matter what the cost. Well, the first marriage lasted almost 20 years, held together to some degree by the responsibility of raising the children. The second lasted only five but was preceded by a five-year common-law arrangement. WTF???
Both divorces took an enormous emotional toll on me and I retreated into a self-induced cocoon where no one was going to get into my heart space again — with the exception of my beloved Golden Retriever. I got my boy, Custer, as a therapy for me. I have a nurturing personality and I needed someone or something to look after. I knew all about the unconditional love one receives from a dog and I theorized that this would be less complicated than inviting another human into my life.
Custer was an unusually placid fellow. He only barked half a dozen times in his entire life and that was after he had been left outside too long. He had the same aversion to being alone as I did. But what I noticed was he was usually happy just being this simple creature who enjoyed whatever it was he happened to be doing at the time. It was his own canine version of self love. How sweet, I thought.
At this point I was well into my middle age. I had undergone several transformations, no small amount of therapy, spiritual explorations and financial upheavals.
Then this magical person lands in my email box. We had met years earlier when we were both married to others. Neither of us had taken any special interest in the other but after so many years she had got to wondering what I was doing after she and her husband had split some years prior. What transpired over the next few months was a long distance relationship that evolved via emails.
As she lived in Montreal and I was in Toronto the feelings were expressed in simple language, loving and open. She is a very spiritual person in a free spirited way and we really connected on an intellectual plane. This was an entirely new approach to love for me. No physical contact for the first four or five months!
As I was free to move and she had a thriving business in Montreal she suggested I come there to live. I was keen to have an adventure and had not really left Toronto my entire life short of vacations and brief stints in the country and New York.
We had each found love in the other. This was the love I had read about in those books that teach you to let the other person be who they are. Love doesn’t suffocate. Love allows the other person to wear whatever they want, even socks with sandals if that’s what they like. It’s was a when-you-love-someone-set-them-free kind of love.
What we didn’t realize was that we came from entirely different backgrounds with entirely different tastes and even different recreational pursuits. I made jokes about our being together and having virtually nothing in common. She is a strict vegetarian. I’m an omnivore. She practices yoga. I work out in a gym. I like screaming down a snowy mountain on a pair of parabolic skis. She likes her meditation. The glue that held us together seemed to be some wonderful conversations over dinner. And lots of laughs.
Well, anticlimax of anticlimaxes, she came to me to say, after just over a year of being together, she wasn’t happy. In my own myopic world everything seemed fine. A little weird but fine. There was no rancor in her voice, no accusatory recriminations. Just “I have to look after myself.”
I am not a man of steel. I was crushed. I had just been through the emotional roller coaster of having to put down my Custer and celebrating my youngest daughter’s wedding. Complicated doesn’t begin to describe my emotions. And now this.
And then the words of the song “If you love somebody set them free” by Sting came drifting into my brain. In a book entitled The Road Less Travelled, author Scott Peck writes in the opening “Life is difficult.” No shit! It is a paraphrasing of the first of the four noble truths attributed to Buddha, “Life is suffering.” No matter how you say it, it’s an uncompromising observation that demands some discipline on how we view our lives. Peck goes on to say “… the rewards of the difficult life of honesty and dedication to the truth are more than commensurate with the demands.”
I won’t stop loving that magical spirit who lives in Montreal. But because I do, I must truly set her free. As she has me. Once again I had subverted my own love of my self for the interests of another. As the great artist Michelangelo is reported to have said near the end of his life: “Ancora imparo.” I am still learning.