Spring is here and I hope we will all take time to think about people in our lives whom we love and how we express our feelings for them. I share some thoughts about unconditional love which were triggered by my presence at a birthday celebration online. As I explore the concept “Ikigai”, I invite you to explore areas of engagement that give you joy, a sense of purpose, and allow you to be totally present, particularly in your leisure time.
I was on a ZOOM call to celebrate a special someone’s 80th birthday. There were many informal heartfelt tributes from people all over the world who were sitting in their cars, in their living rooms, in their bedrooms, in their offices; one person “ZOOMed” from a restaurant!
The most frequently mentioned descriptors of the "birthday guy" were “talented, kind, intelligent, witty, creative, open, welcoming.” Various, multilayered facets of his life shone through whether spoken by a relative, fellow traveler, student, swimmer, fisherman, or lover of literature.
One recognition of this guy’s uniqueness was offered by his adult son who talked about how much he learned from and appreciated his dad now that he was a father. He recalled his childhood and the precious times they spent together in nature, swimming, exploring woods and streams, discussing life and books.
He shared a memory of when he asked his father for some parenting advice. He recalled that his dad reflected for a moment or two and said: Parenting is simple if you remember that it is all about unconditional love.” Such a profound statement. What does unconditional love mean? What does it look like in the day to day? What does a parent need to do to ensure that their child feels they are loved unconditionally?
It may sound simple but in practice it can be challenging. Unconditional love is love without strings attached. When parents can accept their children and demonstrate affection and love for them even when their children do not do what the parents want or do not meet their parents' expectations, we are showing them unconditional love.
Earlier in the day of the ZOOM birthday call I spoke with a woman who was extremely upset and in emotional distress. This pain presented as anger, disappointment and sadness. She was struggling with accepting her adult daughter’s love interest. Nothing about her daughter's partner was "good." She felt it was her responsibility (as a loving, concerned mother) to inform her daughter of the "facts". To this mom, "relationships with people who are ‘so different from us’ never work out."
There was a seemingly endless list of what was wrong with this young man. The mother focused on how awful her daughter’s relationship was for the family and how it would lead to “no good.” She was disappointed in her daughter because she always thought that they were of one mind and one heart. She asked: "Why is she doing this to me?"
Because the mother could not condone this burgeoning union she refused to talk to or see her daughter. She was singularly committed to stopping the relationship. The daughter interpreted her mother's disapproval of the relationship as a disapproval of her.
What prompted the call to me was that this woman felt she was at a stalemate; she could not tolerate what her daughter had done to her. When I suggested that perhaps her daughter was not doing this to her, she challenged me and told me that her whole life has been devoted to being the best mother she could be. “I raised brilliant and accomplished children to be successful in the world.” We spoke about why she felt her daughter chose this particular young man and what she thought was going on within her daughter. Upon reflection, she realized that she did not think her daughter really felt that good about herself and when I asked her if she feels that constant criticism from her mother would help her feel better about herself she became silent.
I asked her if she could imagine room to expand her role as mother to include that 1) she could have and was entitled to her own opinion about her daughter's partner, and 2) she would be able to try to understand why her daughter made this choice.
Perhaps she could ask, “What is it about this man that my daughter finds attractive, and how does he make her feel about herself?”
Might the mother imagine expanding her definition of being a good mother by making room to metaphorically hold her daughter's hand as she walks down this path?
Clearly this mom was not just angry but also deeply disappointed, sad, and fearful about her daughter's future. I asked if perhaps she could give herself some caring and tenderness instead of blaming herself because "only a bad mother would raise a daughter who would do this to her.”
There was a little crack in her armor when she realized that she did not have control over her daughter's behavior even though she “knew where this relationship was headed." She admitted that she had never felt so distant from her daughter before.
We spoke about unconditional love and she dismissed my question and said that of course she loves all of her children unconditionally.
And then she heard herself.
She had to consider what happens when the people we love make choices that we don’t agree with, especially when we feel scared or threatened by those choices and feel shaken in our core.
For much of my personal and professional life I have seen families trying to deal with shifting perceptions, expectations, and the feelings attached to loving a child who chooses to love someone who would not be the parents’ choice. The parents often feel that they “failed.” In order to “fix” this and make it right, they believe their role as a parent is to share their views about the people their adult children are attracted to, even without being asked. Their adult children often want their parents to get to know the person they love and to see them from their perspective.
In these situations, parents seldom present as open and welcoming, fearful that if they are, they will be seen as accepting that which they do not want. Whether or not they are aware of it, they communicate verbal and nonverbal messages of dissatisfaction and disappointment.
Unless we are willing to take a risk and attempt to understand the feelings that scare us, we may not be open to loving unconditionally. When our children become people who are different from whom we had hoped they would be, it can be tough for us to embrace them. We keep comparing them to the idealized version of them that we have or had in our minds. We feel it is a direct rejection of who we are and our choices. Sometimes it is.
Unconditional love requires that we be present and observe and even join so that we can be available as they take their journey. Offering unconditional love requires that each of us model openness and that openness includes curiosity and acceptance.
I remember years ago when a father came to me after he had stopped speaking to his son. His son wanted to get married at a much younger age than the father thought was appropriate. The father had married early, divorced, and wanted to prevent his son from going down the same path. The father threatened to cut off his son financially. He made other threats as well. His son refused to let go of his desire to marry sooner rather than later.
They came to talk to me together. Their love and respect for each other was obvious. Our time together was highly emotional and often heartbreaking. They worked hard to listen to each other despite the obvious difficulties. I don’t think the father was ever happy that his son married so young, but he realized that unless he changed course, there would be no relationship with his son. This was the biggest threat of all.
We all have our boundaries and we all have our limits. We need to understand what we can and cannot tolerate. We also need to understand, that as parents, we do the best we can to guide our children with a moral code rooted in our values. We may say we are teaching them certain lessons when, in fact, they are learning other lessons from our behavior or our language. We may say that we are open to those who come from different cultures or religions, yet when someone begins dating someone who is different, we are up in arms. It is helpful to examine our own beliefs and understand where they came from, and why we hold them dear. We have a right to these beliefs. We can try to understand that others (our children) may not accept our views as their own. This can be painful. We can feel rejected. We may feel our way of life is threatened. In the end, however, we wonder whether NOT having a relationship with the adult child we love is worth it.
When we try to express unconditional love, it is helpful to remember that when we say "I love you, BUT…" everything that follows the "but" negates the "I love you" and thus makes it conditional. “If you do this or if you live your life this way or if you perform in this manner, I will love you.” An unconditional love message is "I love you as the person you are.”
Loving someone unconditionally is about understanding, adapting and being open and willing to look through a different lens so that we can see the world from the perspective of our child.
“Ikigai,” the Japanese practice for finding value in our day-to-day living, can be the source of improving our overall happiness (no surprise!). “Iki” comes from the word “ikeru,” which means “to live.” “Gai” is a suffix that means “worth or value.” Therefore, finding our ikigai – purpose and meaning – can lead to finding more ease and joy in our lives.
It can be hard to reignite the spark and feeling of engagement we once had. Some of us may feel that we cannot find the gifts in our lives, or find ourselves getting up joylessly, going to work, and coming back home without having much satisfaction from the way we are spending our days. One day blurs into another.
Ikigai is intrinsic. If we reflect upon our lives, we may remember activities we were drawn to time after time when we were younger. By the time we became adults, our natural inclinations may have given way to socio-economic factors shaped by what others felt were more practical and sensible. What we want to do is touch what was ignited before because we can open up to that feeling again.
We can return to Ikigai within ourselves and improve our overall well-being. We can devote some time to think about what is important, and which activities can activate our innate source of intention and joy, and in turn, purpose.
p>The daily news of ills – personal and political – as well as the high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, bullying, crime, and growing inequalities that we experience can be linked to a societal lack of compassion. The personal and the political are enmeshed. When someone is hurt and damaged, that has a significant impact on how he or she interacts, and it can often be based in fear and anger. We can cultivate compassion daily by asking “What is the kind thing to do or say at this moment, in this situation?” Sometimes the answer is “nothing.” Silence after listening with compassion may be the kindest response.
A simple act of kindness can engender a sense of hopefulness. Remember that many people feel invisible. No one deserves to feel that way. You can make a difference in someone’s life by being kind and taking a moment to notice and engage them. Look into someone’s eyes and make a connection when they do something for you (the person who puts your groceries in the bag, the person who serves you your coffee, the bus driver).