Until I spent far less time with him and had some room to make comparisons, my father was just doing the regular dad thing. He asked how I was, asked about my endeavors and my loved ones, was visibly affected by the answers I gave–he laughed, he got teary-eyed, he beamed with pride. It just seemed normal.
Sometimes the way a person shows love is only obvious when you experience its opposite.
Love is a kind of willingness, a movement toward a place that could cause you pain. My dad asked me the tough questions because he was genuinely interested in the answers. Even if the truth hurt a bit.
He was willing to cause embarrasament if it meant speaking truthfully. He had a way of making a talk about sex even more awkward by calling it [cringe] “sexual intercourse.” But at least we were talking about it! As a married woman I felt comfortable still addressing this topic with my dad. It was just normal.
But I didn’t understand how it conveyed love until I heard these words several years back.
The Lumineer’s “Stubborn Love” provides the lyrics for this post’s title. It took me a few years to figure out the last word (perhaps I felt too indifferent to look up the lyrics?), so I’ll provide the words for you here:
“It’s better to feel pain than nothing at all; the opposite of love’s indifference.”
Isn’t the opposite of love hate? One motivates you to treat someone kindly; the other motivates you to hurt them. They seem to have the same level of passion, just with entirely contrasting intents. What’s so bad about indifference? Isn’t that just kind of like being neutral?
Indifference could mean you “don’t give a blankety-blank.” The yuckiest thing your brain could come up with, you wouldn’t even give that much to some person or idea. Though usually when people use this phrase, I think, “But you did go to the trouble of saying something unkind, so you must care a little bit.”
Indifference means it doesn’t even cause a blip on your radar. Which is fine if it helps you stay sane, but when it comes to the people we interact with, it’s different.
The trouble with indifference is that those who are treated with indifference can’t do much with it. It’s just something missing, and since they don’t know what it’s like to have it, who can tell the difference?
Well, I know I can, and the difference in how children relate to themselves and others when a parent generally reacts with indifference is unmistakable to me now.*
Parents who respond to their children show that they care. Even if we react with impatience, misunderstanding, anger, or unkindness, at least the words hang in the air, prodding us to apologize and perhaps try again.
And kids can learn from our reactions what is a good idea versus a bad idea. We don’t have to follow some parenting script in order to show our kids we care. We might not give a diddly-dang why they did what they did, but at least we noticed and let it affect us in some way.
I’ve encouraged my older son to study nature, so he has taken to collecting any creature found tunneling under stones and logs. Then throw in our free-range hens and the frequent baths everyone gets for covering themselves in mud, and you get yesterdays’s scene:
I slowly rouse myself from an afternoon nap and make my way to the front porch. I want to find out what could be keeping the kids so happy. There, in a raincoat, is a wet, muddy hen. Along with some slugs and my hairbrush.
The kids have learned that when mom just takes a deep breath and turns around, it might be the last calm thing she does. They dismantled their beauty parlor right away.
Am I proud that I’ve lost my temper over my kids’ bizarre projects in the past? Nope. But did I at least give my kids a starting point for recognizing “that wudn’t such a good idea?” You betcha.
I have learned something about myself that would help in the reactions department. I tend to shy away from exhibiting joy and happiness. I understand now that my reluctance comes from thinking, “Well, the higher I fly, the farther I’ll fall” since I can pretty much guarantee a spiral downward at least a couple times every few weeks (and hey! this is an improvement).
I’ve found, however that as I pay attention in the now, I feel ready to show my happiness as my kids do their thing and try to work with me.
Do you know what it takes to show love instead of indifference? A willingness to totally screw up in the ways you show love.
Would you lose your temper if you didn’t care? Would you try to teach a child how to scrape their plate and load it in the dishwasher if you didn’t care? Would you provide rules and boundaries and consequences with your kids if you didn’t care?
By reminding myself what is worth caring about, my actions tend to show up as loving instead of hurtful, or worse, indifferent.
What else do we care about besides our kids? What about the interactions that may amount to nothing because they’re with some stranger you might never see again? Is it worth caring then?
Now, what if you feel, as I have in the past, that your well-intended interaction with some passing stranger might be taken as offensive? What if going out of your way to be kind might be construed as “condescending” or “self-righteous” or like you’re making someone your project because they’re…different.
Three weeks ago I joined a virtual town hall meeting. Mormon Women for Ethical Government had three black women with differing ages and backgrounds from across the country talk to about 300 white women to address the following:
“If All Lives Matter, then Black Lives Matter: Turning Frustration into Productive Interpersonal Action.” One question came up that I have felt too embarrassed to ask: “How can I interact with a person of color without making them feel like I went out of my way to talk to them because of the color of their skin?”
The answer was so obvious. Just treat them like you would if you were being friendly to a person who looked like you.
I live in an area with very few black people. Plenty of Latinos, especially due to seasonal farm workers from Mexico, but very few black people.
So maybe some of you (or others whose locale has a narrow range of melanin distributions) may find this helpful.
In my willingness to screw up while trying to show love to someone who is, by appearance, different from what I’m used to, I have said and done a lot of dumb things.
I’ll keep the list brief so it doesn’t look like I’m trying to earn a medal.
- As a nursing student, I attempt to use my Spanish skills. I want to ask a woman, who has literally just given birth, about breastfeeding. Would she like to offer “the sin” to her baby? No, I just didn’t. Yes, I just did. “You say pecho, I say pecado; let’s call the whole thing off.”
- Again as a nursing student, I attempt to comfort a woman who has miscarried and requires medical intervention to bring her stillborn baby into the world. She speaks only Spanish. I intend to say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” but the word I use has me sympathizing with her for her eternal punishment. “You say pérdida, I say perdición; let’s call the interpreter already!”
- I get chatting with another mom during soccer practice. She implies that she speaks Spanish as well as English, but without much else to go on, I jump right in with, “So does all of your family love playing soccer? I mean, I know a lot of Spanish speakers love soccer, I mean…that was me stereotyping wasn’t it?” She agrees with me there, and then we move on to what her family is actually like.
- I’m at my intake appointment with a doctor who is black. He asks plenty about me and then asks if I have any questions for him. I could ask him how long he’s been in practice or where he went to school. I could ask him about a hobby or a favorite sports team. But since his hair reminds me of a young Bobby McFerrin, I ask about his hair. He has a doctoral degree in medicine and I want to know who styled his hair. Facepalm. Like he’s a runway model sporting the latest fashion.
- While standing in line at the grocery store, I notice that the black young man behind me is buying baby formula and some other basic necessity. I imagine this impoverished young father trying to do right by his baby mama. So I offer to pay for his stuff too. Long “uhhhhhh…” and then “I’m actually OK. But thanks?”
- I invite my son’s classmates to a birthday party, and one kid needs gluten-free. No problem. His mom and I text all week to make sure all is well. The party begins, and a child with a long, blond braid arrives. The accompanying mother says, “This is [child’s name].” My inclusive response? “Ha! For some reason I thought [child’s name] was a boy!” “Oh, he is a boy.” Fortunately, they get that all the time and handle it fine. We even get together a few more times after. But still.
- While I volunteer as a driver for senior citizens (ages 55+) needing rides to appointments, I meet a woman at her home who is blind. She can tell I am dressed nicer than usual because of the sound my shoes make. I suddenly think I am in a Hallmark movie and ask if she needs to touch my face to know what I look like. She just laughs and helps me see her reality a bit better.
- My friend’s husband is wearing nail polish at a neighborhood gathering. It dawns on me that he hasn’t ever really made friends with the other guys, seems to keep to himself. I begin to understand that he feels very different from them and is trying to ease into his identity as a woman. Before I can gently acknowledge that this might be a difficult time for him, he looks down at his hands, laughs, and says, “My granddaughters did this to me yesterday. I have no idea how to get it off.”
I’m sure I have more examples, but I really don’t want to be a show-off. When it comes to my work as a nurse, it’s probably better to not screw up, no matter how much I’m trying to show I care. That’s one of the reasons I left that role behind.
On the other hand, treating others with a natural degree of friendliness rarely causes harm to anyone.
Instead of noticing the differences between yourself and a stranger, notice the indifference. If you think more about this random person, could you find a reason to care about them? If so, ask, “How would I behave if I were just being friendly?”
And then be prepared to totally screw it up, share a laugh, and try again. At least it’s a step in the right direction if we want to show others how much they matter to us.
For Father’s Day I made sure to tell my dad what his interest in me and my life has meant. He took the path less traveled, and it has made all the difference.
*It’s at least an assumption I’m willing to try on while figuring out the more fitting answers