“Isn’t it wonderful not to have to be perfect to be loved?” These words are uttered by one of the characters in the latest addition to the Black Dagger Brotherhood series by JR Ward (technically, the series). It’s no surprise to me that JR Ward always has profound things to say, and, if you read my blog but not her books, you might want to consider the wisdom of Jessica Bird (JR’s real name) when expanding your TBR pile. I read that line and was stopped in my tracks. In the story, Mary drops this pearl after her mate, Rhage, has lost control of himself and behaved rather poorly. Instead of berating Rhage, or looking at him askance, Mary lets him know that it’s OK to be imperfect, and that she expects no more from him and loves him anyway. With one small question, Mary makes it OK for Rhage to be human (even though he’s a vampire who turns into a dragon, but that’s not my point). Wouldn’t it be transformative if we all felt that way about those we loved and if those we loved felt that way about us?
Of course it would be. And if we’re very, very lucky, we get some of that. That unconditional love. That love that doesn’t give up, and doesn’t crap out, and doesn’t abandon us when we fall short of the mark of perfection. But even if we are lucky enough to experience that kind of love, most of us don’t believe we’re worthy of it. And here’s a news flash: if we don’t think we deserve it, we are highly unlikely to be able to give it. Love, like charity, starts at home.
I’m talking about the love we give and the love we get. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, so I’ll confine my observations to myself. As you know, my childhood was less than ideal. I became convinced pretty early in life that my parents’ love was predicated on my being a good girl. My father was unequipped to deal with a demanding child and my mother was unwilling. So love quickly became equated with compliant behavior. Right up until the moment when I figured out that no matter what I did, it wouldn’t satisfy my narcissistic mother, and, therefore, there was no room at that particular inn for me. At which point I was behaved nicely around my father, and completely contrary towards my mother. I would say I regretted my truly awful behavior with mommy dearest, except I don’t.
But what I do regret is what I learned about love at my damaged mother’s knee. I learned that I wasn’t worthy of love, that I was so imperfect, so clearly broken, that no one would ever love me. It took a tragically long time to learn new truths. Occasionally, when my defenses are weak and my guard is down, I go right back to being that broken little girl whose mother didn’t believe in loving me in all my perfect imperfections. Which is just sad.
What is also sad is that I had a model for imperfectly perfect love, but I wasn’t self aware enough to recognize it at the time. Even though I didn’t consciously understand it while I was growing up, the effects of unconditional love were working their magic on me. While my mother was busy doing her best to ruin me for life, I was busy being saved. My salvation were my friends—those very same amazing, remarkable, phenomenal women who I’ve known since I was a small child—who remain the bedrock of my existence. They loved me. Through it all, and I do mean all, through this day and, I know absolutely, till we’re dead and probably beyond. Because of them I survived my childhood and adolescence and grew up enough to be able to thrive as an adult.
It really wasn’t until I met my husband that I understood that love is always imperfect, and I was able to fully appreciate—in retrospect and from then on— the rare gift of my early friendships. What my husband taught me, consciously and explicitly, is that we love imperfectly, and we are loved imperfectly. Both the subject and the object of love are, by definition, imperfect. And that is perfectly all right and totally perfect.
It is ridiculous to believe that we are only lovable if we are perfect. But so many of us do: we do our best to make ourselves attractive to potential mates, taking our cues from the media about how we should look and how we should act. We put our best face forward and hide our less attractive aspects, both physical and emotional. We pretend to like things we don’t—to this day, my husband feels cheated because he claims I purported to enjoy cooking while we were dating and abandoned the kitchen after we were married (this is not totally accurate, but he has a point). And we tolerate things in others in the beginning of relationships that earn our censure once the honeymoon is over (like ignoring perpetually open cupboards and raised toilet seats until after the wedding when such behaviors inspire epic rages—or maybe that’s just me).
And this applies to friends as well as romantic partners. We meet a new person with whom we have some chemistry and common interests and viewpoints. We start to hang out and we become friends. And, as time goes on, we realize that they might not be all they seemed, and maybe they’re a little strange, or maybe they have some habits we find off-putting. At which point the question becomes, can we accept others even as we ask them to accept us? I hope the answer is yes, but I’m not sure that’s always the case.
Unconditional love is hard. And it’s also a bit confusing. Unconditional love dictates that we will love someone no matter what. It doesn’t mean accepting unacceptable behavior, or condoning immoral or illegal actions, however. If my husband cheated on me (I don’t believe he ever would, thankfully—but for the sake of argument…), I would still love him. But I am not sure I could still be his wife. If one of my children committed a serious crime, I would definitely still love him, but I would also turn him over to the authorities, in all likelihood. Same for one of my friends. Real love isn’t a switch that gets turned on and off. And it’s much more than a feeling (Boston was right). Loving imperfect beings requires a decision and a commitment. Even when we’re not feeling it.
So once again, JR Ward writes truth in fantasy. And sometimes it takes turning into a ten-foot tall Godzilla-like creature and being forgiven any transgressions while we weren’t ourselves to feel like we are loved no matter what. Luckily, most of us are only human, and not shape-shifting vampires, and those who love us only have to put up with our human imperfections.