That Time You Heard the Whole Story--When definitions of love and forgiveness grow up
The story goes that my big sister was preparing for a jog while we were staying with our grandmother in Lake Charles, Louisiana. As she was lacing up her sneakers in the carport, I asked that she take me along.
“You’ll have to keep up,” she said. She was 23 and I was just 8 years old.
I said I could, so off we went. It was only about three minutes into the run when I couldn’t keep up, and my sister shot ahead, leaving me behind, huffing and puffing alone through the streets of the historic district. I must have been a sad sight when I finally made it back to the house because she immediately pulled me into her arms.
“I’m sorry, Annie. I shouldn’t have left you behind. Will you forgive me?”
“Oh, Lizzie,” I said. “I forgave you before you even asked.”
And I had already forgiven her. That part is true.
Years later the same sister shared this anecdote at my rehearsal dinner--a tribute to my forgiving nature. Several “aws” and sniffles rippled through the dining room. Sweet little Annie was, indeed, darling. And while it’s easy to consider this story at face value--a child so forgiving that she’d overlook her sister ditching her on the side of the road--there’s more to it.
I didn’t grow up with money, but my childhood was rich with love. I was practically smothered with attention--the kind that displays genuine interest. Being a caboose of five, I had a troupe du jour of jesters and minstrels to entertain me, coupled with a mother and father who absolutely adored their last baby. My foundation was set, and so pungent was my understanding of love, it could withstand any and every test. From my perspective, no one could hurt me because no one out there would decidedly want to.
Eventually I became aware that not everyone experiences such a utopian upbringing. Someone would be crying in religion class about something terrible their dad said or something really crappy their sister did to them, a sister who always did crappy things so they weren’t surprised. It was depressing out there. And while I always felt sorry for them, I never knew what specifically to do with their sadness. In a weird way, other people’s sorrow sort of scared me. I’d seen my share of arguments at home between my siblings, between my siblings and my parents, and between my parents themselves, but sweet little Annie had little experience with conflict herself. And I had no intention of gaining such experience.
So of all the nuances of adulthood, what has been the most difficult to accept is that conflict is inevitable. Eventually the bubble that protected us pops. Mine did somewhere beginning in high school and then quite determinedly in early adulthood. And I have spent the bulk of my life trying to fit my world--my upbringing, my foundation, my view of things--into a coexistence with others. But as I officially round the corner from young adult to mid-adult, I am beginning to accept that when worlds collide, chaos ensues.
One line I have used on my husband repeatedly is, “I’m not hard to figure out.” And for many years, I stood by this, not understanding how I could be such an enigma. It was so obvious to me what I needed to blend harmoniously. So when Gary Chapman’s book, “The 5 Love Languages,” came out, I finally had an actual label for my need. I diagnosed myself as “Team Acts of Kindness.” As long as my wants were anticipated, my utopia could continue. Only it’s not that simple.
What Chapman’s book highlights is our surface selves. I appreciate actions from others while you may like receiving gifts or physical touch. And while the confirmation that my husband and I speak two different love languages was groundbreaking, that’s just the top layer. As the saying goes, we’re all onions with layer upon layer of wants and needs and pains until at our core is a beginning. Those beginnings are just as different as the languages our love speaks. Only now do I realize just how central my upbringing is to who I am today and that it not only inhibits me from conflict, but it actually creates it.
As a child, everything was thought of for me before I even knew I wanted it. My family was that devoted to me. This is what I know to be love--to have my needs anticipated. But that’s not everyone’s story. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our perception of things. I am trusting, optimistic, and quick to please by returning the same type of devotion given to me. And as in the story of sweet little Annie, at face value these are characteristics worth honoring, but what value are they when used against another--even if unintentional?
I am guilty as charged with assuming that all I need to do is a favor for someone and my loyalty is proven. In the same manner, I am baffled as to why when I apologize to another they need more than an “I’m sorry” to forgive me. But I also said that I didn’t mean to hurt you. What more do you want?
As it turns out, they want what I want--to be understood, valued, and heard. It’s just that I am assuming my needs to be theirs. I’m so quick to forgive that I’m quick to expect the same treatment. But not everyone digests hurt at the same speed. And pausing to learn what that speed is is probably the greatest love of all. Because it is then that we see one another for who we are beneath our layers, right down to our personal stories that started it all. My childhood and my journey to my present isn’t the same as yours. It shaped what I perceive as love and what I feel as hurt. And the sooner I understand where our stories are different, the sooner I can stop deciding what hurts you. It’s one thing to speak another’s language for the commitment to prevent conflict, but it’s another level of commitment entirely to speak it to resolve differences.
Yet, somehow we convince ourselves that it’s smarter to pretend we are above such humanity. So what if I assumed that what I need is what you need? I still did something nice. I didn’t screw up. It’s your problem that you can’t see love when it’s right in front of you. And rather than defend our error, we defend our pride.
Sometimes we do overlook love. We take for granted kindness and generosity. It’s so easy to miss it when we’re so angry at being wronged that it blinds us from seeing the truth in others. But at the crux of almost every conflict is a familiar place, and the sooner we admit we’ve all been there is the sooner we can get to real resolution.
I know enough to know that nothing is more humbling than being a good person who gets it wrong. And I find myself in that position over and over because even at 40, much of the child in me still exists. Why would anyone choose to decidedly hurt me? Why would anyone think I would choose to decidedly hurt them? They do because I impose what I perceive as love on them and therefore choose to overlook their needs. Annie needs to grow up. It’s not up to me what another person defines as love and pain. What is up to me is whether or not I can learn to live with it and love that person in spite of our different definitions.
The beautiful thing about my sister’s story isn’t just that I was quick to forgive. It’s also that she was quick to acknowledge that she hurt me and immediately resolved it as only I would see fit. The part she leaves out is that soon after, we curled up on one of the beds under the dormers of our grandmother’s attic and she read picture books to me until we fell asleep. Sure, I didn’t let my hurt feelings block my view of what I knew to be my big sister at her core--someone who never set out to hurt me. But she also saw me beyond face value, too. No matter how forgiving my nature, I still experience pain and I need a proper apology. We were both open to each other’s humanity in that moment--love, mistakes, pain, forgiveness and all. Neither of us forgot to see the other.
And that’s the whole story.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.