“You’ll never regret parting with grace, but you might deeply regret burning a bridge that might one day be safe to venture back over again.” -Jen Hatmaker
Mom had a staple dozen dishes she prepared for our dinners. I liked few of them. To be fair, if I had to cook for nine people on a budget while working, my creativity would suffer, too. Casseroles, pork chops, meatloaf, chop suey—most stuffed with vegetables to make them stretch—made up the menu. The stand-offs we had over eating what was on my plate are family legend.
My cooking is different. Heavy on the Mediterranean, Asian, chicken, and cheese. Sparse on her ubiquitous pork, ground beef, and potato.
These aren’t the only differences I’d discover if Mom showed up at my table—a thing that never happened, since she died when I was seventeen. In wishing that we could have known one another as adults, I’ve realized some disheartening realities, too. Over the years since she died, I’ve learned painful things about Mom, things I struggle to reconcile with the woman I thought I knew.
I suspect that difficult conversations would erupt if she visited. Mom and I would have tense moments over my housekeeping, racism, my cooking, immigration, my kid’s dreds—you name it, we’d probably not agree. Worse though, would be the strained talk about my half-siblings, dad’s four children she accepted into her household but not into her heart. I’d say Mom learned her step-parenting skills from Cinderella, but sadly, I think she learned them from her own step-mom. The mom who loved me was cruel to four other children under our roof. I can’t hold that together well.
In this month devoted to love, what do we do when those we love become people we no longer respect? What does love look like in the absence of understanding? So many families have been disrupted by political or religious disagreement in the last several years. How do we reclaim love when we don’t recognize the people we used to know?
One way I’ve learned is to heed the words of author Dr. Brené Brown. When we look at others, she suggests, the healthiest assumption is that “Everyone is doing the best that they can with the resources they have.”
I deeply suspected that belief for a while. Plenty of people sure don’t look like they’re doing their best, right? Some of them have broken our hearts or bodies. Do they deserve our struggle to love them?
Yet I’ve seen other things, too. I’ve seen the hurt and fear behind the façades of the haters. I’ve appreciated the individual love and kindness of people whose political stances I can’t comprehend. Mostly, I’ve seen my own soul and how much work there is still to be done, despite the fact that there is more time behind me than there is ahead now.
It takes time to realize how tragically right Brown is. Most of us are doing the best we can with what we were given, and we know, when we look in the mirror, how meager that sometimes is. Maybe the people we struggle to love would like some do overs, too. We know the truth of Jesus’ words, “Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy” only when we recognize how much mercy we need (Matthew 5:7, CEB).
A second way I’ve learned to reclaim difficult love is to heed the words of the apostle Paul.
“Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7, CEB).
This love, which is a spiritual gift, not something we muster up ourselves, can do supernatural things. It can endure through painful circumstances. It can hope for better things for a person whose speech reveals little hope. It can trust in God to heal our hearts as we continue to love, because loving God is the ultimate way we love others well.
Is that to say we don’t demand justice or speak up against hurtful behavior and beliefs? Do we accept abuse and live with it? I don’t think so. Paul sets many boundaries himself with abusive people. Yet the gift is that he doesn’t cease to love them. His love trusts. It hopes. It endures. Sometimes, for one’s own well-being, it must do that from a safe distance. Love can endure, because its source is beyond ourselves.
Communications professor Heather Thompson Day writes that, especially now,
“We don’t have the mental energy to do the work relationships require, and so we just burn them or mute them or block them. That is much less taxing than making peace with them. Adult friendships are hard because adults are exhausted. . . What if, instead of always saying goodbye, we started saying, ‘I’m going to process this. I need some space to think it through. I’m hurt and I need to walk away right now. But I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
Don’t you feel this? Pandemic PTSD has taken so much of our capacity to handle disagreement and misunderstanding, let alone real injury. We need a supernatural gift of love that endures in order to stop metaphorically muting loved ones. We need to believe in mercy again. Maybe, some bridges will be safer tomorrow.