I keep hearing a tiny voice in the back of my mind. At first, it was just a whisper, mumbling incoherently as I came closer to understanding some kind of truth. But during the last week it has grown so loud and insistent that I can hear it speaking to me clearly:
You can’t buy love.
And, more importantly:
You can’t buy love when it’s already been freely given to you.
I’ve only been married for 45 days—a tiny drop in the ocean of experience many other people boast. But I don’t consider what I’m about to write to be specific to people who are married; rather, I think that marriage has been the means through which I have begun to realize this reality. For others, it will be through different means: a friendship, a sacrifice, a family member. For me, these 45 early days of marriage have started to show me something I should have realized long before.
I noticed first the feelings of insecurity. As I got used to spending so much time with another human—sleeping in the same bed, eating breakfast and dinner together, having to make eye contact on a regular basis—I noticed how unaccustomed I was to having someone observe me so completely, and then I realized that I was constantly wondering how I was being perceived. I began to observe, watch, and try to know what Bruce was thinking about me. If he responded with silence to something I said, did it mean that he thought I was foolish? If he wasn’t complimenting me, did it mean he didn’t find me desirable? I craved affirmation that he was happy, that he was content, that he was satisfied. I needed to know, because if that was not the case, then it meant that I was not doing a good enough job.
And then the voice, thankfully, intervened, and said very sharply, It’s not always about you. Lesson one: relax, and stop narcissistically believing that the way another human behaves is a direct consequence of your own actions and words. While relationships often do contribute, the self-centeredness of my belief that I am the sun around which Bruce’s world revolves is idiotic and appalling.
But the problem runs much deeper, and as he and I have begun to settle into a rhythm of being together, I understand that marriage is merely the magnifying glass through which I can see in large print what was only a tiny scribble before. That I, through the years, have somehow become firmly convinced that I am capable of buying, or bribing, love from my friends and my family, and now from my lover. That if I take care of them, and counsel them, and love them hard enough, they will return the favor. And I will know that they love me because their love will look like mine.
I’ve been looking around me in the last few weeks, now that this has become so clear to me, to see if I am alone in this. I have found that I am not. It seems to me that we are all constantly trying to purchase each other’s love, whether it is through my own type of nurturing, or through any of the thousands of ways each individual creates currency. Financial security. Intellectualism. Being a trendsetter. And I feel so small and so sad as I look around and see how tired everyone is of trying to buy one another’s love, and not being able to, and feeling like failures as each one’s definition of love goes unfulfilled.
The reality is that Bruce will never love me like I think he should love me, and I can’t buy his love—because he has already given it to me for free, and the way he loves is different than the way I love. I can’t purchase something that has already been given as a gift, and when I worry about the fact that his love doesn’t feel like I imagined it would, I am limiting the bounds of love to my own very narrow definition of it. And, more importantly, I am neglecting to consider how he desires to be loved, and instead trying to wrap him up in my own conception of what love should look like.
I asked him how he wanted to be loved the other day. The answer was remarkably simple—he described things like acts of service and allowing him to have time to create. Things that I am more than able to do, and as I have made an attempt to stop showering him with words of affirmation and physical touch (my love languages), I can feel us drawing closer. He has his own discoveries to make about how to love me well. We both have much to learn, but I see now that the first, most important step, is to stop seeing myself as the expert, and to allow love to be free and explorable. It is both harder and much easier than I imagined it would be.
Had I realized this truth years ago, I can see how it would have benefitted my friendships and family relationships. I can see how I have smothered people, or unfairly accused others of not appreciating my service and love. I can see how selfishly I have spent time placing myself at the center of everyone else’s worlds, and allowed the inevitable insecurity to overshadow how I see myself and how I see others. And, because it always comes back to this, I can see how the way I have treated other humans is just a pale reflection of how I have treated my relationship with God. I am constantly trying to buy a love that has been given to me freely; constantly trying to earn God’s favor, when all he wants is for me to calm down and let him show me how wide his love really is.
Ultimately, the freedom and security I crave is found there—in the reality that I am already loved more than I know, and I can’t do anything to lose that love. That is a concept I pay large amounts of lip service to, but if I truly let that sink into my soul and marinate long enough, how could that not change the way I see myself and treat others? I couldn’t buy that love if I tried, but it has been given to me. There is nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to take away his love for me. I am overcome.
Whatever relationships God has placed in our lives, may we stop trying to buy love, and start seeking to honor and discover the depth of the love given to us by God and by his people.
~ Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, ND Wilson
~ He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
~ An American Childhood, Annie Dillard
~ On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria