Several years ago, my young-adult son, newly relocated from our small Midwestern college town to the grit and grime of Washington, D.C., took me to task for putting too much value on love during his growing-up years.
"You should have taught us more about how harsh the world is," Chris told me from the tiny cubicle where he worked for minimum wage at an uninspired government job. "Love is not all there is, Mom."
To be sure, my adult children, designed by nature to find fault with their mother, had taken me to task before.
"If you want to know why my eyes glaze over when you're talking, Mom, it's because you talk in essays," Chris once told me, which had the effect of mitigating my public word count for some time after that.
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But it was the love comment that struck like a machete and made me want to re-examine decades of educable moments.
Was I a Polyanna? Had I not properly prepared my children for the world? Were the Beatles high when they sang love was all you need? What of the original hippie prophet, Kahlil Gibran, who said "When love beckons to you, follow him"? Was he deluded, too?
It's true that love was my answer to everything that didn't have an answer. When nothing made sense, when I hated how one team had to lose in overtime while the other jumped up and down in jubilation, it was love I turned to. "I wish everybody could just hug."
In church during those last years we attended as a family, I'd lean in close to my fidgety kids during a reading that made no sense to me either, and point to the word "love." "If you don't understand anything else, focus on this," I'd whisper.
Clearly my children would have learned a different set of lessons had I interspersed readings of Winnie the Pooh with "Dante's Inferno."
Had I been a hard-edged "I, Tonya" mama, they would have been more prepared for a trusted cohort to throw a steak knife in their arm, or not give them a raise when they thought they deserved one.
But I wanted them to want to grow up.
I wanted them to believe the world was a good place to grow up in.
Because that's what I believed.
I still do, as it turns out. Even now, even in today's apocalyptic, chaotic and polarized world, I still believe love can be the starting point. Which is not unlike what a lot of thought leaders are saying about how to heal the bitter divisiveness in our nation.
"People are hard to hate close up. Move in," says public radio host Krista Tippett, in an "On Being" episode with self-help guru Brene Brown entitled "Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart."
There is a difference, I know, between the practice of hugging your teddy bear and reaching out in the workplace or on Facebook to people who seem impervious, if not hostile, to your existence. Which is what my son was grappling with at the tender age of 23.
Real love, ironically, is no game for the weak. Even poet Gibran posits when practiced authentically, love can be painful as it challenges us to take a look at ourselves clearly, and within the framework of others.
"For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you," says Gibran in "The Prophet." "Even as he is for your growth, so is he for your pruning."
In the context of today's American political scene, real love takes the form of being strong enough to hold one's own truth while giving space to the neighbors' conflicting opinions. Instead of automatically fighting back, love prompts us to say: "Tell me more about the personal experiences that led you to this." Real love leads us to become what Tippett calls "connective tissue," not a whipping post, but love with a strong back, a conduit for deep understanding instead of further division. (Facebook, take note.)
"Instead of continuing to play out the old debates about what is best, we need to deepen our support for each other, to find what is true within each of us," says social activist Bill St. Cyr, co-founder and director of Students of the Dreams and a longtime leader in the consciousness movement.
My son, it seems, was seeking some way of putting this together when he called from D.C. that day. It was a rude awakening, to be sure, to be thrust into an every-person-for-herself culture where it isn't what you know, he told me, but who. Success seemed to require stepping on people, hard. And yet, somewhere in the midst of it, he found a cohort of other people who were grounded in themselves, who could manage and maneuver the world while holding to honor and self-respect, who role-modeled humble and strong at the same time. Love is still possible in this hard, edgy world. And a few years later, still living in Washington, my son had an update.
"You were right," he told me. "Starting with the best, kindest parts of ourselves and with a belief in the best parts of others makes sense. Doesn't mean I let people roll over me. Love doesn't come from a place of weakness, but strength."
I felt relief after I hung up from that phone call.
Not only for my son's own personal development.
Not only because who doesn't like hearing their child say "You were right"?
But because I want to keep believing in the power of love.
It isn't easy these days sometimes.
But if my young son can find it in his life, there in the muddle of our nation's weary capital, I can, too.
(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column's Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.)