i remember a public television documentary about dogs. every day when the dog would hear the mail carrier coming to the door, she would bark like crazy. the mail carrier would drop the mail in the slot and leave. the dog believed it was her barking that made the mail carrier leave. every day.
this is familiar. i see clearly, almost too clearly even through squinted eyes, how i believed i made things happen every day. if i was good enough, good things happened (begging the painful obvious: if i was bad enough, bad things happened). suddenly it makes more sense to me why living in a home filled with love and good intentions fits into my story. i believed that the hugs, the handmade toys, the homemade suppers, the songs written about me, the prayers said for me, the stitched quilts, the smiles, the eye contact, the love was something i earned. no one told me this, no one threatened it to be taken away, i just knew it. but like the dog, i didn’t know that they were going to do those things anyway. they loved me anyway. they would feed me anyway. they would pile blanket after blanket on top of me anyway. they would light the kerosene lantern on stormy nights anyway. he would smile at me during his concert anyway. she would rub my back during church anyway. they loved me anyway.
oh the bliss-denying, kingdom-defying moment of unconditional love being swung to side of conditional.
but how else could a child make sense of the quiet, leave-no-trace abuse magnified by a community full of poverty and crime and injustice? if she does nothing to cause her harm, then there is nothing she can do to prevent it. bad things can’t just happen, there has to be a reason. there has to be something to control. there has to be something to bark at. there has to be. or the mail carrier won’t leave.
so the switch is made. life and love and safety are conditional. unfortunately, pain and violation and fear are conditional too. and more unfortunate is the child who sees no action to result in the abuse, she knows without knowing she knows that she didn’t actually do anything to deserve the abuse…therefore it goes deeper than behavior…it goes to the core of who she is. so for this child, earning love is quite powerful. if she can actually earn love, she earns a greater potential to be safe. if she can actually earn love, others won’t realize the bad hidden in her. if she can actually earn love, she can believe she is worth love.
under this plan, i was almost 100% successful. the barking worked almost 100% of the time. i barked with brushed hair and people-pleasing smiles and no complaining and good works and neat handwriting and creativity and kindness to strangers and generous giving and listening ears and a chameleon like awareness of others’ desires.
i’ve heard it said that love is something if you give it away…you end up having more.
i will reclaim these amazing skills i learned. i will perch that little one in me on my shoulder and ask her to remind me how to wow the world. how did you work for love? i want to keep barking kindness and self care and choice. not to get love, but to give love.
so if there is nothing i can do to earn it, then there is nothing i can do to lose it, which means it already is and was and will be.