I grew up not telling the truth about love. I will try to tell the truth now: My parents, like so many parents of their generation, lived married love as role-play. They didn’t know themselves, and so they couldn’t know each other. My mother had been raised to find her life in her husband. But her husband, my father, was too busy fighting his own inner demons to make an inner life for her.
My father cared as best he could, loved in the only way he’d been taught by working hard, providing for his family. But I always perceived fear right up next to love in my father: fear squeezing the life out of love. My father could be funny and generous one moment and morose and cruel the next. He had been adopted by the people I knew as my grandparents at the age of 3. His mother had given him, and older sister and baby brother, up without warning one day. He professed to have no curiosity at all about these lost siblings or parent, though I believe he remembered their names. He had terrible screaming nightmares that his mother was coming to get him, and these lent a perilous air to the nights of my childhood.
By day in my family, we scarcely spoke of these things. Questions flourished in our midst, unaskable. And of course, those unnamed realities, those unasked questions, shaped us all from the inside out in ways it would take me decades to begin to apprehend.
Still, for years, I held on tight for dear life to the mantra we’d repeated so often we’d etched it as memory: Our happy home; two loving parents; their perfect marriage. This was the pinnacle to which I too could aspire. It was a hollow memory, a false memory, but it was a memory that enabled me to move forward with a confidence that was actually beyond my means. Matthew Sanford, one of my favorite teachers about yoga and life would call this a “healing story”—the kind of story we tell ourselves to survive. Our healing stories are not always true and not always good for us, or not good for us forever. When I was strong enough to bear the truth and live with it, I fell into a full-blown depression in my mid-30s. With a gentle therapist, I began the long work of excavating and cleaving to the reality that is truer, and harder, and it gave me new life.
But first, I met Michael, the father of my children, under wildly romantic circumstances in Scotland, in the thrall of mesmerizing, unexpected beauty. I’d traveled the world, accomplished something at a young age, and had interesting, complex relationships. Yet in this pivotal life decision, I gave myself over to every movie with a happy ending I’d ever seen, every love song I’d ever wallowed in. I clung tight to the myth of my parents’ marriage, not the reality of it. Michael and I adored each other. Friends came from all over the world to our wedding in Scotland, and it was a fantastic party, the grandest I have ever thrown in my life.
But we had practically nothing in common in our backgrounds, and we were so alone in our marriage. We moved a few times and took ourselves far away from family and friends who loved and knew us. I have never been more isolated than in the last years I shared with my husband. The nuclear family is a modern invention and a death blow to love—an unprecedented demand on a couple to be everything to each other, the family a tiny echo chamber: history one layer deep.
After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be as though without a romance, the many other kinds of love in my life didn’t really count. As though without someone who loved me in a certain way, I could never be complete. This is the opposite of a healing story it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance.
I do have love in my life, many forms of loving. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a lack of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.
For most of my life, I also came to understand more clearly, I was looking to be loved when I was looking for love.
I had to begin a new adventure, and it feels like a great frontier: to walk through the world and be loving, to practice love across relationships and encounters—not just with those close to me, but also with strangers and with people who drive me a little crazy. I have a lot of experience with this already in my history of love, too. We all do. Even in the circles of people we know and love the best, there are those who drive us a slightly nuts and who forever remain a puzzle. But love, on a daily basis in our most intimate spaces, has everything to do with small gestures and gentle words at the right moment, whether I feel them perfectly or not.
This intelligence feels so relevant to the confused, divided, angry world around me. With people I love most, I understand what subjects not to raise, or not to raise now. With people I love most, I am often not talking, just staying in the room companionably.
The poet Rilke, who has kept me company for many years, called love “perhaps the most difficult task given us, the most extreme, the final proof and text, for which all other work is only preparation.” This much is clear: Love is something I only master in moments. It has this power to cross the chasms between us, but likewise to bring them into relief, especially in our intimate circles. I was harsh with my sister just this week, and need to reach out to her tomorrow.
Other times, love means stepping back. Over and over again, it means forgiving myself and forgiving others for falling short. But I find that the more I practice ordinary, everyday loving—which can be nothing more than a moment of kindness, a generous word, a gesture of impatience I choose not to make—loving becomes more instinctive, like spiritual muscle memory, more part of how people experience me. It changes the way I move through the world and the imprint I make on the world in ways.
It’s frightening to confess love’s failings in my life openly. But I keep learning that this brings me into a new companionship with everyone around me. It equips me to be there better and more honestly for my children as they embark on their own sure to be complicated lives as lovers and parents and citizens. The frontier of practicing love across relationships and random, unexpected encounters only opens up if I walk the truth of what I know, and make room for the truth of what you know, and we step onto it together.
Krista Tippett is the author of Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living and the host of the national public radio show and podcast On Being.