It’s February, the month of romantic love. Coming from a family which at its most functional was severely dysfunctional, I have a strong memory of the first couple I ever met who seemed to really fit each other.
I was 15, in music camp up in Maine. We were on a college campus, staying in the dorms along with the science camp kids, and every floor had a little apartment for camp faculty. The faculty couple on our floor didn’t shout at each other (I knew this because we would have heard them). They didn’t correct each other or disagree with each other or argue with each other in public. They didn’t seem anxious when they were apart from each other, and they seemed to enjoy being with each other when they were together. I imagined them coming into their apartment at the end of a long day dealing with moody, artistic teenagers, making a pot of tea, talking quietly to each other. It had never occurred to me that people could be so consistently nice to each other.
Oh, and did I mention that they were both men?
I don’t want to sound as if I think love is the answer. It would be great if it were, but good love can turn bad on a dime, and even if it doesn’t, sooner or later somebody dies, and then somebody else is left alone.
But love, when we’re lucky enough to have it, can help. What makes love work?
Everybody knows the answer: Listen to each other. Care for each other. Put the other person first. Know how to stand up for yourself nicely. Fight fair. Etc.
This is all crucial. But there are two things underneath all of that. If we find those things, then the other stuff falls into place. If we don’t find them, then the other stuff can’t take root.
My Zen teacher, in his inimitable Korean English, called the first, “enough mind.” It’s not quite the same as “satisfied mind.” You can be unsatisfied and still have this mind. But with this “enough mind” you’re not restlessly squirming, always looking for something else, something you don’t have. Who is this person in front of you? That’s who you’re talking to, not anybody else.
The second thing has to do with the direction of our lives: My life is not for me. This doesn’t mean running ragged with unrealistic notions of selflessness. It means that our lives aren’t focused on our own plans, wishes and desires. The great rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” If you look closely, the line between ourselves and others is not sharp. In fact, it’s not really there. It’s like fingers on a hand — five fingers, but intimately connected. Can we see this when even someone gets on our nerves? Can we be generous and kind?
Happy Valentine’s Day.