Recently I was sad. It was Sunday, so I went to church. One of my favorite toddlers was there, and I sat with him. We spent some time together after church, talking, playing, and looking at pictures on my phone. We laughed a lot; we ate a little. When it was time to go, I said, “I’ll miss you, and I hope I get to play with you again soon.” He launched himself at me, wrapped his little arms around my neck and hugged me so long and so hard I thought that he would never let go. When he released me, he exclaimed, “I love you!” loudly enough for the whole world to hear. I said, “I love you more,” and he said “No, I love you the best,” and our debate proceeded this way for a few heartwarming minutes. I can’t tell you how much this encounter meant to me; that precious little boy not only lifted my spirits but mended something inside of me that day, and the memory of that interaction will continue to make me smile for many years to come.
This is what I adore about children: they love in a way that most adults can’t. Fiercely, unabashedly, with complete confidence that their love will be returned. They don’t hide their feelings, downplay them, or withhold affection. Kids love with full hearts and huge hugs and sweet words that they mean with every fiber of their tiny beings.
The reason most kids can love like that is that kids don’t equate love with pain. To kids, love means bedtime stories, homemade cookies, snuggling on the couch, and tickle fights. The kids who are blessed to be a part of healthy families get their love tanks filled regularly, and so they overflow, spilling love out onto everyone around them. They love unconditionally because they are unconditionally loved.
Unfortunately, not all children are loved that way at home, and others may wound even the ones who are as they grow. Most adults have baggage. We’ve been lied to, mistreated or rejected by someone we love. We’ve been cheated on, abused, or manipulated by someone who claimed to love us, and so our hearts are not as open as they once were. We’ve learned that loving someone puts us in a vulnerable position, and we don’t want to be vulnerable. We’ve been wounded, and we don’t want to get hurt again, so we try not to get too attached to people, and if we accidentally develop feelings for someone, we don’t advertise it.
A few years ago, I was in a dark place. I didn’t trust people, and I didn’t trust myself to be around them, so I became a recluse – I only left my house when I had to go to work or drive my kids somewhere. I needed time to heal, but eventually, it became clear that my excessive alone time was doing more harm than good. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew something had to change, so I prayed. I had recently moved, and I didn’t know anyone in my new town, so I prayed that God would lead me to a good church filled with nice people, so my children and I could feel like part of a community. God answered, and we started going to church.
I have met the most amazing people at this church. People who give expecting nothing in return. People who are kind and affectionate with no ulterior motives. People who love with open hearts, as if they’ve never been hurt; people who love like children. Patiently but persistently they make an effort to get to know me. Every time they see me, they are warm and welcoming, and they take no offense to my attempts to keep them at arm’s length. They forgive my faults while encouraging me to become the person that I was created to be. They know that I’ve been broken, but they never make me feel ashamed of it. They are dismantling the walls that I’ve spent a lifetime erecting, and God is using them to teach me so many things.
They have taught me that self-preservation and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive.
They have taught me that discretion – not isolation – should be a way of life.
They have taught me that it’s not the absence of love that protects you; it’s choosing to love the right people. Or just loving everyone, and recognizing that the ones who don’t love you back are broken like I was.
They have taught me that not everyone who has the power to hurt me will wield that power.
They have taught me that my life is better with more people in it, not less.
They have taught me that the walls I built to protect myself weren’t keeping me safe, they were keeping me lonely, and humans are not meant to do life alone.
They have taught me that real love doesn’t hurt, it heals, and broken people need that love more than anything. So I should give that kind of love, as well as accept it because it is my responsibility and my privilege to help others the way that they’ve helped me.
A lot has changed for me these last few years. These days, my life is full of sweet children and supportive adults. I’m still not the easiest person to get close to, but I’m learning to balance bravery and wisdom. There is a lot more laughter than tears in my life lately, and I am grateful. It was a difficult road that led me here, but the pain I’ve experienced has made me appreciate happiness, and I hope that it has made me sensitive to pain in others so I can help them find their way to happiness, too.