I once arrived late to a school bake sale with my son who, when he discovered everything with chocolate had already been purchased, burst out in a wail so piercing the other parents must have thought I had just broken his pinky finger. My fight or flight impulse was to shriek back, ‘Shut the fuck up! It’s only chocolate!’ But this was my son. It was the end of the school day, he was tired, he was hungry and all he wanted was chocolate. And because his frontal lobe was still woefully underdeveloped, he was flipping out.
Anyone who has raised kids has experienced these moments. How we react to them is what defines us as parents. And the more we’re able to love and accept our kids and their irrationalities, the more we succeed in practicing superhuman empathy. So instead of chastising them when their tantrums are so obviously ridiculous, we take them into our arms and soothe their broken hearts.
Now, wouldn’t that be amazing if we could do the same with our lovers?
When we fall in love we invariably focus almost entirely on our partner’s admirable qualities; the curve of her lips, the way he laughs, her beautiful mind. There are a thousand things to admire about the people with whom we’ve embarked upon a relationship. But eventually we’ll be confronted with their loathsome behaviors and, because these are grown ups we’re loving, we cannot accept that they can occasionally be immature and repulsive. When disagreements and irritations arise, it’s easy to feel we’re being attacked or that the other is being pathetic. We enter into power struggles over the recycles because we assume our partner’s neglect to put them out again is a passive aggressive rebuke directed at us alone.
When my son asks me for the third time in ten minutes what he should be doing to get ready for school, if I calmly answer the question rather than screaming, “I already told you twice!” we get out the door in half the time. I can do this because he’s seven and he can only think about Lego and Minecraft. Why then, do we snap at our partners and assume the worst when they come home without the milk they promised to pick up? Because, we tell ourselves, why should I condescend to treating my partner as though he were a child?
Because watch what happens.
When we sooth the ache and imperfections of another person, we are displaying a generosity that transcends our own judgement of their behavior. We forgive them their moments of aggression toward us by letting go of the notion that their bad behavior is an aberration of the person we fell in love with. No it isn’t. Their bad behavior is just as much a part of who they are as their ability to solve a complicated engineering issue or whip up a three course dinner. When you let go of your expectation of how another person should act towards you when they’re flipping their lids, not only will you diffuse a ratcheting up of the tension, you will experience the utter jaw-dropping joy of keeping your shit together. And that, my friends, is grace.
I find this time of year especially ripe for practicing generosity Not the monetary kind – though that is also important around the holidays – but the emotional kind. Did I just get elbowed in Primark reaching for the last pine scented candle on display? Well, maybe that person just got a gas bill for 500 quid and really wants her cold house to smell like a Christmas tree. She can have it. Or ever step out into the road before you saw that speeding taxi and then get called a “fucking cunt!” as he drove by? Muster up some compassion for the person who is going to burst a rage-soaked brain artery and wind up in NHS rehab for a few years.
When we start to recognize that, not infrequently, we all act like three year olds, it’s easier to forgive our loved ones, as well as the strangers who are jostling us on Oxford Street. There will be a rare moment when we ourselves say or do something reprehensible and the object of our derision gives us a smile or a hug instead of lobbing a hate dagger. If you’ve never experienced that kind of positive regard, try it with someone who’s just pushed your irritation button. Tap into your generous empathy and watch that screaming mimi become so completely disarmed it’s like watching the Grinch realize the Whos in Whoville are singing at the top of their lungs even though they don’t have any Christmas presents.
Generosity in love is a gift we can give because it’s one we already possess. And generosity is like compounding interest; build up your capitol, avoid drawing down your principal, and you will keep getting richer over time. I feel especially determined to practice little acts of kindness since my country elected a plutocratic evangelist of hate. If only his bank accounts could turn into deeds of unselfish magnanimity. When you’re wrapping your gifts this season take an extra moment to consider how you could be more generous towards this person in the coming year, not with material things but with your positive regard. Then, when that person is freaking out about the Christmas cards not arriving from the printers, try giving them a kiss rather than your derision. I guarantee, those kisses will come back to you time and again.
Have a warm, erotic, and generous holiday. I’ll see you in the new year.