The most important realities in the human experience can only be apprehended as paradox. As I often say, a paradox is like a hammock: It only works when each end is hung on irreconcilable opposites. Only then will you find a place to lie down and rest.
A paradox is not the same as a contradiction. If you say to me, “The skies are clear and the skies are cloudy,” you are talking in contradiction. Because the skies cannot at once be clear and cloudy. Either the skies are clear. Or they are cloudy.
But, if you ask me, “Steven, is love a force sublime, beautiful, life-giving and nurturing, or is love terrifying, painful, disquieting and often overwhelming,” my answer will be, “Yes.” And I won’t be joking. Or speaking in contradictions. “Yes” is the right answer to your question. It just happens to be a paradoxical answer, because the very nature of love is paradox.
I say this because I recently have noticed a paradox that I have long overlooked.
A while back, I wrote a column skewering a 1960s poster: “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours; if they don’t, they never were.” I said in the column that this poster’s sentiment was mostly an assuagement to justify cowardice and inertia. That the poster should say: “If you love someone … then choose them with your whole heart! Make a radical commitment to them, and spend every day for the rest of your life waking up each morning asking and answering the question ‘How, today, will I make my beloved feel loved and cherished?’ ”
And, similarly, I have said more than once in this space that, if I ever should say to you, “I have no expectations of you,” well, it won’t be flattering. It will mean I have given up on you. It will mean we will never be close. It will mean I no longer have an investment in the relationship.
My spiritual director and friend says that he understands what I’m saying in both things. That what I’m saying is true and important and real. But that I might have forgotten the paradoxical nature of true intimacy, the paradoxical mystery of human connections and bonds of love and friendship.
Sometimes the most sublime and powerful act of love is to surrender all expectations. Sometimes the greatest gift you can offer someone is to set them free. That there is an authentic way to deliver both messages without emotional divestment or uncaring. Not as a rejection; rather, as a surrendered acceptance of someone as “wholly other.” A celebration of unconditional love.
He reminds of what my friend and colleague, Massey, said to me on the day I surrendered my holy orders to the Episcopal Church: “Steven, we can’t ever truly possess anything unless we are able and willing to let it go.” I remember feeling gratefully affirmed and even admired by his comment, as if he was saying the most authentically priestly thing I ever did was to refuse to be seduced by the need to grasp and cling after that identity.
This reminds me of Alan, a former basketball teammate. I was, back in the day, a very good free throw shooter. But I fell into an inexplicable slump. The more I tried, the worse it got. Game tied, eight seconds left, I got fouled and stepped to the line for two. Nearly bent the rim clanging the first shot into the next county. I put my head down, ashamed and humiliated. When I looked up, Alan was standing there, staring into my eyes. “Steven,” he said, “I wanted you to know that I don’t care whether you make the next free throw. Hit it or miss it, we’ll still be friends.”
I was stunned. Speechless. Like, out-of-body. I drained it. Nothing but net. We won the game. Teammates pounded me on the back, but mostly I was still dumbstruck before the opened gift of unconditional love.
Perhaps important, valued relationships are like this. Yes, I see more deeply now. There is a time — a powerful, holy time — when the needed gift your child or friend or beloved mate needs is the surrender of your expectations. When love, working always toward the loved one’s wholeness, freedom and happiness, is offered absent any agenda whatsoever. The gift given is the payment received.
Whether in giving or receiving unconditional love, you’re always even with the house.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.