‘Love and be loved’ – looking again at trust

‘“Love and be loved!’ That is the only thing worth aiming at, for it is the only great truth in life!” So says Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. He was also able to understand though how difficult it is to love in the face of what seems like undeserved suffering. In an earlier book called Journeying Home I took the first of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love: you love yourself for your own sake and looked at this state of mind when it is stuck at as hating oneself for one’s own sake. How is it possible to love and trust as an adult if in the earliest stages of life one has not been loved unconditionally and learnt to trust the person looking after you?
And yet we know because we are told that Jesus comes to be with the broken-hearted. It has been suggested that the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” can be seen as about the mentally ill. Perhaps this is because for the lucky ones who have known unconditional love it’s an easy step to turn to God and believe that one is loved whereas for those who haven’t known that it becomes a lifelong struggle to accept.
The New York psychoanalyst Michael Eigen said in an interview “I didn’t know then that therapy works on an irreparable fracture. When I was young, I still believed it could be corrected.” He writes about the imperceptible trauma that can be experienced in the very earliest days of life when he describes ‘the quality of the breastfeeding, the quality of the milk, the quality of the feeling atmosphere. Sometimes the baby’s suffering is so awful it has to seal its nose while eating, close its eyes and ears, shut out the sound and sight and feel of the mother. Just take the milk and not starve. Does some sense of death hover in the body that drives it to drink even if it hates the feel of life in those moments? The baby lives but the quality of life is compromised. The issue is not survival alone, but what kind of quality of life do you have in surviving?”
So for many people life becomes a way of surviving, managing and learning to live despite this original wound and the damage of an unloving environment. For some people early trauma removes any capacity to experience – there can be a quality of frozen alertness in some children that stays on long into adulthood. There is always the apprehension of what might happen and so it becomes very hard to experience the good in the world. You can learn to see it and to appreciate it but it’s not possible to hold on to feeling that this could be true. So in turn hearing about a loving God can make a lot of sense and be intellectually accepted but to feel it true in the very essence of one’s being is hard.
One way through is to have a belief that one is not alone with the experience – hence the possibility of the beatitude… and the sense of the reality of the truth as known because of the damage. After all we are told that we are originally the children of God and that is long before we are the children of our parents.