“The most important thing in this world is to learn to give out love, and let it come in.” ~Morrie Schwartz
Love is a strange and beautiful thing.
I always thought I knew what love meant. I grew up hearing the words all the time. It was on TV, in books and magazines, and people all around were saying it.
I thought I knew how to love. I mean, I told my teddy bear that I loved him because he kept me safe at night. I told my sister that I loved her, only if she was nice to me and would play the games that I wanted.
But if I didn’t get that new limited edition beanie baby, I felt differently for my parents. If my friends at school didn’t give me the birthday presents I wanted, I felt differently for them.
I seemed to only love the people and things that would give me something in return and that would allow life to go on the way that I wanted it to.
I never truly felt love, a love that was unconditional and all encompassing, until the day I first saw my dad cry.
My friends always tell me that my father is the happiest man that they’ve ever met. He greets everyone with open arms, and his smile is so big you can practically count all of his teeth.
The other day I came home, and my dad looked sullen, the smile usually spread across his face missing. He looked into my eyes and just collapsed into my arms, sobbing.
I could feel his sadness before I even heard the tears, from the way he put his entire body weight on me as if he needed help just standing, and the way he gripped me so tight like a child does with his mom on the first day of school.
My sister had just made a rash career decision that would leave her in a large amount of debt and temporarily unemployed. And my dad just didn’t have the money that she needed to help her out of her situation.
Growing up, my dad always told us that his one purpose in life was to give us the life that he never had. And in his eyes, at that moment, he had failed.
You see, my parents are first generation immigrants from Vietnam. They come from impoverished families, both with more than 10 siblings each. Their journey to America is almost like a fictional tale to me, something that they rarely talk about, with my dad escaping first, then my mom, aunt, and sister, who almost didn’t even make it out alive.
At first, the American Dream wasn’t all that it was made out to be. Yes, freedom rang, but so did the challenge of learning a new language, a new culture, a new way of making money and supporting a family.
But somehow, they did it. They raised my older sister and put her through college. They raised my aunt, and put her through college. They raised my twin sister and me, and put us through college. And in the midst of all that, they found a way to sponsor all of their own siblings to emigrate to the land of the free.
It didn’t come easy though.
They accomplished all of this, even if it meant working two (at times three) jobs. Even if it meant scrubbing floors, toilets, hospitals, classrooms. Even if it meant working all day and night and surviving on only two hours of sleep.
Even if it meant tears and days where we all just cried ourselves to sleep.
Growing up, my dad gave me everything I wanted. He let me play sports, bought me nice clothes and toys, a new car—even if he had to sneak by my mother so that she wouldn’t get upset about how much he was spoiling me.
But at the same time, my dad expected straight As, and to succeed and excel in everything that I did. At times I would get so mad at him and scream and complain about why he made me study so much when all of my friends were out having fun. His reply was always, “So you don’t ever have to live a hard life like us.”
I always wondered how my dad made it, how he and my mom brought up three successful children and stayed together through it all.
This year, my parents will have been married for 35 years, and to say they’ve been through a lot is an understatement. They made sacrifices that threatened their relationship with each other, with their brothers and sisters, and even their own parents—all for us.
There is never a day that goes by where my dad doesn’t tell me “I love you” before going to bed. It’s with this unconditional love that keeps him going strong, and that keeps him smiling every day no matter how tough things can be.
I was blind to this until that day I saw my dad at his most vulnerable point. Looking at him, bent over in my arms like a little child, I realized that unconditional love does not come easy; it is something learned and practiced.
It is through the toughest times, the happiest times, and every single obstacle of life that you can discover new ways of loving.
I did that day as I held my daddy, my hero, in my arms. I discovered just how to finally let the love come in that my dad had been giving me for 22 years, and not question or find a reason for it.
My dad has taught me that to love unconditionally is to love with absolutely no boundaries. Even when it hurts, his love is never failing; it stays limitless, never changing.
There are times in our lives when loving someone else seems nearly impossible because of the difficult situations that we find ourselves in. There are times when we say harsh things to people we love just because things aren’t going our way, or because they made us unhappy.
In these situations, we find ourselves putting provisions on love. We attach it to how others are acting, and whether they reciprocate the feelings we give to them. We attach it to the circumstances and emotions that go on in a single moment.
We find ourselves holding back, fearful of being hurt, afraid to sacrifice a piece of ourselves. But what if we looked beyond all this and just loved?
Love because you’re grateful for the things someone has done for you. Love because someone needs you, needs a friend to lean on during their struggles. Love even when it is difficult, even when your mind tells you that you shouldn’t.
Love by looking beyond people’s faults, struggles, and whatever pain and hardships that life may bring.
This unconditional love is something that can so easily be given if we recognize it, and that can change someone else’s life completely.
When we love and treat each other with the utmost care and attention, the little things that bother us seem far less overwhelming.
What would the world be like if we stopped looking to get something in return, and just loved unconditionally, for the happiness and inner peace it brings us all?
Photo by D Sharon Pruitt