I hate you, I thought, and did so with the same five-year-old’s passion that I’d said “I love you” to her that very morning.
The hateful thought, possibly my first conscious one but certainly not the last in a life of loving and hating, occurred at dinner when my mother insisted I eat the lima beans that I’d separated from the rest of the succotash by dispersing them to the side of my plate. Desserts, which my mother created with loving attention, were the reward for suffering through her favorite veggie concoctions. The ostracized, inedible lima beans, however tasteless, cold and clammy, sandy and gritty, were chewed and swallowed. If it weren’t for the lovingly made chocolate silk pie that a cleaned plate promised, I’d have vomited on the spot.
Several years later, my father was on the road when, late one night, my mother received the call that my beloved grandmother had died. “I hate God for taking grandma away,” I declared at my mother’s bedside when she told me the news. But I didn’t stop there. “Daddy hates him too for taking away his mother,” I said through my tears. Her cheeks were dry, her lips pursed, and her facial expression a withering scowl as she grabbed my arm and said: “Shame on you, don’t you ever talk about God that way, or think that your loving father would ever hate anyone let alone God!”
As a child, I was encouraged and taught to love, and punished for hateful thoughts or feelings. Love was (in theory) given unconditionally, but in fact it was parceled out, or so it seemed, and hateful thoughts were of the devil and therefore evil. My parents did instill in me the importance of loving and being loved, but however well intended their efforts, love’s expression and acceptance came with conditions—lessons they’d been taught and had passed on.
The early lesson—love the other based on merit and distance yourself from or deny troublesome but normal hateful thoughts and feelings—was the antithesis (I later learned) of what needs to occur for a healthy life. Giving love without attachment to conditions while learning to accept the other is sound practice. Acknowledging hateful feelings then finding ways to exercise restraint over their expression is also good practice. Neither had a place in my family. The guilt I felt for hating, a feeling apparently foreign to my parents, and one which made me different from and unacceptable to them, left me puzzled and hurt with no one to bail me out. I was alone.
“I love you” was an expression voiced in greetings and departures, at bedtime and following mealtime prayers. The phrase, a staple in our family, has always been one with which I’m comfortable, but not necessarily successful at doing. At the same time feelings and thoughts driven by anger and hate were “closeted” in my soul and mind because having them could only mean there was something wrong with me.
Lord Byron wrote that “hatred is the madness of the heart.” Mahatma Gandhi stated that: “Hate the sin and not the sinner is a [general rule] which, though easy to understand, is rarely practiced.” As a child and adult, confronting “madness of the heart” meant acknowledging the unpardonable hate, a task for which I was ill prepared, and therefore made Gandhi’s counsel beyond my reach.
Frederick Buechner writes: “To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all men who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it’s all about. Is what love is.”
His words meant that for me to love fully I’d not only have to lose myself in the suffering of others and those who inflict suffering on me, but address my own hidden suffering, the hateful thoughts and feelings, and lose myself in them to then find myself, and love.
In his provocative and insightful collection of lectures, On Loving, Hating, and Living Well, Ralph Greenson (I’ve borrowed his title) writes: “Sometimes it is necessary to accept misery and injustice and tyranny, but not to like it, and not to accept it blindly. A healthy person is a person who can also rebel, complain, squawk, and fight, and not one who is in line with everyone, and is the same as everyone. The healthy human being is flexible and part of being mature is feeling able to disagree.” The psychoanalyst further states: “…how in childhood there is a good mommy and a bad mommy, but mom she is, and how it could be that to feel simultaneous love and hate for the same object is an achievement in development.”
Not to oversimplify our complex humanity (because nothing human is ever uncomplicated), but we can be double-minded creatures. A person, according to the Greeks, who is of two minds or souls or as my hate-love interior world indicated, a youngster in conflict with himself.
To choke off the unacceptable and extol the acceptable at the former’s expense left an imbalance in my inner world, a suffocating state of being. Years of work on my analyst’s couch brought life and acceptance to that which had been unpardonable, a legitimizing of the existence of hateful thought and feelings that brought balance to my soul and helped me from acting on them in destructive ways, a lifetime work in progress.
My parents’ love for me (and mine for them) was never in question, but the brokenness with which they were raised and passed on to me kept us from loving, hating, and living well, or as fully as we were meant to live, a fate I strive to change.by