I began writing about love and relationships many years ago, not because I had any answers for myself or for anyone else, but because I had so many questions. I was facing my second divorce, and realizing that everything I thought I knew about love and loving was misguided and hurting me, as well as the people I wanted to share my life with. Through my research and writing, and through my study of the tenets of Buddhism and other traditional spiritual practices, I believe the greatest lie I was fed (both consciously and unconsciously) about love was that my focus in relationships should be on the people I’m trying to love instead of myself.
I learned that as a Black woman, my love needed to be selfless and even sacrificial—that marriage and children meant giving up a great deal of who I was (and who I wanted to be), and that having a family should be my ultimate goal. Black women learn at an early age—through watching the women in our lives, and through a historical narrative that lives in our DNA—that we are the only ones responsible for love and loving. We are the backbones of our families and communities. We are required to be leaders when it comes to doing the work of loving. But we’re simultaneously taught that we must push everyone and everything in front of us, even though, clearly, that’s not how leadership works.
Loving in the ways I was taught left me exhausted and empty, and I refused to believe that being empty for a lifetime is how I was supposed to define love. But my emptiness saved me, and I realize now that being empty gave me an amazing opportunity to fill myself up with a new message, a new way of life, and a new way of loving.
The first thing I learned coming out of that moment of exhaustion and emptiness is the understanding taught foremost in Buddhist practice: no one can save us but ourselves, and that our most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”—Audre Lorde
When Lorde wrote those words, she was televising the revolution. Learning that my natural inclination to care about and love myself meant that I was headed the right way (instead of the wrong way, as I had been told far too often) saved my life and my sanity. Learning to focus on myself first has made me not only a happier mother, friend and lover, but also a more present, loving one.
The concept of focusing on ourselves and saving ourselves is what author and licensed marriage and relationship therapist Wendyne Limber calls “freedom in relationship.” Her book, Intimacy Without Responsibility, is actually a written workshop meant to guide its reader into the understanding that we are not responsible for others more that we are responsible for ourselves. And that by learning to actually care for ourselves first, we are improving the way we care for others.
Understanding it is everyone’s responsibility to save themselves just as it is my responsibility to save myself has finally helped me put my cape away and lay down my cross. It’s also taught me that trying to save people from themselves is a futile act, as each pain and joy we feel in this life is a part of our evolutionary process. My emptiness and exhaustion was a result of worrying about everyone else’s business more than my own, and I was confusing codependency with love.
I want to remind you that even as a mother, wife, lover or friend, you matter most. Your needs must be considered first, as we cannot save someone who is drowning if we, ourselves, are not expert swimmers. Your goal in love is to focus on yourself foremost, so that you can be whole when you begin the business of loving everyone else.
Most importantly, the lies you’ve been told about love being the ultimate sacrifice, and that caring about your heart, your spirit, and your joy is selfish, are terrible and dangerous. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, my loves. Poet extraordinaire and magical Black girl June Jordan told us that way back in ’78.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.
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