If you love me? This is the direct as well as the implied question that Jesus asks his followers all the way through John’s gospel. The thing not to miss here is that Jesus asks if you love me? But what we often hear is – if you loved me?
From love to loved – there’s a world of difference. A difference we hear and feel implicitly. If you love me is a question that implies promise. Whereas if you loved me implies a regret – even a threat. Love me as I demand, or I won’t love you back.
If you loved me, is the battle cry for conditional love. Conditional love is love with strings. And conditional love is the most common form of love we experience. If you loved me, you would show you loved me by meeting my needs.
Sometimes the needs to be met are material, but most often, they are psychological and emotional. The threat implied in if you loved me is the threat of abandonment, rejection, and the fear of being alone.
Jesus said, if you love me – I will not leave you orphaned – that is – I will never abandon you. But Jesus also said, if you love me, you will keep my commandments. So, is Jesus’ love conditional after all? Perhaps? But the condition here is not a commandment to – love me back – but the greatest commandment of all – love one another. The string attached to Jesus’ love is not – meet my needs – but meet one another’s needs. Through loving us, Jesus models how we should love one another. He is – in short- the archetype – the universal pattern for the good mother.
Ideally, we learn to love because we were first, loved. In the process of learning to love through first being loved – we encounter many vicissitudes along the way. Many of us enjoy the gift of love and loving because of the indelible memory of first having been loved at our mother’s breast. Others of us were not so fortunate. There are many reasons why the mother-infant exclusive bonding fails leaving many of us afraid of surrendering to loving and being loved.
In a period when as a culture we are struggling to delineate the biological hardwiring of gender from the softwiring of gender identity – confusions also proliferate around the differences between birthing and mothering.
In the most usual course of events, being pregnant triggers the hormonal instincts for mothering. Giving birth ushers a woman and infant into the complex and sacred relationship of mothering – a state of mutual enthrallment. We are fortunate if we experienced the nurturance of being loved because the woman who birthed us was also the one who mothered us. Yet, this is a complex process. Good mothers can never be perfect mothers. Fortunately, all that is required is that they be good-enough.
The concept of the good-enough mother originated with one of the most influential figures of the Object Relations School of British Psychoanalysis – Donald Winnicott – a man who combined the rare skills of both pediatrician and psychoanalyst. Take a look at this short 6 minute video on the essential elements of Winnicott’s approach here.
By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother-infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough but not perfect is a reminder for us all that in the arena of love, the quest for the perfect is certainly the enemy of the good.
Winnicott’s focus was on the good-enough experience within the early mother-infant relationship. Good-enough mothering is love that is consistent and unconditional. In the usual course of events, while good-enough mothering is found in our early experience with our birthing mothers – this cannot always be so. For many of us the experience of good-enough mothering came through non biological relationships with both men as well as women for the concept of good-enough mothering is not gender exclusive. Good enough mothering is not only an inherent human quality, but most importantly, a characteristic of God as mother.
Human beings are resilient and highly adaptive. Where mother-infant bonding fails – love ultimately trumps biology.
Human beings are highly resilient and the capacity to love and be loved is highly adaptive to circumstances. An interruption in the early experience of being loved can be later compensated for in the love of father, grandparent, or close relative – stepping into the role of primary carer. Early difficulties can be repaired through the love of a teacher, a mentor, or dare I say even a therapist. The redeeming unconditional love of a spouse, or significant other – offers reparation for earlier losses. A friend of mine refers to his husband as the one who has loved me into being. I know this is not an isolated experience.
As a society, we fail the women and men who are responsible for good-enough mothering through our political failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of maternal health, child development, and family life. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks low on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports healthy maternal care, child development, and the structures of family life. We stand alone among developed nations in the stridency of our defense of the rights of the unborn and our social and economic neglect of the born.
This Mother’s Day is the first following the overturning of 50 years of a woman’s Constitutional right to abortion. The 33rd edition of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® Data Book describes how children in America are in the midst of a mental health crisis, struggling with unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. This year’s publication continues to present national and state data across four domains — economic well-being, education, health and family, and community. A tragic paradox is revealed in the ranking of states according to measures in overall child well-being. Florida, at no. 32 out of 50, is the highest-ranked southern state in the family and community domain. Utah, New Hampshire, and Vermont topped this same list while New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi feature among the bottom rankings. Again there seems to be a correlation between state preoccupied with a fanatical defense of the rights of the unborn and the chronic political neglect of the born.
When Jesus said, if you love me he made it clear that loving him meant following his commandment that we love one another. Being able to love one another is dependent on having an experience of being loved. Jesus also said, if you love me, I will give you eternal life. The rub is however that whatever the supposed joys in heaven – eternal life begins in the here and now! It’s ensuring the quality of life in the here and now that should matter most to us – and by which, Jesus makes clear, we shall be judged.