I sat at the steps of my sister-in-law’s house one early evening in spring. As the sun bid its goodbye, drenching glorious oranges and pinks as it sunk below the horizon, we were brushing off mosquitoes and sharing thoughts when she said, “I believe that if I love someone and they don’t feel the love I am giving them then I must not love them enough. Or maybe I don’t love them after all because they are not able to know that I do.”
I smiled and found myself saying something I didn’t expect. I told her, “I disagree with that. The sun shines equally on everyone. If someone chooses to live under the ground or under a rock and refuses to come out does this make it the sun’s fault that its rays can’t be felt or seen?”
For the longest time and ever since I can remember, this, I felt it was my job in the family--to love and to prove that I love. As the oldest in the family, the “Ate”, I was tasked with being the role model in every possible way. This ranged the gamut from scholastically (did pretty ok, 3.5 GPA in college) to economically (co-signed to purchase house for our family of six & paid for the mortgage for 5 years till I married and moved out) and also familial (clean house, be respectful, follow rules at home). This also meant no boyfriends till after college, no overnight stays with friends, no drinking or carousing, no gambling and certainly, living at home until one got married. It was a strict code which I found pleasure in. It gave me happiness to see the ones I love happy and content.
But life moves on and so eventually, yes, I did marry. Marriage liberated, nurtured and challenged me to grow in ways I never dreamed it would. For one, I found the religion which I had sworn to myself as I child I would search for when I grew up. Within two years after being married, I found my Guru. Blessed day! Life was never the same again and, literally, everything, and I mean everything that baffled me and made no sense about life finally did in the most profound and loving way. Here was someone who actually lived The Teachings, day in, day out every second of every day: austerity, humility, unconditional love, service to everyone, with absolute and complete integrity in every act, thought word and deed.
Bridging the gap, or perhaps it’s more seeing the size of the gap, between the culture I was raised in versus one I married into was painful and uncomfortable. It became a source of many lessons in diplomacy, humility and surrender! On top that, there was also a significant difference between the two families in terms of their approach to family get togethers, expressions of affection and manner of communicating with one another. It was my extreme good fortune to have been married into a family who welcomed me as their own from day one. But more importantly, it was a family who resonated with my internal, subconscious and natural way of being in a family that I never knew I was.
The family I married into had their fair share of “skeletons in the closet” but nevertheless, tenaciously hung on to their commitment of being with each other, warts and all. Cousins (1st, 2nd & 3rd), uncles, grandparents, parents, grandkids and friends of everyone came together as one big rowdy bunch while pictures snapped in the midst of love, laughter, food and spirits flowing all around. Some of these innumerable photos I hung affectionately on the walls of my married home. Seeing them made me smile each time I passed them. It was actually difficult figuring out from boxes of photos which were going to be honored and put up from the many choices!
In the meantime, the family and home I grew up in is a bit of a contrast to what I married. Certainly there is enormous love in it and of course, food always abundant. It was however, always a very intimate event shared by the immediate family only. Pictures rarely, if ever, happened during these events. Revelry is also not a part of the spirit of our family gatherings growing up. It was more of a serious and thoughtful occasion. This was natural and to be expected since this was how my parents were raised themselves.
The unfortunate result of the juxtaposition of these two families and the obvious predisposition of my personality to one over the other, had my parents believing and directly telling that it was clear I loved the family I married into over them. The first time my mother verbalized it to me it was as though Arnold Schwartzeneger himself sucker punched me in the gut. Recovering from the shock I then found myself devastated. I failed. For the very time, I was told I failed, and in the worst possible way. It was in the department of love and loyalty. I reeled from the hurt of the words. I felt I had done everything I knew to make sure my family felt loved and cared for and yet I was being told this was not true.
As someone who does not like to fail and who loves her family very much, there was only one way I knew how to address this. I had to prove it. Though I never fully consciously said I would, everything I did henceforth were doubled to make sure I did. I gave as much time and energy, money and effort that I could to prove them wrong. Mostly I had also begun to be afraid and wondered what if they were right? So now I not only had to prove it to them but to myself too. This went on for the 12 years of my marriage.
I wish and would like to say I succeeded in proving them wrong or that it was never said to me again but, it turns out, it’s not that simple really. I have since been separated and divorced for almost 5 years (amicably I am happy to report). Recently, I learned, as the same accusation was leveled at me, the evidence for this was the cherished photos littered all over the walls in my then home. Also all the numerous tales of cherished, humorous and loving moments I’ve shared with them in the past confirmed their belief. The fact that I also happen to have numerous pictures of my Guru everywhere is additional vindication of the shortage of my loyalty and devotion to my own immediate family.
I did prove something. To myself. Finally. I love my family. Not because of any act I did or said. Not because someone validated or agreed with this feeling. No, it happened one day when I finally learned to pause, step away from them and all my mind machinations, fears, insecurities and distortions. In the silence and space I listened. I heard my heart. There it was: an endless, boundless ocean of love for my beloved family. It was too deep to be heard in the clanging of the world. They do not need to prove it to me nor I to them. Love is in the heart, not in the action. Yes, outwardly many things may come in the way of understanding or misunderstanding. Sometimes an act is not quite what it appears to be. An intent in the heart can never truly be seen outwardly. The kiss of Judas Iscariot on the cheek of Jesus is the perfect example. A kiss is sometimes not a kiss!
I have come to the realization that my anomalous predisposition versus what I was raised in is the cause of my parents’ misunderstanding and my own self-doubt. This is true not only for the type of family I am drawn to, but to the Guru who has my deepest devotion, my choice to be a Hindu, being a vegetarian and finally, my calling to do hours of volunteer work on top of my full time job. I can no more change who I am than they can change who they are. Being true to who one’s Self, whether it is understood or appreciated by those nearest and dearest, is the first and foremost act of love we possess. It is therefore the truest love we can give another.
“Many a time I have made a comparison between nobility of sacrifice and happiness of rebellion to find out which one is nobler and more beautiful; but until now I have distilled only one truth out of the whole matter, and this truth is sincerity, which makes all our deeds beautiful and honorable.” Kahlil Gibran