When I was in my early teens, I was given an assignment at school on Valentine's Day to write an essay that answered the question "Love is...?". I remember it clearly because it totally stumped me. That was my first realisation that I actually had no clue what "love" was supposed to mean. I remember we had to spend a period of time brainstorming as many answers to that question as we could come up with. My classmates kept popping out answers every few seconds. My paper stayed blank.
That was over a decade ago. Today I am still puzzled by the concept, particularly when it is related to other people loving me. "Love" is a scary word for me. Saying the words "I love you" is incredibly uncomfortable and I struggle to say them. Showing love through actions is easier for me than expressing it verbally. I'm not sure why that is. Receiving love from someone else is near impossible and it's an issue I really need to overcome. The problem is I still don't really know what love is.
If I ask myself what it means for me to love someone else, I would say loving someone means giving up your life for theirs... it means giving as much of yourself as you can give. It means putting aside your own needs in order to put another's before your own. The University Rabbi asked me the other week "If you were on a desert island with another person and you only had one bottle of water, what would you do? Give it to the other person or keep it for yourself?" I said "give it to the other person". It wouldn't really occur to me that there was an alternative option. Love to me means giving up your own life to save another.
I guess in a way that is the ultimate demonstration of love, but perhaps my interpretation of that is a little bit screwed up. Someone once said to me "If someone doesn't know how to love themselves, how can they love someone else?" It's a good question. The question that naturally follows from this is "what does it mean to love yourself?". This is a bit scary to me because if I love myself then that might make me arrogant or selfish... there's a fine line and it's one I'm terribly afraid to risk crossing.
I spent my whole childhood denying that I had needs. I wasn't allowed needs. I didn't deserve to have any need met. I was apparently innately selfish and needed to learn to always put others before myself. I tried with everything in me to achieve that. On top of that, the kind of "love" I was shown makes the word "love" repulsive to me - it fills me with shame and disgust. The maternal love I feel towards my siblings is different - I love them so much it hurts, but any idea of love towards me makes my stomach churn. I wonder if I will ever truly understand what it means to be loved, but I'm aware I need to figure out how to allow myself to feel as though I have a right to be loved first and that's a tough one!
So my question is, what does love mean? ...What does it mean to love someone else and what does it mean to be loved? When you've been through severe child abuse that's screwed up your understanding of love, how do you come to understand it as it should be and what makes it feel safe?