Meet John Rasmuson, my teacher, friend and mentor. In this post, Mr. Rasmuson talks about the importance of “showing and not telling” when it comes to love and the crucial role that empathy and self-love play as catalysts for change and for the Lovescaping and Dreamscaping movement. Mr. Rasmuson, thank you once more for enlightening us with your wisdom and your beautiful prose. You continue to be a source of inspiration for me.
by John Rasmuson
Marlowe, my nine-year-old granddaughter, is lying on the floor, intent on a rainbow she is drawing. I watch her. Were I to draw a picture of her, she would be wearing Oshkosh overalls and high-top, canvas sneakers. The outfit would please her. She pauses and looks up at me. “Why don’t you tell me that you love me?” she asks ingenuously. The question skewers me, but she allows me to wriggle free before returning to her colored pencils. For the next day or two I mull the exchange. Then, as we are walking home one afternoon, she asks again. “Why don’t you say ‘I love you’?” I begin to wallow in the mud of an unsatisfying answer. Well, I begin, “to love” may be the most significant verb in our language. It is devalued by overuse, diluted by too many token “luv ya’s.” She doesn’t understand. Think of love as a red shirt, I say. If you wear it every day, it will gradually fade to pink, become threadbare and fall apart. If you want the shirt to remain red, you don’t wear it very often. She seems to grasp the analogy.
I tell her that I practice the writer’s creed of “showing not telling.” I cite my Danish-bred mother as an example. I don’t remember her using the L-word. She didn’t have to say “I love you” because she showed her love for me every day. Marlowe nods. She says she understands. “Do you doubt that I love you?” I ask her. “No,” she replies. The conversation ends as we reach the house. I have the feeling her curiosity is not completely satisfied. I, too, am unsatisfied because words have come up short: Marlowe has not seen our relationship through my eyes.
I wish she were old enough to talk about the words she takes for granted. I would like to talk to her about the nuances of language in this way:
Me: What color are your eyes?
Me: Did you know that some languages do not have a word for blue?
Me: In Ancient Greek, “blue” meant “white.”
Me: So if you have no “blue” in your language, how do you
describe your eyes?
A follow-on discussion about “to love” might begin:
Me: Your grandmother recently received a thank-you card in
the mail. On it, her sister wrote, “You are loved.”
Me: Why do you think she didn’t write, “I love you”?
Marlowe: Is she showing instead of telling?
Me: No, she is telling. But she has limits on what she can say.
Marlowe: What kind of limits?
Me: Let’s call them cultural limits.
My father and mother’s use of language was shaped by Danish culture. Danes use words to mask emotion, and the verb “to love” has a somewhat different context in Denmark than it does in the U.S. Danes rarely say “I love you” to a child. Because I didn’t grow up hearing “love,” I have been stingy with the L-word over the years as my sons and their children will attest.
I am a follower of “Modern Love,” a long-running feature in the Sunday New York Times. It is written by readers and edited by Daniel Jones. The common thread in hundreds of essays is that “wisdom about love is sorely lacking,” Jones writes. However, instead of asking ourselves what we have learned about love through the decades, Jones suggests we ask, “In what new and creative ways have we failed to learn?”
The paradoxical question relates mostly to romantic love, but it may well apply to such other forms as parental love, brotherly love and self-love. We have certainly failed to learn to love our enemies as Jesus advocated. On the other hand, we may have learned that the Beatles’ lyric, “All you need is love,” is too simplistic for our troubled world.
Irene Greaves has asserted, “love can be taught.” The verb form gives me pause. As in the construct of “you are loved,” the passive voice hides the subject of the sentence. The reader confronts the unanswered question, “Love can be taught by whom?” I know Ms. Greaves well enough to know she is up to the task—“I will teach love”—but I am less sanguine about the rest of us. Who will teach the warring sects of Islam to love each other?
The larger question is how will we teach brotherly love to the Sunnis and Shias—not to mention to the Americans who understand neither but fear both. Ms. Greaves advocates for education and development based on love and empathy. It is a worthy goal, but how it would be achieved is unclear. Surely not in PowerPoint or smartphone apps. I do think you could cultivate self-love and empathy in parallel, not as ideals but as reciprocal skills. It is a proposition that Rowan Williams, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, has talked about. His insights have me pondering the relationship of the verbs “to be” and “to love.”
Marlowe loves soccer and basketball. She is on a soccer team called the Snow Leopards. During weekly practice sessions, girls of unequal ability are taught such basic soccer skills as dribbling and passing. In a game, however, an effective pass is as rare as a yellow card. The forwards and midfielders converge on the ball, kicking each other’s shins, while the defenders daydream. Winning will require proficiency in ball-control, and, more importantly, collaboration with the other players on the pitch.
Like the Snow Leopards, Ms. Greaves’ concept of lovescape will have to tend to the basics, I think, with empathy as the priority of effort. Teaching people to make eye contact, to listen and to observe body language is not unlike teaching young soccer players to pass and dribble. Mastering the basic skills fosters self-confidence; confident people are willing to take risk and engage others face-to-face. That engagement—that effort to understand another person’s viewpoint—fosters self-worth. Or is it self-love? The latter has suffered at the hands of Facebook narcissists, so finding the right words is as important as tuning a guitar before playing the first chord. “Love makes language exact,” wrote Wendell Berry in one of his many essays, “because one loves only what one knows.” What I know is that Jesus didn’t say, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor.” He said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” To me that means self-love is important enough to be a precondition of brotherly love.
Is a person with empathic skills better equipped to develop self-love? Does empathy enable love? My tentative answer is yes. It is tentative because “to love” is a diamond whose facets have been abraded by careless handling. Moreover, the noun, “love,” coexists with “like” and “lust” on shifting sands. You can make love and fall in love. You can love the Beatles, pepperoni pizza, soccer, Oshkosh overalls and the color blue—all in an inconsequential sort of way—and you can eviscerate “love” with an ❤ emoji. You can love yourself, your neighbor, your cat, your grandfather. That said, “Your path is not to seek the love,” wrote Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet, “but to seek all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” In seeking out the barriers—some of which are imposed from without—you can neutralize them. Rumi may have provided a blueprint for action for lovescapers like Ms. Greaves—and for me. By overcoming personal barriers, I am able to balance showing with telling and say, “Marlowe, I love you.”