The Lesson of Love by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler
All the passages below are taken from the book “Life Lessons” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. It was published in 2000.
Love, that thing we have great difficulty even describing, is the only truly real and lasting experience of life. It is the opposite of fear, the essence of relationships, the core of creativity, the grace of power, an intricate part of who we are. It is the source of happiness, the energy that connects us and that lives within us.
Love has nothing to do with knowledge, education, or power; it is beyond behavior. It is also the only gift in life that is not lost. Ultimately, it is the only thing we can really give. In a world of illusions, a world of dreams and emptiness, love is the source of truth.
For all its power and grandness, however, it is elusive. Some spend their lives searching for love. We are afraid we will never have it, that if we find it, we will lose it or take it for granted, fearing it will not last.
We think we know what love looks like, since we formed pictures of it during childhood. The most common picture is the romantic ideal: when we meet that someone special, we suddenly feel whole, everything is wonderful, and we live happily ever after. Of course, we are brokenhearted when, in real life, we have to fill in the not-so-romantic details, when we find out that most of the love we give and receive is conditional. Even the love for and from our families and friends is based on expectations and conditions. Inevitably, these expectations and conditions are not met, and the details of real life become the thread that creates a nightmare. We find ourselves in loveless friendships and relationships. We wake from our romantic illusions to a world that lacks the love we had hoped for as children. Now taking an adult view of love, we see it all clearly, realistically, and bitterly.
Fortunately, true love is possible, we can feel the love we had hoped for. It does exist, but not in our approach to love. It does not live in the dream of finding the perfect mate or the best friend. The wholeness we seek lives here, with and within us, now, in reality. We have only to remember.
Most of us want unconditional love, love that exists because of who we are rather than what we do or do not do. If we are lucky, very lucky, we may have experienced a few minutes of it in our lifetimes. Sadly, most of the love we experience in this life is very conditional. We’re loved because of what we do for others, how much we earn, how funny we are, how we treat our children or keep our houses, and so on. We find it hard to love people just the way they are. It’s almost as if we look for excuses not to love others.
A very proper woman approached me after a lecture. You know what I mean by proper: every hair in place, perfectly matched clothes, and so on. “I went to your workshop last year,” she said, “On the way home, all I could think of was my eighteen-year-old son. Every night when I come home, he’s sitting on the kitchen counter, wearing that horrible, washed-out T-shirt he got from one of his girlfriends. I always fear the neighbors will think that we can’t dress our children right if they see him in it.
“He just sits there with his friends.” And when she said “friends,” her face filled with disgust. “Every night when I come home, I scold him, beginning with that T-shirt. One thing leads to another and . . . Well, that has been our relationship.
“I thought about the life-ending exercise we did in the workshop. I realized that life is a gift, one I will not have forever. And I will not have those I love around me forever, either. I really looked at the what-ifs. What if I died tomorrow, how would I feel about my life? I realized I was okay with my life, even though my relationship with my son was not perfect. Then I thought: What if my son died tomorrow, how would I feel about the life I had given him?
“I realized I would experience enormous loss and deep conflict about our relationship. As I played out the horrible scenario in my mind, I thought about his funeral. I wouldn’t want to bury him in a suit; he wasn’t a suit kind of kid. I would want to bury him in that damn shirt he loved so much. That is how I would honor him and his life.
“Then I realized, in death I would give him the gift of loving him for who he is and what he likes, but I was unwilling to give him that gift in life.
“I suddenly understood this T-shirt has enormous meaning for him. For whatever reason, it is his favorite. That night, when I came home, I told him it was okay to wear that T-shirt all he wanted. I told him I loved him just the way he was. It felt so good to have let go of the expectations, to stop trying to fix him and just love him as he is. And now that I’m no longer trying to make him perfect, I find that he’s very lovable just the way he is.”
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We can only find peace and happiness in love when we release the conditions we place on our love for each other. And we usually place the toughest conditions on those we love the most. We have been taught conditional love well— we have literally been conditioned— which makes this a difficult unlearning process. As human beings, it is not possible to find complete unconditional love with one another, but we can find more than just the minutes we usually get in a lifetime.
One of the few places we do find unconditional love is from our children when they are very young. They don’t care about our day, our money, or our accomplishments. They just love us. We eventually teach them to put conditions on their love as we reward them for smiling, getting good grades, and being what we want them to be. But we can still learn a lot from the way children love us. If we loved our children just a little more unconditionally, for a little while longer, we might create a very different world to live in.
Conditions on love are weights on our relationships. When we release the conditions, we can find love in many ways we never thought possible.
One of the greatest obstacles to giving unconditional love is our fear that the love may not be returned. We don’t realize that the feeling we seek lies in the giving, not in the receiving.
If we measure love received, we will never feel loved. Instead, we will feel shortchanged. Not because we really were, but because the act of measuring is not an act of love. When you feel unloved, it is not because you are not receiving love; it is because you are withholding love.
When you argue with loved ones, you believe you are upset because of something they did or did not do. You are actually upset because you have closed your heart, you have withdrawn love. And the answer should never be to withhold love until they shape up. What if they don’t, what if they never do? Do you never again love your mother, your friend, your brother? But if you love them in spite of what they did, you will see changes, you will see all the power of the universe unleashed. You will see their hearts melt open.
A woman shared that she was a flight attendant for TWA. “I was friends with one of the crew members on Flight 800. I had called my friend because she was on my mind. It had been a while since we’d talked and I missed seeing her. I left her a message on her voice mail to call me. A few days went by and I became increasingly irritated that I had not heard back. My husband said just call again or say what you want to say on her answering machine. I knew she was probably busy and was just waiting for some free time to call me back. Even knowing this, I became increasingly angry. I held back my love, I closed my heart to her. The next day her plane crashed. I deeply regret I did not give my love freely. I was playing a game with love.”
I told the woman not to be so hard on herself, that her friend knew from their years of friendship that she was loved. The woman needed to forgive herself and realize she was doing the same thing to herself that she had done to her friend with the phone call: she was measuring love by one moment, one action, then closing her heart. We must try to see love in the big picture, not in a detail. A detail such as a single phone call can be a distraction from real love. This woman’s story is an example of how the rules, the games, and the measurements interfere with our expression of love for one another. It’s a hard lesson to learn.
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To open our hearts again, we must be open to seeing differently. When we close our hearts, when we are intolerant, it’s often because we don’t know what is going on with the other person. We don’t understand them; we don’t know why they don’t return our calls or why they’re so loud, so we don’t love them. We are so ready to talk about our hurt, our pain, and how we have been wronged. The truth is, we betray one another by not freely giving our smiles, our understanding, our love. We withhold the greatest gifts God has given us. Our act of withholding is much more serious than what the other person might or might not have done to us.
Late one night, a ninety-eight-year-old woman spoke about life and love. “I was raised by a mother who distrusted men. They were only to be used for financial security. I became my mother’s daughter and never let love into my life. Why should I ask for such trouble? The only man I ever cared for and trusted was my brother. He was everything to me: my big brother, my friend, my protector. He married a wonderful woman. When I was in my late twenties, he became very ill. The doctors were not sure what was wrong. We sat together in the hospital and somehow we both knew he was going to die. I told him I didn’t want to live in a world without him. He told me how much life had meant to him and that if this was it, he wouldn’t change a thing. Except me. He said, ‘I am afraid you are going to miss life, your life, and you’ll miss love. Don’t miss love. Everyone on this journey we call life should have an experience of love. It ultimately doesn’t matter who or when or for how long you love. It just matters that you do. Don’t miss it. Don’t take the journey without it.’
“I had a life because of my brother’s message. I could have continued to not trust men, I could have become less of a woman, less of a person. But I fought past my mistrust and my fears. I have tried to have the life he wanted me to have. He was so right. To have this time, this life, and not love would be to have not experienced life fully.”
Many of us learned about “love,” or actually, protection, just as this woman did. We learned early not to trust men, women, marriage, parents, in-laws, coworkers, our bosses, and even life itself. We were taught by well-meaning people who felt they were acting in our best interests. They didn’t realize they were setting us up to miss out on love.
But in our hearts we know we are destined to live fully, to love fully, and to have great adventures in life. Maybe the feeling is buried deep within, but it’s there, waiting to be brought out by an action or an event, perhaps a word from someone else. Our lessons may come from unexpected places, such as children.
Some years ago, I knew a young boy who was eager to spread love and find life, even though he was at the end of his. He had had cancer for six of his nine years. In the hospital, I took one look at him and knew he was finished fighting. He had just had it. He had accepted the reality of his death. I stopped by to say good-bye the day he was going home. To my surprise, he asked me to go home with him. When I tried to sneak a peak at my watch, he assured me that it would not take long. And so we drove into his driveway and parked. He told his father to take down his bicycle, which had been hanging in the garage, unused, for three years. His biggest dream was to ride around the block once— he had never been able to do that. He asked his father to put the training wheels on his bicycle. That takes a lot of courage for a little boy to do: it’s humiliating to be seen with training wheels when your peers are popping wheelies and performing tricks with their bikes. With tears in his eyes, the father did so.
Then the boy looked at me and said, “Your job is to hold my mom back.”
You know how moms are, they want to protect you all the time. She wanted to hold him up all the way around the block, but that would cheat him out of his great victory. His mother understood. She knew that one of the last things she could do for her son was to refrain, out of love, from hovering over him as he undertook his last, great challenge.
We waited as he rode off. It seemed like an eternity. Then he came around the corner, barely able to balance. He was terribly drawn and pale. Nobody thought he could ride a bike. But he rode up to us beaming. Then he had his father take off the training wheels and we carried the bike, and him, upstairs. “When my brother comes home from school, would you send him in?” he asked.
Two weeks later the little brother, a first-grader, told us that his brother had given him the bicycle as a birthday present, since he knew he would not be around for the birthday. With not much time or energy left, this brave boy had lived out his final dreams, riding his bike around the corner and passing it on to his younger sibling.
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There are dreams of love, life, and adventure in all of us. But we are also sadly filled with reasons why we shouldn’t try. These reasons seem to protect us, but in truth they imprison us. They hold life at a distance. Life will be over sooner than we think. If we have bikes to ride and people to love, now is the time.
As I thought about the lessons of love, I thought about myself and my own life. Naturally, that I’m still alive means I still have lessons to learn. I, like everyone else I’ve ever worked with, need to learn how to love myself more. I still think of myself as a Swiss hillbilly, so whenever I hear the term self-love, I must admit I picture a woman sitting in a corner masturbating. Obviously, because of that, I’ve never connected with the term very well.
I have felt much love from others in my personal life, as well as through my work over the years. One would assume that if you are loved by so many, you would love yourself. But this is not always true. It’s not true for most of us. I’ve seen it in hundreds of lives and deaths, and now I see it in myself. Love has to come from within, if it is to come at all. And I’m still not there.
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How can we learn to love ourselves? It’s one of our biggest challenges, it’s so difficult to do. Most of us never learned to love ourselves as children. We’re usually taught that to love ourselves is negative, for love of self is confused with self-absorption and egotism. So, we end up thinking that love consists of meeting Mr. or Ms. Wonderful, or someone who treats us “just right.” That has nothing to do with love.
Most of us have never experienced love. We experienced rewards. We learned as children that we would be “loved” if we were polite, got good grades, smiled for Grandma, or washed our hands often enough. We worked our little rears off to be loved, never realizing that this was conditional, thus false, love. How can we possibly love if it takes so much approval from others? We can begin by nurturing our souls, and having compassion for ourselves.
Do you nurture your soul, do you feed it? What activities do you do that make you feel better about yourself, that you’re really glad to have done? When we love ourselves, we fill our lives with activities that put smiles on our faces. These are the things that make our hearts and our souls sing. They are not always the “good things” we were taught we should do— they’re things we do just for ourselves.
Nurturing yourself may be sleeping in late on Saturday instead of getting up and being “productive.” And nurturing ourselves is letting the love that is all around us in.
While you’re nurturing, have a little compassion for yourself, give yourself a break. So many people call themselves stupid, or say they can’t believe they did that, or they’re an idiot. If someone else made a mistake, you would say, “Don’t worry, it happens to everyone, no big deal.” When we make the same mistake, it means we’re a worthless failure. Most of us are easier on other people then we are on ourselves. Let’s practice being as kind to and forgiving of ourselves as we are to others.
Caroline is a tall, attractive woman in her late forties who learned how to nurture her soul. She has strikingly beautiful black hair and the most genuine smile you will ever see. We got to know each other while working on a project together, and she stuck me as being one of the happiest people I had ever met. She was in her second year of a wonderful relationship with a smart, kind, witty dentist. They were making last-minute plans for their wedding, which was just a few months away, and were exploring the possibility of adopting a child.
Being out in the world with Caroline was an uplifting experience. No one is a stranger to her, she’s friendly and close to everyone— the receptionist, the waitress, the person next to us in a movie line. One night, over dinner, I commented that she was lucky in love. With a little laugh she said it was not luck, and shared her story.
Six years ago, she had found a lump in her breast. When the lump was biopsied, the doctor said it looked strange. But three days would pass before they would know if it was cancerous and had spread.
“I thought this was it,” she said. “It may end here. All my unhappiness rose to the surface. Those three days were the longest of my entire life. I was truly blessed when the results came back saying that it was not cancer. I decided that even though I had wonderful news, I was not going to let those three days wind up meaning nothing, I was not going to live the same life I had been living.
“The holidays were approaching and I was receiving the usual invites to parties. The previous Christmas I had been desperately alone and single. I went to as many parties as possible, looking for love. I wanted someone to love me, to give me all the love I was not giving to myself. I’d walk into a party, quickly scan it for Mr. Right, and if he wasn’t there, I’d rush to the next party. After running from party to party I’d go home more desperate, more alone than when I had started the evening.
“I decided I didn’t want to do the same thing again this year. There had to be another way. I decided to give myself the experience of loving and being loved. So I made a choice to stop searching. I would go, but if Mr. Right was not there, other people were. Wonderful people I could talk to. I would just talk with them, have fun. I would be open to liking or loving them for who they were, no matter what.
“Now, I know you’re thinking that this story ends with me meeting Mr. Right that year. I didn’t. But at the end of the evening I didn’t feel lonely or desperate, because I had truly talked with people. All the smiles I smiled and all the laughs I laughed that night were real. All the love I felt was genuine. I had a wonderful time. I felt more love from others, and to my surprise, I liked myself a whole lot more.
“I kept doing this throughout the season, not just at parties but at work, at the store, in every possible situation. The more love I gave, the more love I felt. The more love I felt, the easier it became to love myself.I’ve become closer than ever to my friends, I met some wonderful new people. I became a happier person, someone you would want to meet. I was no longer that desperate, searching person. I experienced love every day.”
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Loving ourselves is receiving the love that is always around us. To love ourselves is to remove all barriers. It’s difficult to see the barriers we erect around ourselves, but they’re there, and they play into all our relationships.
When we meet God, He will ask, “Did you give and receive love, to yourself and others?” We can learn to love ourselves by letting others love us, and by loving them. God has provided us with unlimited opportunities to love and be loved. They are all around us, they are ours for the taking.
A thirty-eight-year-old man was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He told me that he had begun to review his life during his treatments, which he was going through alone. As we spoke, his face filled with sadness about this lonely reality. I asked the obvious question: “You seem bright, attractive, and nice, and you seem to want someone here with you. Why is there no wife, no girlfriend?”
“I’m not lucky in love,” he replied. “I tried to love them, to make them happy. In my relationships, I would put all my energy into making them happy. But eventually I would disappoint them. When I would begin to see that I couldn’t make them happy, I was out of there. It didn’t matter, because I could start all over again and there was always somebody else. Now half my life is gone, and it could end much sooner than I expected. I’m beginning to realize that maybe I haven’t loved at all. Yet I know I’m not giving a woman what she wants if I can’t make her happy. It’s easier to just leave.”
I asked him a question that he had apparently never thought about: “What if love wasn’t making a woman happy? What if, instead, we defined love as being there? We know we really can’t make someone else happy all the time. What if your gauge was off, what if simply being there really made them happy, in the long run?”
Life has its up and downs. We can’t solve all of our loved ones’ problems, but we can usually be there for someone. Isn’t that, over the years, the strongest sign of love?
“As you’re lying in the hospital, being treated for prostate cancer, it’s not likely that a woman— or anyone else— could make you happy,” I pointed out to the man. “But wouldn’t having someone special here with you, through all of this, mean a lot to you?”
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I often end lectures with the story of a young mother and her daughter, Bonnie, who lived outside of Seattle. It shows the power that even a stranger can have to comfort. One day the mother left six-year-old Bonnie with their next-door neighbor while she went to work. Later in the day, as Bonnie was playing on the neighbor’s front lawn, a car came careening around the corner, out of control. It flew up onto the lawn and smashed into the little girl, knocking her into the street.
The police were summoned and came almost instantly. As the first policeman rushed over to the little girl, he saw how severely hurt she was. Unable to do anything to save her, he simply picked the little girl up and held her. He just held her in his arms.
By the time the paramedics arrived, she had stopped breathing. They started life support immediately and rushed her to the hospital. There, the emergency-room team worked on her for over an hour, without success.
One of the nurses, who had been desperately trying to reach Bonnie’s mother at work, had to tell the poor woman that the little girl she had kissed sweetly that morning was now gone. The nurse shared this terrible news as gently as possible. Although the hospital offered to send someone to drive the mother in, she insisted on making the long drive herself.
Finally the mother walked into the hospital, stoic until she saw her little girl lying lifelessly on the table. She completely broke down.
The doctors sat down with her and explained her daughter’s injuries and what they had done to try to save her life. This didn’t help the mother. The nurses sat down with her and explained how they had done everything possible to save her little girl. The mother remained inconsolable, so grief-stricken that the staff thought they might have to admit this poor mother. Then the devastated mother walked through the emergency room to the pay phone, to call her relatives. Seeing her, the policeman who had been sitting there for almost four hours stood up. He had been the first to arrive on the scene, the one who had held little Bonnie in his arms. He walked up to this mother and told her what had happened, adding, “I just want you to know she was not alone.”
The mother was so grateful to hear that in her daughter’s last moments on this earth, she was held and loved. The mother finally felt consoled, knowing her daughter had felt love at the end of life, even if it was from a stranger.
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Being there is everything in love, in life and in dying. Many years ago, I noticed an interesting phenomenon in a hospital. Many of the dying patients began to feel wonderful; not so much physically, but mentally. This wasn’t because of me, but because of the cleaning woman. Every time she walked into the room of one of my dying patients, something would happen. I would have given a million dollars to learn that woman’s secret.
One day I saw her in the hallway and said to her rather curtly, “What are you doing with my dying patients?”
“I’m only cleaning the rooms,” she replied defensively.
Determined to know how she was making people feel good, I followed her around. But I couldn’t figure out what special thing she was doing. After a few weeks of snooping around like this, she grabbed me and dragged me into a room behind the nurses’ station. She told me how, some time ago, one of her six children had become very ill one winter. In the middle of the night she took her three-year-old son to the emergency room, where she sat with him on her lap, desperately waiting hours for the physician to come. But no one came, and she watched her little boy die of pneumonia, in her arms. She shared all this pain and agony without hate, without resentment, without anger, without negativity.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “What has this to do with my dying patients?”
“Death is not a stranger to me anymore,” she replied. “He is like an old acquaintance. Sometimes when I walk into the rooms of your dying patients, they look so scared. I can’t help but walk over to them and touch them. I tell them I’ve seen death, and when it happens, they will be okay. And I just stay there with them. I may want to run, but I don’t. I try to be there for the other person. That is love.”
Unschooled in the ways of psychology and medicine, this woman knew one of the greatest secrets in life: love is being there, and caring.
Sometimes, due to circumstances beyond our control, we can’t be there physically. But that doesn’t mean we’re not connected in love.
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Last year I was invited to speak at a conference for doctors and nurses in New Orleans, then teach a class for social workers at Tulane University. It would be a rewarding professional experience, but certainly not a pleasure trip. As the plane landed, I was filled with emotions: this would always be the last place I ever saw my mother alive. After my professional work was completed, I decided to go back to the hospital where my mother had died.
Our local hospital couldn’t care for my mother, so she was transferred to this bigger hospital two hours away from our house. I was only thirteen years old. The hospital rules said that visitors had to be at least fourteen years old. So I sat outside the intensive care unit for many hours, waiting for a chance to sneak in and speak to her, to touch her, to simply be with her.
If that wasn’t enough, the Howard Johnson’s hotel where my father and I stayed, right by the hospital, was suddenly evacuated. My father and I were in the lobby, about to go visit my mother, when all of a sudden a number of police cars screeched to a halt in front of the hotel. Officers dashed inside, shouting for us to evacuate, pushing us out. As we raced out of the building, we heard gunshots. A sniper was standing on the hotel roof, shooting at passersby. My father and I wanted to go right to the hospital to be with my mother, but the authorities wouldn’t let us, insisting that we go into the building next to the hospital. Eventually the police gained some control, and we were able to get into the hospital. The sniper was later killed by the police.
At thirteen years old, while needing to see my mother, I was also running out of a hotel while a sniper was shooting at people, and being evacuated from one building to the next. Through all of this, I so desperately wanted to be able to spend a few precious moments with her, to say good-bye.
Now, twenty-six years later, I walked through the small grassy area in front of the hotel, looking at the hospital. I remembered all the excitement and confusion of that day. I stood outside the door to the intensive care unit where my mother had spent the last two weeks of her life, looking through the same window I had peered through twenty-six years earlier, a little boy wishing he could see his mother.
A nurse came around the corner and asked if I wanted to visit someone. As I said “No, thank you,” I couldn’t help thinking about the irony of the nurses not letting me in years before.
“Are you sure?” she persisted. “You can if you want to.”
“No,” I answered. “The person I want to see is no longer here, but thank you.”
Now, after many years and many lessons, I know that my mother lives on in my heart and mind, and in the words of this page. I also believe she exists elsewhere, in some other way. I can’t see her or touch her, but I can feel her. Even in loss and separation, I am clear that I was with my mother in her last days, even though I could not physically be there.
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And then there are times when someone else may be there for our loved ones. For these health care professionals— or just kind strangers— simply being there, even when they don’t know the name of the person they’re there for, is a powerful act of love.
A cleaning lady, a mother, a friend, and a policeman who held a little girl he had never met before— our lessons in love come in all forms, from all kinds of people and situations. It doesn’t matter who we are, what we do, how much money we make, whom we know. We can all love and be loved. We can be there, we can open our hearts to the love around us as we give love back, determined not to miss the great gift.
Love is always present in life, in all of our wonderful experiences— and even in our tragedies. Love is what gives our days their deep meaning, it is what we are truly made of. Whatever we may call it— love, God, soul— love is alive and tangible, living within us all. Love is our experience of the divine, of sacred holiness. Love is the richness all around us. It is ours for the taking.