A young refugee woman has been helping for some time now – a couple of years, I think. She has had a great deal of trouble and is worthy, needy, and vulnerable.
I doubt I could have survived what she has been through.
I’ve given her gift cards when she has no money for food, chairs for her dining room table, some clothes in the winter, gifts for her only daughter. She has a tough life, now and in the past.
For the past few months, every time I help her, she writes to me and tells me that she loves me. It always makes me a bit twitchy.
I should say that I definitely have intimacy issues; I know what it means to be loved in the wrong way, and Maria can testify to how guarded I was about getting close to anyone when we met.
This person grew up in a different culture than I did; I suspect people use the term “love” more freely than they do in the world I grew up in.
There is still a wary and guarded part of me.
I know she is grateful and believes in thanking me.
I have never told her I love her back – in some ways, I am very fond of her – but I have never replied by saying “I love you, too,” and I wouldn’t. It doesn’t feel right for me.
I’m just helping her. That’s very different from romantic love, even though she is brave and loving in her life.
These declarations of love made me uncomfortable. They came too often and were too many.
I am a lot older than she is, and I’ve come to understand how badly older or more powerful men have treated young women. That will not be me.
I need and want to be understood more than to be loved.
I’ve learned a hundred times in the past few years that it is a powerful thing to give people money and help them when they are desperate. They can attach to people who help them in powerful ways. I
t’s my job to be conscious of that.
Giving people money evokes powerful feelings and emotions. Sometimes, I become a savior in their eyes, not just another bumbling human trying to figure things out.
My friend doesn’t owe me a thing for helping her.
She doesn’t have to love me or declare her love; I know she doesn’t mean it romantically.
To me, it is important that the people I help – we help – understand there are no strings attached of any kind.
This is the core of caregiving – help with no strings. Most of the people I help say thank you, only one speaks of love for me.
Maria and I don’t tell each other that we love one another every time we talk.
It’s a special thing to me when I say it when I hear it.
In our culture, we – men especially – have learned, those of us with our eyes and ears open, to be cautious about expressing love to people who are not our willing lovers.
If women have taught me anything, and they have taught me a lot, it is this: when someone is uncomfortable, they need to say so and be clear and honest about how they feel.
It’s hard sometimes, and it might not come quickly or easily. But it needs to come.
I believe this doesn’t need to end or hurt relationships; it can define and preserve them.
The simple truth is that these love messages made me uncomfortable. That’s really all I need to know or all that she needs to know.
Over the past few years, I have learned that being honest is one of the most important things in my life. It is transformative.
But I was apprehensive that I would hurt her feelings, or offend her or scare her away, in which case I couldn’t help her at all.
I have learned that when I make people uncomfortable, I want them to tell me. When people make me uncomfortable, I have learned that I need to tell them, even if it can be hurtful.
So today, when she messaged me once more that she loved me, I asked her to stop. I told her I didn’t need that from her. I told her I come from a different generation and a different place, and it just made me uneasy.
She was shocked and asked me if it bothered me.
I said I guess it did, or I wouldn’t have mentioned it to her. Please don’t tell me that you love me whenever I help you, I asked. It makes me uneasy, it doesn’t feel right.
I needed to say that I sense nothing untoward or inappropriate. Maybe I’m just shy.
I understand that she uses the term to express gratitude and no other reason.
But I know boundaries are important in this work and this world. I am always aware of them, and I know the consequences of ignoring or trivializing them.
I had mixed feelings about what I did. I think she was startled, even hurt by it at first. And yes, it was scary.
But I think it was the right thing. I believe if we can learn to be honest about how we feel, then relationships and friendships and the larger world beyond us will be better, safer, healthier, and truly more loving.
After a few minutes, she sent me a smiley emoticon, a sign that she heard me and was okay. I felt an enormous sense of relief. Our messages can be fun.
I will see her in a few days and give her some more help, and if necessary, talk to her about our exchange. I have a hunch it won’t come up again.
To me, honesty is a great part of love and an essential tool for learning how to love.
If I can’t be honest, then there is no love or friendship.
I need to strengthen this part of me. When I am uncomfortable, I need to say so. Real friendships will blossom; bad ones will end.
For me, the big thing is that I am finally, and after many years of hard work, learning to speak my truth, which is never pure or simple.