Unconditional love or approval?

I recently read a book that was amazing. Kitchen Table Wisdom, by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, was first published in 1996. Somehow I missed it when it came out, all those years ago, and just stumbled across it one Saturday afternoon when I was rambling in a local bookstore. I actually bought a small gift book edition, a condensed version of the full text. I found the writing moving and insightful.

I eventually discovered, when I mentioned the little book to Rob, that he had the full text edition in his books, stored in the basement. I hadn’t even realized I had read an edited version. I dug it out and read the whole thing in a few short sittings.

The book is a combination of personal reflections based on the author’s life and stories of wisdom drawn from her experience and years as a physician and counselor. There are many pearls of insight, but the one that was most meaningful to me is this:

Children can learn early that they are loved for what they do and not simply for who they are. To a perfectionistic parent, what you do never seems as good as what you might do if you just tried a little harder. The life of such children can become a constant striving to earn love. Of course love is never earned, it is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.

Few perfectionists can tell the difference between love and approval. Perfectionism is so widespread in this culture that we actually have had to invent another word for love. “Unconditional love,” we say. Yet all love is unconditional. Anything else is just approval.

“Anything else is just approval.” That’s a challenging filter to pour my emotions through. Digesting this made me consider all the people in my life that I love. It can be a bit complicated to sort out all the reasons we love, and what feeds that emotion. This is not just an issue for parents and children. The principle applies to spouse, extended family, friends.

Of course the people in our lives may do things that may please us, or not. But the question is really less about what others do and more about how we respond. As a parent of young children, I always encouraged my kids to do their best. But I admit, what I often meant was “I know you can do better than that.” And the reality is that I was probably right when I had those feelings. They probably could have done better. But bottom line, the challenge was to take whatever they did and see the positive in it. Sometimes I got that, sometimes not. I believe, overall, I was able to escape being a perfectionist parent, but not because I completely understood the difference between love and approval. Maybe that was a grace that I was given, and in turn was able to extend.

It’s a fine line we walk….navigating between approval and love. Of course, I believe these two things can exist together, and should. I can choose to love, even when someone in my life is behaving in a way I don’t approve. Maybe the resolution comes when I recognize that although I may be the center of my own little universe, the people in my life are not obligated to behave in a way that I approve. No. They will make their own decisions and choices. As someone who is part of their universe, I may have an opinion about their actions. But it is my choice whether I love, or don’t love. I don’t get a choice when it comes to behavior. That’s their choice.

What about you? Are you loving the people in your life? Or just approving of them? Is there behavior that crosses the line? Spouses divorce. Rifts occur. Family members let go of others, quit speaking. I’m not saying there should be no boundaries, or that loving someone means you become a door mat. But it’s worth thinking about.  I want to be honest with myself. And I want my standard to be love, not just approval. And I hope that I’ll be given the same grace.


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