Sandy DeLisle's Blog

Love’s Ugly Parts

Posted on: February 3, 2012


I submitted the following essay about the meaning of love in a contest and did not win. Rather than allow the essay to “gather dust” in my hard drive, I thought I would post it here since Valentine’s Day is coming up…

Love is one of those things that is hard to define, but, just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity in the landmark Jacobellis v.Ohio case, I know it when I see it. Or, at least that’s what I used to think. With the passage of time, I have learned that sometimes love is not so easily recognizable.

 From the moment I was born, I was lucky enough to be bathed in unconditional love by my parents, so I have recognized and understood the pretty side of love for as long as I can remember. Warm hugs, words of encouragement and limitless patience were what defined love for me. As a child, I was showered with all these beautiful, tender parts of love and sheltered from harsh words, judgment and confrontation. As a result, I came to believe that arguments and intensity were the opposite of love. Love was warm, easy-going, kind and fuzzy with no sharp edges.

 I struggled to understand the biting words of sarcasm, anger, jealousy and pain that others around me expressed, especially as they were directed at supposed loved ones. For this I was called Pollyanna, goody-two-shoes and unrealistic, but I didn’t care. I was sure it wasn’t possible to really love someone and speak and behave so cruelly toward them. I lived by the adage “love means never having to say you’re sorry”. After all, if you are always nice and thoughtful, never speaking harshly or acting unkind, for what could you possibly have to apologize? I prided myself on not ruffling feathers or causing strife. In my mind, there was no place for dark and intense feelings in a loving relationship. Love was refined and proper. No apologies necessary.

 However, as my world expanded, and I stepped outside the comfort zone of my unconditional familial love, romantic love showed me the hard, ugly, thorny side of love: disappointment, jealousy and possession. I was crushed when at the age of fifteen, the boy I was sure I was going to marry, cheated on me. How quickly my love for him turned to hate. I told my friends I didn’t care about him anymore, that I hated him, but I was lying. At least about the not caring about him part. Of course I cared! I stayed up all night waiting for his phone call, spied on him and his new girlfriend and did nothing to stop the nasty rumors people were spreading about the two of them. Surely this was not “not caring”, but I couldn’t call it love; there was too much anger and hate involved. This was messy, uncharted and uncomfortable territory for me.

 Then, I read Elie Wiesel’s quote about the opposite of love not being hate, but indifference. He was, of course, referring to the Holocaust and attempting to explain the mass killing of millions of innocent people, so of course I could not grasp the context and enormity of this horrible event. Even so, on a much smaller scale within the circumstance of my experience with my cheating boyfriend, I understood that there was something to the idea that love and hate were somehow two sides of the same coin.

 In school, I began to study the law and I started to see how legally hate could in fact be love in a different form. In any case, the law recognizes and mitigates for acts which cause harm and even death to loved ones when those acts are done “in the heat of passion”.

 I will never forget the first time I saw a so-called crime of passion. I was a junior in high school and we were watching a movie about the Viet Nam War. Rather than allow her baby and young son to be captured by an American soldier, a Viet Cong woman threw herself and her two children off the side of a cliff. In her mind, death was better than whatever the soldier had in store for her and her children. It was a completely tragic and haunting scene and I remember struggling with that image for months, questioning if a person could really love someone AND kill them at the same time. Was it possible that killing someone to spare them was the greatest love of all?

 Then, years later, when I was twenty-three, I was confronted with that same question as my comatose father lay in a hospital bed. Three months after his stroke, his bed sores had grown to the size of grapefruits, and although I wasn’t sure if he could feel pain, I knew for sure he would not want to live hooked up to all those machines in a near vegetative state. There was no premeditation at all as I took a pillow and held it over his face. It would be an act of love, taking him away from all the misery and tubes.

 But then something came over me, and I knew that I could not harm him no matter what, so I removed the pillow from my father’s face.

 In the moments after my failed mercy-killing, I realized with certainty that love was not as neat and tidy as I had previously thought. It has ups and downs, ugly and pretty parts, soft spots and rough edges. And, although I could not go through with taking my own father’s life, I could identify with the strong passions that might lead another to do so.

Since my father’s death twenty years ago, I have experienced both sides of love’s faces. The tender, pretty side of love has given me the warm, cushy exuberance of three wonderful sons, a satisfying service-driven career and the blazing devotion of a doting husband. On the flipside, the tough, ugly side of love has given me the chilly barbs of my children’s independence, the hollow deflation of publishers’ rejections and my own stinging judgment of my loved one’s failings. 

 Today, after several years of many personal challenges, I can say that I am the closest I have ever been to understanding love, and I’ll tell you what, I know now that it is not always pretty, easy-going and warm. The difficulties of the last few years have stripped me to my core, causing me to act toward loved ones in ways that are not attractive at all. At first, I beat myself up for allowing these ugly demons out; these unpleasant displays flew in the face of what I thought love should be: controlled, caring and kind. 

But then, I came to the conclusion that love is like a china saucer precariously balancing on a Chinese acrobat’s pole, standing too long on any side will result in an imbalance. And, for way too long I had stood on the pretty side of love, seeking others’ approval, not rocking the boat, looking the other way when I should have gotten mad or spoken up. And, although, like most people, I prefer the soft, pretty side of love, I understand now that love’s ugly bumps and bruises keep us from being complacent and indifferent. They challenge us to be the best people we can be despite the obstacles and adversity placed in our path. And, even though, in love’s balancing act, the best place to be is usually somewhere in between its two extremes; that middle ground where acceptance and forgiveness reside, where both the tender and harsh and ugly and pretty sides of love live harmoniously, I have learned that every once in a while, because we are humans who make mistakes, it’s OK to precariously balance on that edge, loving and hating with every ounce of our being. After all, it’s from the edge we can often get the best view.

 I’ve also learned that, as Mignon McLaughlin said, both love and hate leave scars. Hate’s may be ugly scars and love’s beautiful, but they are both wounds nonetheless, and therefore each warrants an apology. So, that’s the crux of it for me now, only by knowing sorrow and being sorry can I understand the complexity that is love.






6 Responses to "Love’s Ugly Parts"

Your parents sound like wonderful people. I think their unconditional love gave you strength for the challenges you would face later.

Very insightful column. My mom struggled with bipolar disorder and drug abuse … so I had to accept the ugly parts early. Yet she was a wonderful person, very kind to animals, her Sunday school class loved her, etc.

Mind-blowing that so much goodness can exist in such imperfect people. (True of all of us…)

Have you ever read the poem “Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins?

PS — and two books:
“Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”
“I Know This Much Is True”

Hi Jennifer,
Thanks for reading this blog post! You are so right about us humans being so complicated! Your mom, despite all her troubles, certainly did a great job with you! The only thing I have read from your list is Divine Secrets and I loved it! I will have to check out the others. Thanks!

just read your blog. How very insightful and true. Your life almost mirrors mine. I was the same, always looked for the good in people, and never rocking the boat. Until as you so brilliantly state love takes a ugly turn. I lost a child , two days old, Thats when deep emotions collide both love and hate. I could not even pray for a while. Until many months later I finally went into my church , sat down and just stared at the Blessed Virgin Mary who also lost a son, and that is where I found my peace.
Your so right the strenth of love or hate leads one to do incredible things. When I was in my forties did I have the strength to really take a stand and do what I always wanted to do , become an animal adovate. I really think that the loss of a child puts things in true prospective and look for what is truly important in life and having the latest hand bag is not it.( even though I was always down to earth)

I always love reading your blogs.
Thank you for explaining two very strong human emotions.

Thanks so much for this heartfelt response, Feni. I had no idea you lost a child. I am so sorry. That must have been so painful.

I so appreciate you reading my writing!

I love reading your blogs. and look forward to new ones.

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