Someone, long ago, took me aside and described, earnestly, repeatedly and at great lengths, the horrors that had been heaped upon them when they were a child. This, they told me, is why they could not control their temper. Why I should never take their violent outbursts seriously. Why I shouldn’t flinch or burst into tears when they shouted. They had enough to cope with; they didn’t need to have to deal with my unhappiness on top of their guilt.
I wasn’t very old, but I instinctively understood that a person cannot be held responsible for things that were done to them. Therefore, I reasoned, the behaviours that hurt me were not their fault. The onus was on me not to provoke such behaviours, and not to be hurt when I did. I monitored my language, my actions, my reactions. I worked hard to develop opinions this person would approve of; every decision I made was with this person in mind. It was called love – by me, by this person, by anyone who knew either of us. Their confidences meant I was very special. One day, when I am either braver than I am now, or when I find I have no choice, I will write about it. For now, though, let this suffice: the plumes in which manipulative behaviour decks itself does not alter the nature of the behaviour. Dressing up pain as love does not make it hurt any the less. Making someone else feel good about making you feel threatened, or unhappy, or worthless, is not love. If you feel unable to turn to that person when something terrible happens to you, for fear of upsetting them (or of being accused of manipulation), then what lies between you is not love.
Christmas is a perfect time for gaslighting. We are surrounded by so many assumptions about what should happen, how we should feel, what we should be doing. Who we should be spending the season with. What we should be buying as presents, serving as food, wearing, visiting, thinking, saying, singing. Whom we should love.
God, having spent most of the Old Testament smiting and punishing and carving rules in rocks, being sadly disappointed in mankind’s application of free will and sending souls to eternal damnation, reentered his creation as a new born baby. From omnipotent to helpless, from absolute control to utterly dependent. All the thou shalts went out of the stable window that night in Bethlehem, and after thirty three years, were replaced with the single injunction that we love our neighbour as ourselves. As ourselves, people. Not unconditionally, or self-sacrificingly, or martyrishly. As ourselves. If we were created in God’s image, then love lies, not in the person who is telling you what love looks like, but in you. In your feelings, your sensations, your hopes and aspirations. In me. In each and every one of us, individually. No one gets to define what your love for them, or for anyone else, should look like. No one gets to build their life on the ruin of your selfhood.
God, whether he exists or not, is really the only suitable object of unconditional love. Loving God means loving your own humanity, trusting your own instincts, seeking out that which brings out the best in you. Loving your neighbour means affording their selfhood the respect you give your own. It doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say, doing everything they ask, quietly sublimating your own selfhood into something that is toxic to it. It means nothing more, or less, than that the child at the border with a number on her arm has a selfhood commensurate with yours. That power – as politician, as employer, as parent – is about raising up, not keeping down.
Thou shalt not tolerate that which hurts you. It’s a good place to start.