There are people we love and yet cannot be there for, because to be there for them involves hurting ourselves. If love could be turned on and off, life would be easier, for we could instantly stop loving the people who hurt us. But at some point, we have to recognise when a parent, or a partner, or a friend, behaves in ways that deny us the right to be ourselves.
It can be easier to offer an act of pure love to a stranger than to someone we know well. I remember a scene in Call the Midwife in which Miranda Hart’s character finds herself unable to touch her critical, unsympathetic, often cruel mother. Her mother is ill; Chummy is a nurse with a strong loving faith. As a midwife, Chummy happily and sensitively offers highly intimate physical care to women in her professional capacity; she wishes her mother no harm. But the history between them – the lack of sympathy her mother has shown for her life choices, the support her mother never offered her – manifests itself in a seemingly unkind act. A sick woman whose daughter cannot touch her. Because Call the Midwife is a beautifully written, tender and moving work of creativity, Chummy is surrounded by friends who understand and support her. In real life, however, such a scenario attracts judgement. Just look at the number of people urging Meghan Markle to get in touch with her father, despite knowing less than nothing of the circumstances which caused the estrangement in the first place.
One of the most supportive things Chummy’s friends did for her was offering her mother the care that she found herself unable to give. They were able to do this because there was no history there, no prior knowledge or experience. An act of kindness to a stranger is not an assumption of responsibility, whereas kindness continually offered to someone closer can set patterns which become unsustainable, especially if there is unacknowledged abuse or cruelty in the relationship. If we force ourselves to act against our inner voice, even for the best of motives, there will be a reaction at some point. That inner voice is keeping us safe; it will be heard.
People are messy, complicated and often quite awful. This doesn’t make them any less deserving of care. If everyone who needed help was an innocent victim, pure and simple, everything would be much easier. We like our narratives straight and absolute – a daughter should reach out to her estranged father, should hold her mother’s hand. But that assumes that the father in question behaves with consideration towards her, that the mother values and respects her daughter. That the love’s just there to pick up as though nothing ever went wrong.
The stranger, with no experience of the person in need, is free to see them only as what they are – a fellow human being. Their kindness serves, not only the person who receives it, but anyone who loves them and is unable, for whatever reason, to answer their need themselves. By offering kindness to strangers, we honour, not only our own inner light, but the inner light of those who love them.