When Saying ‘No’ Means ‘I Love You’

By Hammad Ali

The idea of ‘unconditional love’ has been appropriated by popular media to sell an unsustainable fantasy

Love. A concept we are bombarded with, from all directions, from a very early age. The books we choose to or have to read, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to, and as young adults, an embarrassingly large proportion of the conversations we have with our peers, are about love. To be more accurate, about romantic love. Looking back at that part of my life, a part of me has to lament that none of the narrative around us talked about all the other kinds of love without which life is diminished. 

Don’t get me wrong, romantic love is important and worth finding. But the easy love that grows between siblings as we age, the love you have for a friend you have known for more than 90% of your life, the love for a niece or nephew you watched grow up, all of these are precious pieces in the puzzle of life. A life with just romantic love and none of these other things, is somehow diminished. Looking back, I wish someone had told me this earlier.

In fact, there is a lot to be desired about the narrative of love that was pushed on us in our adolescence, and is pushed on the young adults of today. I could talk for hours on the problematic approach to romantic love sold by Bollywood movies, or the peer pressure that one must be pursuing a relationship from as early as early teens, and as already mentioned, the almost exclusive use of the word love to only mean romantic relationships. 

But today, I want to talk about how we are told about how love is meant to be unconditional, and that if someone loves us they have to accept us. On the surface it sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to say, but maybe we have taken it to extents that are just not reasonable anymore.

We refer to unconditional love as the idea that another person, be it a romantic partner, a friend, or a family member, accepts us as we are and does not judge us. Except, why is this a desirable thing at all? Why should anyone accept us as we are, if what we are is someone with a substance abuse problem, or someone with an utter lack of discipline and ambition, or someone who cannot see a single project they take on to successful completion? And if they did, do we not see what an immense disservice that would be to us and our potential for growth? If what I am is someone who cannot wake up before noon, eats junk food, and is in failing health, and you accept me and love me, are you not communicating that you just don’t think I can do any better?

Photo: Nik

When it comes to this topic, I often think about an anecdote about a UK nurse who led a drug rehab facility. The facility worked with UK youth with a long history of substance abuse problem, many of them from dysfunctional families. In an interview, when the nurse in charge of management was asked how she would explain the success rate of the program, her answer was brief but powerful – “we are the first people in their lives who loved them enough to say no to them.”

Of course, it is not true that this is a completely unknown concept. We even have a word for it – tough love. What I am saying though, is that our dominant narratives do not do nearly enough to drive home the importance of tough love. The kind of love that says no. The kind of love that says “I do not love you as you are, because I know you can be better. Because you have to do better.”

On the contrary, the very notion of such love is often vilified, as gold digging, or social climbing, or some other such choice phrase. Not to deny that these phrases have their appropriate usage, but perhaps we are too hasty to apply that label these days. If a loved one is holding us to a high standard, it does not mean they merely think of us as a means to some end. It could mean they want us to find joy in the development of skills, the fulfilment of purpose, and the deep abiding pleasure that stems from true mastery over some domain.

Looking back at life, all my growth, all the pleasures I enjoy today, did not come from those who accepted me as I was. In fact, most friends who did not hold me to higher standards in my 20s, I am not really even friends with anymore. The things in life that give me joy today, the relationships I have now held on to for nearly two decades or more, have been the ones where someone kept telling me that I can do better, that I have to do better. In fact, some of the richest relationships I have today, are with those who cut me off at a stage in life when I was refusing to do better. And to all those friends, I can only say today, thank you. You expected more from me than I myself was once able to, and my life is richer for that.

Photo: Saif Memon

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