I was reading The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis the other day when I came across a passage that stung. But it took a few days of mulling it over for it to really break my heart. I’m going to quote the whole passage, at the risk of being lengthy:
I have said that almost anyone may be the object of Affection. Yes; and almost everyone expects to be. The egregious Mr. Pontifex in The Way of All Flesh is outraged to discover that his son does not love him; it is “unnatural” for a boy not to love his own father. It never occurs to him to ask whether, since the first day the boy can remember, he has ever done anything that could excite love. Similarly, at the beginning of King Lear the hero is shown as a very unlovable old man devoured with a ravenous appetite for Affection. I am drawn to literary examples because you, the reader, and I do not live in the same neighborhood; if we did, there would unfortunately be no difficulty about replacing them with examples from real life. The thing happens every day. And we can see why. We all know that we must do something, if not to merit, at least to attract, erotic love or friendship. But Affection is often assumed to be provided, ready made, by nature; “built-in,” “laid-on,” “on the house.” We have a right to expect it. If the others do not give it, they are “unnatural.”
This assumption is no doubt the distortion of a truth. Much has been “built-in.” Because we are a mammalian species, instinct will provide at least some degree, often a high one, of maternal love. Because we are a social species familiar association provides a milieu in which, if all goes well, Affection will arise and grow strong without demanding any very shining qualities in its objects. If it is given us, it will not necessarily be given us on our merits; we may get it with very little trouble. From a dim perception of the truth (many are loved with Affection far beyond their deserts) Mr. Pontifax draws the ludicrous conclusion, “Therefore I, without desert, have a right to it.” It is as if, on a far higher plane, we argued that because no man by merit has a right to the Grace of God, I, having no merit, am entitled to it. There is no question of rights in either case. What we have is not a “right to expect” but a “reasonable expectation” of being loved by our intimates if we, and they, are more or less ordinary people. But we may not be. We may be intolerable. If we are, “nature” will work against us. For the very same conditions of intimacy which make Affection possible also–and no less naturally–make possible a peculiarly incurable distaste; a hatred as immemorial, constant, unemphatic, almost at times unconscious, as the corresponding form of love. Siegfried, in the opera, could not remember a time before every shuffle, mutter, and fidget of his dwarfish foster-father had become odious. We never catch this kind of hatred, any more than Affection, at the moment of its beginning. It was always there before. Notice that old is a term of wearied loathing as well as of endearment: “at his old tricks,” “in his old way,” “the same old thing.”
It would be absurd to say that Lear is lacking in Affection. In so far as Affection is Need-love he is half-crazy with it. Unless, in his own way, he loved his daughters he would not so desperately desire their love. The most unlovable parent (or child) may be full of such ravenous love. But it works to their own misery and everyone else’s. The situation becomes suffocating. If people are already unlovable a continual demand on their part (as of right) to be loved–their manifest sense of injury, their reproaches, whether loud and clamorous or merely implicit in every look and gesture of resentful self-pity–produce in us a sense of guilt (they are intended to do so) for a fault we could not have avoided and cannot cease to commit. They seal up the very fountain for which they are thirsty. If ever, at some favoured moment, any germ of Affection for them stirs in us, their demand for more and still more petrifies us again. And of course such people always desire the same proof of our love; we are to join their side, to hear and share their grievance against someone else. If my boy really loved me he would see how selfish his father is . . . if my brother loved me he would make a party with me against my sister . . . if you loved me you wouldn’t let me be treated like this . . .
And all the while they remain unaware of the real road. “If you would be loved, be lovable,” said Ovid. That cheery old reprobate only meant, “If you want to attract the girls you must be attractive,” but his maxim has a wider application. The amorist was wiser in his generation than Mr. Pontifax and King Lear.
The really surprising thing is not that these insatiable demands made by the unlovable are sometimes made in vain, but that they are so often met. Sometimes one sees a woman’s girlhood, youth and long years of her maturity up to the verge of old age all spent in tending, obeying, caressing, and perhaps supporting, a maternal vampire who can never be caressed and obeyed enough. The sacrifice–but there are two opinions about that–may be beautiful; the old woman who exacts it is not.
Those of you who know me well will have no trouble figuring out why this passage stung me. But for those of you not of my intimate acquaintance, I’ll say that it’s an odd twist of fate that often one of the by-products of growing up in an abusive or neglectful situation is that you become a fairly nasty person. Who hasn’t met one of the “maternal vampire”s that Lewis mentions here? A woman who is nasty and mean to her children, daughters in particular, but those very daughters will defend her to their grave because she “had such a hard life.” Raise your hand if you read Olive Kitteridge and felt a deep sense of justice in having her so perfectly nailed down to the page.
But damn. I’d like to offer an apology to everyone who has ever been important to me. (Probably I should offer it up to everyone I have ever come into contact with, but my ability to love has not yet extended itself to those who I don’t, in fact, love.) To my relatives and confidantes who I have railed against, to the friends who I have callously deserted when it was convenient for me, to my colleagues who I have been less than attentive to, to my teachers and classmates who I have failed to respect, and to my lovers whose deepest needs I have failed to acknowledge. I am truly sorry.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that there is any help I can offer up here for the other folks who have been “abused/abandoned/neglected/negated.” All of us who have worked with kids can spot the nasty-mean ones who none of the other kids want to play with. And it’s true what I’ve been saying all this time: these kids have been hurt. And they didn’t deserve to be hurt. And we should give them all the tools that we can to help them figure out their lives. But at the end of the day, I think Lewis (and Ovid) are right: if they want to be loved, they need to be lovable. And I don’t think there’s a darn thing that any of us can do to help them get there in the end.
Each of us eventually has to take ownership for our own journey, life, fate.