I have lately been considering all we do not give each other that we might, what we withhold even from those dearest to us when we know the offering would soothe their hearts or lift their spirits. In the vast universe of not-love, these are largely invisible sins of omission, less egregious than actively doing harm. Yet, harm they do, and all the more for their sheer commonness.
If, as Rumi says, being human is a guest house, the Scrooge of withholding is surely among the least likable of our inner boarders. What smallness of spirit! What emotional stinginess!
And why? Much of what we long for are little kindnesses: an attentive ear, sincere validation or praise, a warm and welcoming hug, that lifting and lightening of the voice on the other end of the phone as it recognizes ours. We know how good it feels to receive such simple expressions of care. Why, then, do we sometimes withhold them from those we love?
I’ve heard the excuses; on occasion, I’ve made them: I’m too tired or stressed or busy to make the effort. Yet this is specious, because such gestures do not require a great deal of time or energy. But they may require a commitment to growth that becomes evident only when we obey the first spiritual imperative: Look within.
If I tune in to what is happening when I withhold validation or some other small goodness from someone I love, I feel a closing down, a judgment. Like many of us, I learned as a child that love attaches to competence and shame to neediness. Having exiled as unacceptable the parts of myself that hunger for attention, how likely am I to embrace them in another?
In an inner world where neediness is weakness, withholding becomes power, a kind of emotional authority we learned to exert first over ourselves and then — unconsciously and inevitably — over others, especially those closest to us. Outwardly, it can masquerade as autonomy, a certain emotional untouchability, a smooth remove from need.
But upon examination, it reveals itself as fear – fear of our own vulnerability, of the risk of rejection inherent in actively and fully loving another who may or may not be gentle with that vulnerability. Withholding keeps distance between us and others; it maintains an emotional moat around a castle of self we wish to protect.
But what I have learned from being on both ends is this: Withholding does not provide protection; nothing does, where the heart is implicated. Instead, it increases the prospect of loss by replacing the vital, wholehearted expression of love with a quietly toxic indifference. A self that needs that kind of “protection” needs more a persistent and gentle dismantling. That kind of self requires our awareness, our courage, our perseverance — our continuing effort to reconstitute our selves in a form ever more congruent with love.
For most of us, such qualities don’t arise spontaneously; they must be called forth and cultivated, again and again. In The Road Less Traveled, his classic treatise on spiritual growth, M. Scott Peck acknowledges the difficulty of this work. Yet, “genuine love, with all the discipline it requires, is the only path in this life to substantial joy,” he writes.
Kindness — to ourselves, first — is crucial; Rumi counsels us not to evict our difficult boarders, but to honor and learn from them as the teachers they are. That takes patience, too, because humans are chronic backsliders. If Charles Dickens had penned a realistic sequel to A Christmas Carol, it would have been a disappointment: By New Year’s Day, Scrooge would have relapsed into his old small-spirited self, Tiny Tim and all the rest be damned.
The first imperative is not a one-time thing, nor an easy epiphany. It’s an ongoing commitment: to keep looking within at the barriers we erect to love, and — gently but firmly — to keep bringing them down.