The first imperative

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. guest house crop

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.

castlemoatBut 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.





  1. undefinedmuse · · Reply

    This is lovely! It’s something most of us can relate to and beneficial too.
    I too have started a blog about my thoughts on certain life issues that people can relate to so this is an inspiration to me 🙂


    1. Glad to hear it! Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Such an insightful commentary! Really hits home in terms of our fear of vulnerability and the paradoxical nature of our relationships (i.e. wanting emotional attention and yet, refusing to reciprocate). Thank you for this beautiful meditation.


    1. You’re welcome! Thank you for your thoughtful response.


  3. I would so love to go through each line with you Cate!
    Recognizing withdrawal and the closing down of our heart is so important on the journey towards living in an open minded way that comes from the heart and our inner knowing.


    1. Thank you, Val. I see from visiting your blog that we are kindred spirits. It’s lovely!

      I hope you are holding up well post-Brexit. So much upset for your homeland and the rest of the U.K., though the global effect certainly highlights how connected we have all become …

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Cate for the visit! I look forward to more connections. 💛

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Funny how we call them ‘the little things’ when they are so very large.
    Much appreciation for your thoughtful, heartfelt words. After your mentioning the book yesterday, I went to the library. Alas, it’s at another branch, but now it’s coming my way. Been decades since I’ve read Peck. ((hugs))


    1. The re-read is worth the short wait, for sure! An earlier and apparently similar work is Erich Fromm’s “The Art of Loving,” which is waiting for me at my library. 🙂 Thank goodness for public libraries. And thank you for reading and commenting, dear Cousin.


  5. Wow! I have been feeling covicted of this already this week. How do you feel about God using you, Rumi, and Dickens to give me affirmation?


    1. I feel as if I’m in the best company ever! Thanks for this comment; it made me smile. And if I had a part in convicting you, I now exercise my right of pardon: Go, and sin no more. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ¡Qué descansada vida / la del que huye el mundanal ruído / y sigue la escondida / senda por donde han ido / los pocos sabios que en el mundo han sido! Fray Luis de León (1527-1591) What a peaceful life, that of those who flee life’s bustle to follow the hidden path along which only a few wise men have walked. — My translation, slightly inaccurate (!) but it carries most of the meaning of the original. We too must find and walk that path.


    1. A lovely –and lyrical — quote. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. wonderful reminder
    to benefit ourselves
    in order to be a benefactor
    for the world 🙂


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Friend. Thank you for reading and commenting!


  8. Susan Lukwago · · Reply

    This insightful meditation hits so close to home that all I can say for now is thank you. I read it and have been thinking and staring at it for 5 minutes – all I can afford right now – and I know I will be back at it. “All we do not give each other that we might …” Kindnesses – big and small


    1. You’re welcome. I’m glad it was meaningful to you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: