I just read a little story of a mother discussing relationships with her son. She asks him what it means when someone says to him, “You would do x if you loved me,” or “You would do it if you weren’t a mamma’s boy,” or “You would do it if you weren’t afraid of everything.” The son replies that the person who says those words is more interested in getting something out of him than in being a friend.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand love and obligation. With love comes sacrifice. We trade personal comfort, independence and solitude for connection, acceptance and the joy of pleasing another. This is something everyone knows. In love, you give and you get. It’s somewhat harder to put this knowledge into practice safely, since love requires vulnerability and vulnerability attracts reptiles – people who have no heat of their own, but rely on the goodness of others to warm them.

When I was young, there was a girl named Jane who lived down the street. Every once in a while, she would come to our house to play. We were always happy to see her – she usually brought an interesting toy, and I can’t speak for my sisters, but I was mesmerized by her hair. Mine was curly and wild and never did what my haircut expected of it. Hers was silk. Her bangs were a multi-colored stream that flowed precisely to the middle of her eyebrows, and the rest of her hair fell down her back in an unbroken, flexible sheet. It always looked just-brushed. Maybe it was.

We were glad to see her, but we were even happier to see her leave. She was an only-if friend. No matter what the game, she had conditions. We could only play house if she could be the (overbearing and needy) mother, she would only play jump rope if she never had to turn and always got to jump. She would only play on the jungle gym if she got the best swing – no sharing. After 20-30 minutes of this, we were generally relieved by her tantrummy exit.

I doubt there is a grown human on this Earth who hasn’t met a Jane – an only-if friend. As we gain experience and wisdom, most of us leave the Janes behind, recognizing that there are plenty of people with whom we can have meaningful, reciprocal interaction and that we have no obligation to remain hostage to the self-serving conduct code of reptiles.

Love is one of those things – one of those scientific mysteries that defy quantification. It’s like antimatter. We can’t really see it or touch it or measure it, but we know what effects it has on the universe. The very creation of antimatter results in its immediate dissolution, just as our attempts to grip love too tightly, to examine it and quantify it, to measure it and parse it out in standardized portions, dissolves heady transports into tedious labor.

Demanding proof of another’s love might be a forgivable quirk in a child, but it’s a serious matter in adults. When parents, for instance, require constant assurance of the love and esteem of their children, there are two possible outcomes – the children grow up, become healthy adults and disconnect from their parents, or the children are forever hampered by their parents’ greed; harried to set serial fires and keep their cold-blooded family members warm, and by default, prevent healthy relationships from thriving in the scorched earth those children must inhabit.

Reptiles teach their children that there is no difference between love and slavery. No expression of love, no sacrifice, no gift, no action, word or feeling of any kind will satisfy the parent’s need for veneration. And so the child, when ready to form other relationships, looks for an owner, not a lover. But love is impossible without freedom. To love is to give one’s self to another and receive his gift in return. If one side attempts to take ownership or sets strictures on the other, love dissipates and only duty remains.

This phenomenon is not reserved for families. Any time a person or organization treats individuals as resources or problems to be solved or obstacles to be overcome, love loses to slavery. When one party becomes an object to another, the object loses, every time. When education is compulsory, it becomes a trial to be suffered through and we call short school days “early release” and build fences and add metal detectors and subject children to searches of their bodies and their personal spaces. The children lose. When governments decide that smoking must be discouraged and add punitive taxes to cigarettes and criminalize black market sales of tobacco products, we get the Eric Garner debacle, wherein a peaceful man selling individual cigarettes for 50 cents a piece is strangled to death by an agent of the state. Despite graphic video of Garner begging for his life as Officer Pantaleo suffocates him, Pantaleo was acquitted of all charges and apparently continues to be employed by the NYPD. The citizens lose. When churches see their faithful as charges who must be harangued into heaven, families are sacrificed on the altar of religion. No religion should cause someone to give up on a relationship with a loved one who actually loves. No philosophy, no heaven, no hell, no sin and no belief should keep us from giving and receiving without restraint.

If you’re reading this, you’re old enough to be done with only-if relationships. You’re big enough to love and to let the reptiles find another life source to feed on. Do as E. E. Cummings directed and, “Be of love a little more careful than of anything.”

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