During the summer of 2019, I walked the Camino Frances. The Camino Frances is an 800 kilometer (500 mile) pilgrimage that starts in southern France and ends near the western coast of Spain, in Santiago de Composita. At the beginning of my pilgrimage, over the Pyrenees, there was a record-breaking heat wave—and I developed excruciating blisters between my toes. Hobbling into various stores along the route, I was sold first toe socks and then athletic sandals. I quickly embraced the toe socks, wearing them under my hiking boots—and got some relief, but not enough to walk the daily distances that I had hoped. It was harder for me to switch to walking in sandals. My feet were sore and tender—I feared they would be more vulnerable without the protection of my boots. Ultimately, one morning, it hurt enough that I put on the sandals. Surprisingly, this was a lot less painful than walking in the boots. Although the occasional rock lodged between my socks and sandals, it was easily removed. Having the air circulating around my feet allowed my blisters to begin to heal—and because there were fewer points of friction, the pain was less intense. I was able to walk further with my feet exposed than I had been able to go with the protection of boots.
In my experience, loving is very similar. I have often kept myself in concealed discomfort rather than risk exposing my tender, injured self. Just like my boots, the defenses we build around ourselves, originally designed to protect and support, can become our sources of pain that impede our progress. It can be scary to deconstruct these defenses, but it is the path towards healing—and greater intimacy.
We evolved to have love, and the sense of security that comes with it, as our resting state; however, modern stressors combined with our predisposition to attend to threats to ensure our survival makes us vulnerable to a viciously reinforcing cycle of operating from fear. Operating from unexamined fears has great costs for ourselves, our relationships, and the world. Unchallenged fears can lead to depressed ruminations of the past or anxious apprehensions for the future. And, if our loving is not balanced by acknowledged fear, we make ourselves vulnerable to abuse. We need to take the brave path of balancing our fears with our love.
Because we so need to be loved, “I love you” and other seemingly loving acts have been used by sexual predators and individuals with nefarious intentions to coerce behaviors. We may have received the message in our families of origin or other settings that being lovable— or even just tolerated—required us to perform to some external standard or deny portions of ourselves. Certainly, advertisements and much social media imply that lovable people are those who physically, intellectually, and socially fit a narrow band of humanity. I have spent great portions of my life believing that if I were thinner—you can insert the adverb of your choice (smarter, richer, stronger, etc.)—I would be more desirable. Uncertain that I was lovable, I compromised on trying to be desirable—and hid from myself and others. So, we learn to distrust authentic gestures of love. We may not even be able to distinguish between love and coercive attention.
Concurrently, we fear admitting our love to someone due to the power that it gives them. Our fears can set up expectations that no relationship can meet. Or, our distortions can lead us to not heed our fears when we should—we trust others with our precious, vulnerable selves when they are not capable of respecting our worth. Often, we do both: we expect more from a relationship than it can possibly deliver, and we pick individuals who do not honor our worth. In these scenarios, we will inevitably experience disappointment, pain, and possibly trauma, reinforcing our belief that it is dangerous to love.
Feminist scholar bell hooks asserts that we cannot truly know love until we acknowledge our fears. hooks asserts that our fear of love promotes power inequalities and abuses,
But we do fear and fear keeps us from trusting in love. Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience. In our society we make much of love and say little about fear. Yet we are all terribly afraid most of the time….Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination. It promotes the desire for separation, the desire not to be known. When we are taught that safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat. When we choose to love we choose to move against fear—against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect—to find ourselves in the other.
Facing our fears is a means to embrace our love—our fear may not go away, but it will not stop us from being who we were born to be. And, becoming aware of our love—facing our love—will minimize the control that fear can have in our lives. When we know and value ourselves, we will work with others to meet our and their needs—disrupting systems of oppression, alienation, and separation.
Yes, love can change the world—but only if we also embrace our fear. I’m proud to say that I no longer own those hiking boots!