My Dear Ivy,
There’s something I hope you know by now. Something I’ve probably told you multiple times a day, every day of your life. Something that, if you don’t know it, means I have monumentally failed as your father.
It is this: I love you.
I hope you know that. I hope you always know it. Today I want to talk a bit more about what it means.
This is one of the big ones, and it starts with how much I love your mom.
I have to tell you, your mother is an amazing woman. Among many other things, I particularly love the many, many times since I met her, when she’ll say something – come up with some sort of insight or bit of wisdom – that just makes me sit back and think: “wow.”
One of those times happened many years before you were born, back when your mom and I were newly married. We were discussing the concept of “intimacy” with a group of friends, trying to cobble together a definition of what “intimacy” really means at a basic level.
By the time you read this, you may or may not be familiar with that word. Here’s how the dictionary defines it: “A close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.”
As we were sitting there discussing intimacy and how it works in the context of a relationship between two people who love each other, someone (maybe me? I don’t recall exactly) put forward the idea that seems to be a fairly commonly used definition of the word, that “intimacy” is knowing the other person as fully and openly as you possibly can.
Then came that “wow” moment: Your mom said that, to her, “intimacy” is about fully knowing yourself . . . and that only when you truly know and understand your own heart are you capable of sharing it fully with another human being.
I think she was absolutely right – perhaps as right as she’s ever been about anything (which is saying something, given that your mom is one of the wisest people I know).
I wrote yesterday about people – about how people are more important than things, words, or ideas. I think if that understanding unlocks their universes for you to explore, then love is the key to that unlocking.
And I think that, in order to truly love someone, you have to love your self first.
That’s a controversial statement. There are a lot of people who believe that the essence of love . . . of intimacy . . . of any deep and meaningful relationship, is the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the one you love.
And there’s something to that. I want you to know that if it came down to it – if I had to choose between your life and mine, I would choose yours in a heartbeat, no hesitation, every time. That’s how much I love you.
But I think there’s some confusion about what it means to sacrifice yourself. I would give my life for you. Or your brother. Or your sister. Or your mom. But your self . . . your essence . . . is more than the simple, medical fact that you’re breathing and your heart is pumping. There’s a difference between sacrificing your life for another person (as I would willingly do for you), and sacrificing your self for them (which I’ve done too often throughout my life, and hope that I never will again).
Your mom and I made a particular point of this, on our wedding day. There’s something mysterious and beautiful about a joining of two hearts and lives as we did that day. One of the traditions at many weddings that celebrates that mystery and beauty, is a ceremonial lighting of candles – two candles on either side representing the bride and groom are snuffed out, and a new, larger candle in the middle is lit representing their new life together from that moment forward.
When your mom and I got married, we made a small, but very significant departure from that typical, traditional ceremony.
It was very important to us that the two side candles stayed lit.
To us, that small act was a declaration, to each other and to everyone else in attendance, that in forming this new relationship we were not sacrificing our individual selves, but joining our selves to each other – not extinguishing our old lives to create a new, mutual “life together,” but combining our whole selves, together with this new thing we shared, into something even stronger and more meaningful than we were before as mere individuals.
That may seem like a minor distinction, but I don’t believe it is. First and foremost, it takes us back to your mom’s definition of “intimacy,” because it means that to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I love you so much that I’d give my life for you without hesitation, I first have to know and love my self. I don’t mean that in a selfish sense – some misguided, misunderstood notion that “I love myself; therefore I demand that you give of your self for me.”
Rather, I mean this in a sense that is completely independent of any other human being. I understand at my core that I am created with intrinsic value – that I am worth something simply because I exist – and I desire to share that valuable thing with you, your sister, your brother, your mom, and anyone else that I say that I love.
There’s a reason the famous Scripture verse about loving others doesn’t say: “love your neighbor instead of yourself.” There’s a reason the “Golden Rule” found in many faiths and cultures doesn’t say: “treat others better than you deserve to be treated.”
The verse says: “love your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule says: “treat others the way you want to be treated.”
You can’t do either of these – it simply isn’t possible – without some concept of your own self-worth . . . without first learning to know and love your self.
Lots of people try. God knows I did, for a long time. But you can’t do it. As hard as it is to truly love someone else, it’s even harder to convince someone else that you’re worth loving, when you can’t even convince yourself.
I deeply hope that you never have to try to do that, because one of my deepest desires in writing you these letters is to make sure that you know you are loved, and that you are worthy of love. Always, and forever.
We’re going to talk a lot about love in these letters. It’s kind of the main point, after all. We’ll dig deeper into that “boundaries” conversation we started in yesterday’s letter – how to hold on to your self while simultaneously loving others. There will be plenty of people in your life who try to get you to sacrifice so much that you end up giving them bits and pieces of your self in the name of “loving” them. God knows I’ve made that mistake many times over the years.
But it is possible – very difficult at times, but possible – to hold onto your self while simultaneously being generous in sharing with others your time; your energy; your things, words, and ideas. We’ll talk more about that in future letters as well.
For now, I want you to understand this, first and foremost, because it’s really, really important: I love you, not just because of who you are to me as my daughter, but because of who you are. Period. The end. You are valuable, not because of your relationship with me or with any other person or thing or idea, but because God created you in His image and said the result was Good. You are loveable . . not because I said so, but because your Creator did.
Understand this, too: Because you are intrinsically valuable, intrinsically loveable, there is nothing you can do to make me love you less. My love for you will never diminish or fade based on how well you conform to what I think or say or want.
And there is nothing you can do to make me love you more. Because I already love you as much as it is possible to love someone. Because I can’t imagine loving anybody more. Most importantly, because my love for you is in no way related to what you do, at all.
I hope someday you understand exactly what that means – though in truth, I can’t claim to understand all of it, myself.
But I can tell you this much: It means that right now, I’m sitting here tearing up as I write this, just thinking about how wonderful it is to have someone as amazing as you in my life, and how wonderful it is to be the one man on earth lucky enough that this amazing person calls me “daddy.”
I love you so much, Ivy.