This really happened – I’ve got pictures. During a trip to the Children’s Zoo, my then three year old decided to befriend a rather large cow. She started with a cautious pat on the brow. Receiving a positive response from her new acquaintance, she decided that hugging the cow’s neck was probably safe as well. Then, mustering her courage, she leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on the still accommodating heifer’s head. Unfortunately, at this very same moment a small bee decided to make friends with the cow’s other end. Startled, the animal turned suddenly to see what might be threatening it. And, in the process, slammed Natalie right into the wood fence which separated the two. So much for bovine buddies. More than a bit frightened, Natalie required quite a bit of tender loving care before she was willing to venture back toward the petting area. Then, to everybody’s surprise, she once again walked up to the cow, patted its head, and began to discuss with the animal their recent mutually upsetting experience.
What struck me as I thought about all this later was just how dangerous love can be, even for a three year old. Natalie was just trying to be a friend. And the cow didn’t really mean to push her. But through circumstances beyond either of their control, they both wound up surprised and scared. Love is like that. No matter how much we love or are loved, no matter how careful we are, no matter how well we get along, no matter how clearly we communicate, sooner or later we’re going to get hurt by – and hurt – the ones we love. More often than not, such hurting is unintentional. We don’t think things through, we misunderstand, we misjudge. And people we care deeply about get hurt. And people we trust hurt us.
Sometimes we mean to hurt. We are scared, or angry, or frustrated, or whatever and we lash out at the ones we love. We may not even be upset with them; they may just be the first ones who get in our way. But we do intend to hurt somebody. And because we know the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of our loved ones, we are especially good at hurting them. I’m not sure there is really any way to not get hurt when we love. To avoid hurt we’d have to avoid love. And though many of us probably need to be more selective in whom we love, eventually even the most carefully chosen, trustworthy lover will hurt us in some way.
Which brings us back to cow kissing – cow kissing caution, and cow kissing courage. Ultimately, loving, especially loving after we have been hurt by those we love, is an act of courage. We have to have the courage to forgive, to trust, to try again. The courage of a three year old. And the courage of a twenty-three year old. This winter my daughter started her training to become a social worker, a profession in which she will have to muster the courage to “love” people who are not always acting particularly lovingly. I guess lessons in love start early and can last a lifetime.
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