Patrick Coleman: An Open Letter to My Boys About Love

It's tempting to believe that Mom and Dad were made for each other. They were, but only through experience.

Originally Published: 
Wei Lee and Anne Meadows for Fatherly

Dear boys,

There’s much more to love than you know now. It is more than what your mother and I feel for you. It’s more than the stories you hear in catechism about the love of God. And as you grow up, people will try to tell you what love really is. You will see movies depicting misty romances. You will read Valentine’s Day cards with loving sentiments. And you will hear supposedly very important people saying that certain people should or should not love one another. But these ideas of love treat love as a commodity — something to be given, received, owed, deserved, or prohibited. Those ideas treat love as if there is value in holding it, as if humans were emotional banks.

That’s not what love is. Let me tell you a secret.

When I was half as young as I am now and before I knew your mother, I was in love with another man. We loved each other very much. We loved each other like your mother and I love each other. We spent our days and nights together. We laughed and cried together. He was a very kind and smart man. He was a musician. I was a poet.

I loved this man for five years. I loved him when he got very sick. And then, because love can be fragile and because I was dishonest, we lost the love we had. It was my fault. I can admit that. I miss him.

It’s unlikely you will ever meet this man, but he has influenced your life. The love that he and I shared changed me because that’s what love does, even if it is ultimately lost. Loving a person changes the way we see the world. The love I shared with that wonderful man lives in the love I have for your mother. It lives in the love I have for you. It made me more thoughtful and vulnerable. It made me think about communication and honesty — all of these things which make it easier for me to perform my love for you. And this is why love is complicated. It’s both specific and targeted — something one can give and receive — and a crucible. It’s what made me into me. It will make you into you.

When we talk about love we say that it comes from the heart. But there’s no special structure in the heart that manufactures or holds love. Love congeals in a chemical soup of neurotransmitters and hormones. But sloppy chemistry doesn’t make love less special or explain away the heart. When I say, “I love you with all my heart,” I am saying I devote its beats to you and your future. I am saying that the restless muscle at my core has been tasked with a purpose greater than simply keeping me alive. I had to learn how to provide it with that sense of purpose. Love taught me.

And here’s what I want to teach you: Love isn’t worth coveting. Do you see why I say this now? When you chase a fix, you are stripping it of its value. The real value of love is how it changes the way you love other people. Because when you seek love just for yourself, the inevitable pain when it is lost is that much more damaging. And it can be damaging enough to make you bitter. It can be damaging enough to make you not want to love anymore.

But when we understand that love has value, even when we’re not seeing any returns, the loss of love hurts less because we understand that love has changed us.

So, love, my boys. Love whoever you love. I will never judge you for it. But try not to love for yourself. Try to remember that the love you feel and the love you give has a purpose beyond you. It’s not for you; it is you. And remember that my heart, which has been beating and straining for a long time now, keeps rhythm for you.

With all my love,

Your Poppa

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