I suspect that everyone has two voices, one perched on each shoulder. One says,
“You are worthy of love and capable and can accomplish anything you set out to do.”
The other says, “You are worthless and a failure and everything you attempt turns to ashes.” Or in the favorite phrase of my Dad’s, “You’re no good, you never were any good and you never will be any good!” (Which in his case, was his convoluted way of telling me he loved me).
In the archetypal set-up, the mother is the carrier of conditional love, the father the demander of conditional love. In the real world of mothers and fathers, either can carry either and most carry a mixture of both. Though still I suspect a survey would reveal that the unconditional side falls more to the mother and the other to the father.
In my case, it was certainly true. Even in his last months of his 88 years, my father was still setting tests for me and was not shy about expressing his disappointment if I didn’t pass. When after six months of constant visits to support him in coming back to life after a triple-bypass surgery, my wife and I opted to go ahead with a Grand Canyon rafting trip long planned, he was furious when I returned, having felt abandoned (though my sister was there and he was well-cared for). He told me that when his Dad was ailing, he visited him EVERY SINGLE DAY and made no bones about it that I had fallen short. “How many days was that, Dad?” I asked and missing the irony entirely, he replied “7!” I had been driving two hour round trips for over six months, but he still gave me a D- in filial obligation. He did finally forgive me again in the last weeks and indeed, I know he was proud of me and loved me, but it was a good example of this lifelong habit of conditional love.
Such love can help feed that voice of self-doubt sitting on one shoulder, but it also helps one feel some humility. And after all, some measure of self-doubt is essential to growth and development. By contrast, unconditional love could breed a kind of spiritual laziness even as it provides a solid bedrock foundation for our character and sense of self. I imagine it is the conversation between the two that keeps things healthy and part of the dynamic of balancing the motherly and fatherly, the feminine and masculine. And once again, while not entirely ignoring the connection with real mothers and fathers, there is great flexibility here when the archetypes come to the real world. I imagine gay couples with kids play out these different roles and I’m sure there are plenty of examples where mothers demand proof of accomplishment and fathers are content with the mere fact of their child’s being.
But as I said, my mother was the Queen of Unconditional Love. One of the many times she seemed to be taking dictation from the other world, I took out my little notebook and starting writing as fast as I could. Along with one other story that I shared in the memorial, I spoke these one-liners at the Memorial, gifts that I will open time and time again when the world tries to beat me down or people tell their ugly stories about me or when that voice on one shoulder is out-shouting the other one.
• How can you tell what a little boy can do? And you did it!
• You did all that hard work and you’re a good person. And you always find me when
you want to. Amazing!
• Wait. Just wait and see. People will find out what you’re capable of.
• I love it. I love everything about you. Everything.