I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend, Annette, lately. Annette was a passionate activist and academic who worked tirelessly with a variety of community and international organizations to end violence against women. When she died at the age of 36 from breast cancer, thousands of people around the world mourned her loss – not only because she was such a fierce advocate for women, but because, in doing that work, she demonstrated such an enormous capacity for love.
I first met Annette when we worked together for a feminist international development organization. Her passion, commitment, and optimism – particularly in light of the hard issues she tackled every day – were truly inspiring. But, as I got to know her better, I was struck by something else – how fearlessly and generously she loved – her family, her friends, her colleagues, the women on whose behalf she worked and total strangers who needed her help. She never shied away from expressing admiration, affection, generosity or compassion. She never wasted an opportunity to make a new friend. And her love was infectious because those who knew her were so often inspired to become more loving themselves.
In our society, we too often think of love as a commodity – something to be carefully measured and traded – as if we should only love those who love us back and to precisely the same degree. Though often spoken of, unconditional love is hard to come by.
But of course love isn’t a commodity, or at least it needn’t be. Love can transform us in profound ways. It calls upon us to be our best selves – generous, accepting, forgiving, patient and compassionate. At its best, love is offered with hope and optimism, and no expectation of reward.
Personally, I've not always loved the way I should have. Too often I’ve become angry or resentful when the people I cared for didn’t return my love in the ways I wanted them too. Worse, I’ve sometimes refused to express love in the first place – out of fear it would be rejected or misused, or that those I loved would ask more of me than I was prepared to give. More recently, I like to think I’ve gotten better at accepting the people I love for who they are, and at being compassionate and forgiving when they say or do things that hurt me. It seems to me that, whatever the response, just being able to love (when so many people can’t) is one of life’s great gifts.
Annette passed away at home on December 23, 1998. The last time I saw her was a few weeks before at an event held in honour entitled “A Celebration of Life”. When she arrived at the party (a bit late because she was so ill by that time), she wore a long, navy gown, with a hot pink boa around her neck, and she looked as beautiful and vivacious as ever. For the next two hours, she slowly circled the room talking with as many people as she could, expressing gratitude for the support she’d received during her illness and (I now realize) gently saying her goodbyes. The love in the room that night – hers for all of us, and ours for her – was palpable.
So – in honour of Annette – I’ll be thinking a lot about love this Christmas. And my New Year’s resolution is to try harder to follow her example – to love fearlessly, with optimism and hope and without expectation, and to be genuinely grateful for whatever love comes back to me.