Show. Don’t Tell.

“Show. Don’t tell” is the most common advice given to writers practicing their craft. It is essential advice but often difficult to practice. Words are easy. Telling is a shortcut to getting the idea across. But writing is about more than just getting the idea across. We need our reader to feel something, to have an experience that makes for them a lasting change.

“Show. Don’t tell” happens also to be excellent advice for life. It is becoming my directive for authentic, meaningful relationships.

I share my life with an incredible woman who doesn’t realize how incredible she is. We have known each other 25 years. That’s more than half our lives. In that time, you come to understand essential things about each other. You also develop shortcuts and habits in the way you see and tell each other things.

In 25 years, you say “I love you” a hundred thousand times, sometimes without thinking, sometimes as reflex. Sometimes “I love you” makes complicated things easier. Other times, instead of saying the thing you need to say, saying “I love you” lets you off the hook.

I love this person more today than I ever have, but I am trying to say “I love you” a little less. I am trying to put myself back on the hook. I am trying to find ways inside our life to show rather than tell. And when I do say those words, “I love you”, I want to know she understands exactly what I mean. I want her to have an experience that she can feel, some small thing that makes a lasting change.

Happily Ever After: The Work of Love

The work of love is learning to share your life completely without accidentally giving it all away. Our earliest stories in life show us two main virtues to true love: to rescue or to be rescued. You know these stories. Our most basic behaviors, beliefs and thoughts are drenched in the brine of idealized expectation.

If you are stuck in life, you can be the unfortunate stepdaughter princess, always waiting without fully realizing that you are waiting, wiling the hours away with songs about wishes and stars until, one day when you least expect it, true love bursts into your life through the forest and gets you unstuck.

Or, if you are stuck in life, you can become the directionless prince wandering with his noble, shimmering steed on some nameless, purposeless errand only to find the damsel desperate for your hand. Only you can help her. You cannot ignore this moment. She is beautiful to be sure, but how much more beautiful she will seem to you wrapped in her dirty, desperate rags, her eyes bright with hope and expectations to be fulfilled.

The gender doesn’t matter. The story is the same. True love divides us into the rescued and the rescuer. Happily Ever After becomes our endless pursuit, the project around which one builds one’s entire life.

Our tales of True Love command we give ourselves completely to the person who most desperately needs our help.

And yet, we are all somewhat stuck inside our lives — sometimes happily, often with great joy and purpose, but situated nonetheless in a particular circumstance or lack that needs fulfilling. This is not a dark thought. It is acknowledged truth.

True love cannot save us. True love keeps us locked in, always being the rescued or the rescuer.

I prefer authentic love. Authentic love that sees the other exactly as they are. Authentic love that sees the self as it is rather than as it would prefer to be. There is no rescue. There is no rescuer. There is just the authentic self seeing and the authentic self being seen. This is, it seems to me, the most basic root of human need — to see and to know that one has been seen.

Happily Ever After is no longer the project. Happily Ever After is a life without pain, discomfort or inconvenience. Happily Ever After is the vision of heaven that drove me out of the church.

Better, so much better, to be fully present sometimes with pain, to be awake sometimes in darkness. Better to see and be seen exactly as we are. This is not easy. They do not write stories to prepare us for this. But if we can be authentic and allow ourselves to see and be seen, then we can share ourselves completely and know the peace, joy and comfort that comes only from being really and truly known. This is the work of our lives. Love is our greatest tool. To learn how to share our authentic selves without reservation and without the distractions of self-sacrifice. To allow the people we love to help us without rescue, to leave off with Happily Ever After and welcome ourselves to be completely as we are — improvised, imperfect, authentic.