Earrings and One Way Love
Below is an excerpt from my book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World.
Critical environments are contexts which (while never explicitly stated) shout: “my approval of you, love for you, and joy in you depends on your ability to measure up to my standards, to become what I need you to become in order for me to be happy.” It’s a context in which achievement precedes acceptance. We’ve all felt this. We’ve felt it at school, in churches, in the workplace, with our friends, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, and most painfully, at home with our spouses, our children, our siblings, and our parents. One-way love is often what distinguishes a warm household from a cold one. Children often move across the country to get away from a toxic home life where two-way conditionality has come to rule the roost via the judgments of parents and other siblings. A house full of conditions feels like a prison. Rules are one thing—take out the trash; don’t hit your brother. They govern the day-to-day and protect us from one another. Conditions are different and more emotional in nature. “If you really loved us, then you wouldn’t spend so much time with those people.” “We will approve of whatever career choice you make, provided it’s between medicine, law, and business.” “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Even small differences between family members can be the source of tremendous friction. Yet grace has the power to bind generations together. I was blessed to have experienced the power of one-way love not just from my parents but my grandparents as well.
Whenever people learn that I was kicked out of the house at sixteen, they invariably ask how my grandparents responded. What they usually mean is “How did Billy and Ruth Graham respond to actual sin in their midst?” People looked up to them, not just as spiritual leaders, but as role models for how to raise godly children and grandchildren. “Weren’t you shaming the family name?” The truth is, my grandparents never said a single word to me about getting my act together. They never pulled me aside at a family gathering and told me what I needed to do or stop doing, how I was squandering all that my parents had given me, and how my hard-hardheartedness was hurting others–especially those who loved me most. Only God knows what they were thinking or feeling, but I never picked up on a shred of conditionality from them: “If you want our approval and affection, you have to get your act together.” They treated me exactly the opposite of how I deserved to be treated.
For example, I wore earrings back in those days. One in the left, and one in the right. It used to drive my parents nuts. Every time my grandmother—Ruth Graham—came down to visit, she would bring me a fresh set of earrings to wear! They were always funny. At Christmastime, she would bring me ornament earrings and make me put them in and take a picture. At Thanksgiving, she brought fork and knife earrings, and she took a picture. She made light of it. She would often tell me with a twinkle in her eye that I was her favorite granddaughter. She wasn’t making fun of me. She was saying, “This isn’t that big of a deal. He’s going to grow out of it.” It may sound pretty trivial, but it meant the world to me. Everyone else was on my case, and instead of giving me one more thing to rebel against, my grandmother drew me in closer.
Of course, I eventually did grow out of the “earring wearing” stage–a stage my oldest son just entered (I guess what goes around really does come around). But thanks to Tai Tai’s (what we called my grandmother) unconditional posture towards me 25 years ago, I won’t be making an issue of it. In fact, they actually look really good on him.