Wendy Woolfson

The System of Love

The first time I said the word love in the context of an emotion, and not just talking about how much I loved my new jacket or a friends’ hairdo, was with my first boyfriend. I really did love him, and although I was unpractised in using the word, I knew it was the real thing. It felt slightly embarrassing at first, forming the words in my mouth and saying them out loud but it felt nice. It felt good to be in a romantic and loving relationship and feel that love returned, for the first time. I was eighteen. Eighteen years without ever being told I was loved. I think that’s really sad.

When I was growing up the word ‘love’ was never used. I was never told that someone loved me. I never heard anyone say the words ‘I love you’. It only became weird as I got older and I noticed that other people said it, like if I was at a friends’ house and their parent said it to my friend, and I would feel a bit awkward but not quite know why.

In the seventies, there was this cute cartoon in the papers, it was called ‘Love Is…’ and it featured a naked, but sexless looking boy and girl who would model what different types of love could be such as, ‘Love is… reading a book together’ showing the couple snuggled on a love seat, or ‘Love is… someone to scratch the itch you can’t reach’ with one of them scratching the back of the other. I really enjoyed these cartoons and bought the sticker album, and each week bought a packet of the collector stickers to put in it. I collected them all but the album went missing and I lost it forever, something I still lament to this day. Love always felt important, and yet elusive to me. I didn’t know what it was meant to feel like or look like.

I was always one for using cliches like, ‘love makes the world go round’ and ‘all you need is love’ but you see, I believed they were true even when people laughed at me for my idealistic nature. I still do believe in those cliches and everything I do comes from a place of love but it’s got me into some amount of trouble, I was far too naïve when I was younger and had no understanding of boundaries and how to keep myself safe. So, in what felt like an endless search for true love and a partner that would love me for who I am, I got into a lot of trouble, some of it serious.

When we don’t teach our children how to love it leaves a huge gap in their life lessons and learning. Love is a fundamental resource in our lives; don’t we all live for it? Almost every song written is about love. Thousands of poems and stories are written on the theme of love, and I think it’s because we are born to love. We are born to be here on this earth to love and to make it as beautiful a place as possible in every way, and love can do that. When we do something that comes from a place of love we create beauty. We see that most obviously in art and music but there are other places where that can happen too, such as governmental systems changing things at a practical level.

Here in Scotland the idea of love is the cornerstone of Scotland’s commitment to young people with experience of being in care, it’s called The Promise, an aspirational document outlining a system for making support and services better and more empathic and understanding of their specific needs, thus providing them with better chances in life to ensure “they will grow up loved, safe, and respected”. This is supported by all of the Scottish Parliament’s political parties. There are people who are working hard to change institutional systems to start operating on a new level, and this is illustrated most clearly within the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) movement. This is a movement that recognises the long-lasting effect that trauma can have, and most significantly that which is experienced in childhood.

Furthermore, there are people building compassion into other key areas: organisations are working within the prison systems bringing trauma informed practice and understanding to make rehabilitation possible and reduce reoffending, whilst supporting families on the outside to mitigate the trauma of the children whose parents are in prison. I was present at an inspiring talk from an organisation which is implementing compassionate change to their housing system through building relationships with their tenants and subsequently preventing homelessness. In schools, trauma informed practice is becoming more commonplace including a paradigm shift beginning in the understanding of additional support needs of all kinds, meaning we are supporting the children and young people to access education in a way that demonstrates compassion and understanding for their needs, their home life, and circumstances, and recognising how that can impact their ability to access education. It gives me great hope to see this happening in my own country where we are building compassion and love into our structures; it helps us to see the person in front of us as a suffering human the same as ourselves. What a powerful difference that makes as we view systems and people wholistically, and work together rather than pigeon holing and pathologizing the people we support and work with.

Love begins with us, and it starts with the simplest of gestures; a smile, a hug, picking up something someone else has dropped, a kind word. I tell my children I love them every day, I hug them, and show them what love is in many ways, and I know I’m not the only one. I can see the world is changing, and there is a new generation that truly is bringing in the culture of love that was started in the sixties, when people started waking up to a new ideal and the real possibility that we can build our world on love, not war.