I LOVE YOU.
Family is like your friend’s nose. You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose. At least that’s what I was taught growing up, and to be clear, I’m not advocating for you to pick your nose. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Anyway, the point is that sometimes family relationships can be difficult. Families develop their own culture, their own ways of communicating, their own traditions and expectations of one another. Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) Sometimes family culture is good, sometimes it isn’t. This is a story about how one young man, me, changed the culture of his family for the better.
I was around 12 years old the first time I remember hearing my dad say, “I love you.” Like a lot of families, it just wasn’t something we said openly to one another. It was something we felt, something we showed in our own weird ways, but not something we ever verbalized. I remember that first time because my father and I were on a fishing trip in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. I had been having recurring nightmares about his death that left me with a desperate need to let him know, to verbally tell him, that I loved him. It felt overwhelming.
As I laid in bed that night, tears streamed down my face while I worked up the courage to break the silence between us with those three simple words: I love you. The weight of it felt like an elephant standing on my chest. When I finally croaked out, “Good night, Dad, I love you,” my voice was weak and gravelly, but when I heard him reply in kind, it was as if the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders. Speaking it somehow made it real; there is deep value to verbalizing the unspoken."There is deep value to verbalizing the unspoken." -Jon Smith #collegiatedisciplemaker When "I love you" transforms your family Click To Tweet
Flash forward to college. The men in our family still never said, “I love you,” but by then I was comfortable with that… until I met Mike. Mike was my first roommate at the University of Oregon (go Ducks!), and we became fast friends almost from the moment we met. We hung out together at the house we shared with several other guys, played video games and watched Star Wars about a million times together. When the school year ended and we parted for the summer, he hugged me and said—I’ll never forget this— “I love you, man.” Talk about awkward! I wasn’t sure how to reply, so I said it back to him like it was no big deal, but it was. People need to hear that they are loved.
The next year, I had the chance to meet Mike’s family. Mike had a slew of brothers and sisters, more than I could keep track of, and when we went into their home it was just a never-ending stream of hugs and kisses and, “I love you” over and over again. Even his dad hugged me. Talk about weird! To this day, they are the most affectionate family I’ve ever met, the antithesis of what I grew up in. It felt so refreshing and positive that I had to ask Mike about it later.
“Mike, how do you guys do that? How do you get so open with each other like that?”
“Jon,” he said, “you just do it.” Nike eat your heart out; Mike said it first. Just do it.
So I did. I set a goal to never hang up the phone or leave my parent’s house without saying, “I love you.” As you might guess, more weirdness ensued. There were long months of awkward pauses, strange hugs, and stressful moments… until one fall afternoon it happened. I was loading my clean laundry into the car, preparing to leave my parents’ house and head back to school when my dad walked out the front door, wrapped me in a big awkward bear hug and said, “Bye, son, I love you.”
I still get choked up thinking about it. I was 20. It was the first time he had said that to me without being prompted. Now we say it every time. It’s normal. Our family always says, “I love you.” But it wasn’t always that way.
My wife had a similar experience with her own family. The first time she heard her dad say, “I love you,” was when he dropped her off for her first year of college at Southwest Baptist University (Go Bearcats!). Imagine growing up and graduating from high school without ever hearing that affirmation from your father. How tragic! Unfortunately, for a lot of kids today, no imagination is necessary.
After hearing her “I love you” story I took the initiative to do the same thing with my in-laws that I’d done with my own family, intentionally leading the way to change the culture of communication and affection in her, our, family. About two years later, as I was hanging up the phone at the end of a conversation with my mother-in-law, I said, “I love you, too.” My wife overheard it and, honestly, I didn’t know she could hit that hard. She was so mad! But it was worth it. Every family has the capacity to change.
Whatever your family culture might be, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can do something about it. It won’t always be easy. It might be awkward and uncomfortable. The old saying, “nothing worth having comes easy,” enters the conversation here, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Say what needs to be said. Don’t let the weight of your family culture keep you from something better. Trust me, even if you have to take punch, it’s worth it.
And if you’ve never said (or heard) “I love you” in your family, maybe Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to start. Just saying.