• Britt Riner

Choosing to Love -- Even When Liking is Hard

Updated: Feb 9

Many people have a lot of harsh words for America today, and it can be hard for patriots to know how to respond with compassion and truth. What if one of the secrets to learning to live peaceably with those quick to condemn America are ones our mothers whispered to us during story time when we were little? Read on to find out what I think one of those secrets might be and how I'm trying to help my kids learn the lesson of choosing to love, even when liking is hard.

“Mama, my brother tells me he doesn’t love me anymore when he’s mad at me,” said my four-and-a-half year old (the “half” really matters at that age) as she sat on the potty and let out her feelings about my three-year-old son. We seem to have some pretty honest conversations in the bathroom. I don’t know what it is about that location -- maybe because it’s already a place of vulnerability? Maybe because I kneel down, am just lower than her eye level, and for once she is taller than I am? Maybe it’s a combination of both? In any case, it was clear that she had been carrying this concern for a while, because it wasn’t the first time I had heard it, and this time her eyes were on the precipice of tears. The first time she mentioned the issue, I dismissed her, “Oh sweetheart, of course your brother loves you. He’s just letting his emotions get the better of him.” Evidently that wasn’t sufficient reassurance. So this time, I tried something else.

Me: “What was going on when he said he didn’t love you?”

Her: “I took his toy.”

Me: “Was that a kind thing to do?”

Her: “No, but I just really wanted it.”

Me: “I can see why that made him mad, and I can see why you are sad. Even when we are mad for good reasons, we need to choose our words wisely. My feelings would hurt too if someone told me that they didn’t love me anymore. Honey, does mama still love you even when she gets mad with you?”

Her: (Slowly) “Yes-s-s.”

Me: “Okay, then it’s the same with your brother. Sometimes people say things they don’t mean, and it’s hurtful, and he needs to ask for your forgiveness, and we’ll talk with him about that. For now, I want you to understand something. We’re family. He and you are family, and family members love each other even when it’s hard to like each other. You don’t have to like someone all the time to love them all time”

"You don’t have to like someone all the time to love them all time."

As those words rolled out of my mouth, I was transported back to Durham, NC, where my 17-year-old self sat for an interview that had the potential to change my life. Here's what led up to that pivotal moment.

I was a high school senior who had applied to several universities, Duke University being my “reach school.” One day in spring, I came home from school to find a FedEx envelope at my garage door. Inside was a letter notifying me that I had been named a finalist for a full-tuition scholarship! I didn’t know if I’d be accepted, let alone be considered for a scholarship. Needless to say, I was stunned. The letter explained that the university would fly me to Duke to spend a weekend interviewing with professors, administrators, and current and potential students to determine if I would be awarded the scholarship. Prior to the weekend, I needed to complete a questionnaire that included the question, “What is your favorite book?” I immediately tried to think of the fanciest book I had read thus far: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Odyssey, Moby Dick, Cry, the Beloved Country. I enjoyed every one of those books, but none of those seemed to be a genuine answer for that blank space staring me in the face. Suddenly, I remembered the book my mom had read to me ever since I was a young child and occasionally read to me even as an older child, “Like You Forever, Love you for Always,” an illustrated children’s book by Robert Munsch. Rather than pick a recently read and deeply analyzed AP English Literature novel, I selected the 32-page paperback I chose for my third grade book report, complete with papier-mâché puppets and velcro (velcro of course for the interchangeable brunette and white hair styles the mother protagonist evinced over the course of her life). Duke evaluators may see that response and be confused at my scholarship semi-finalist status, but at least I would stand out from the crowd of other candidates!

Though the whole weekend was an interview of sorts, I still remember what I wore to my formal interview: a sleeveless white turtleneck (was that a holdover from the ’90s or what?) and black pants. I sat before a panel of four people for an hour, but I only remember three questions they asked me. The first was “What would you say to Kofi Annan if you could have a personal chat with him.” I was grateful I had been reading the newspaper and even knew who Kofi Annan was! My parents certainly weren’t discussing international affairs at the dinner table. He was the then-leader of the United Nations and soon-to-be Duke commencement speaker. "Whew, made it past that tricky one," I thought.

15 years later, Britt does a public reading of her favorite book

The second question, “Why did you pick a children’s story for your favorite book?” One member of the panel, a professor, said he was intrigued when he read the title, so intrigued that he went to the library (these were pre-Amazon and youtube read-aloud days!) to look it up and read it. He wanted to understand why I had selected a tale about a mother’s love for her son through the various stages of his development. He had read how, at each chapter of the boy’s childhood, the mother endures something about her son that drives her crazy. She wrestles with choices he makes that she doesn't like, but regardless of what he did (or didn't do) that day, after he is asleep, she picks up her son and tenderly rocks him saying, “I like you forever, I love you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.” I explained that while this was a nice children's story, this wasn’t just any children’s book. It testifies to unconditional, never-ending love, a rare and powerful quality. To have it means not just affection, but also security and a sense that one can withstand anything because, no matter what, someone would always love, respect, and support you. And it is only unconditional love that can teach another person to love well in return. At the end of the story, the mother is too frail to embrace her child the way she used to, so the grown son visits her and sings to her the same sweet refrain that she used to sing over him. When he returns to his own home, he picks up his newborn baby girl, and sings the beautiful ballad to her. The professor seemed satisfied with my response. "Whew, made it past that tough one too," said my inner sigh of relief.

Later in the interview, the conversation turned to current events and the recent US-led invasion of Iraq. I honestly don’t remember how the discussion led there. I mentioned that I supported and prayed for our troops. The same professor who had asked about the book, inquired about the meaning of my statement. “When you say you pray, what do you mean? Are you religious? Or do you just meditate? Do you mean "pray" just in a platitudinal sort of way?”

“When you say you pray, what do you mean? Are you religious? Or do you just meditate? Do you mean "pray" just in a platitudinal sort of way?”

Now is a good time to mention that this professor was the head of the Islamic Studies department, and the Islamic world was especially not fond of American involvement in 2003. Inter-faith dialogue wasn’t really “a thing” either. It’s also important to note that the scholarship that was on the line meant the world to me -- and to my family. My father was a 100% disabled Vietnam veteran, unable to work for several years, and my mother was a public school teacher. According to FAFSA results, I qualified for some financial aid, but not much. I would still need to take out hefty loans if I wanted to be able to afford Duke for college. I felt as though my family’s financial future depended on how I would answer that one question.

The interview had been going so well. I really didn’t want to upset the professor, disrupt the tone of our exchange, or alter his views toward me. I didn’t want to surrender the chance to attend my dream school without six-figure debt, but . . . I thought about my favorite children’s book, my parents, my faith, my country, and what mattered most to me. I took a deep breath and said, “I am a Christian, and it is in that tradition I pray. Just like the mother in the book repeatedly tells her son that no matter what he does, whether or not she likes it, she will always love him, the same is true for me and America. Regardless of what one thinks about the decisions our leaders at any given time make, I choose to say to America, ‘I like you forever, I love you for always, as long as I’m living, my country you’ll be.’”

Regardless of what one thinks about the decisions our leaders at the time make, I choose to say to America, ‘I like you forever, I love you for always, as long as I’m living, my country you’ll be.’”

There was a long pause, some more verbal exchange I don’t recall, and then the interview wrapped shortly thereafter. The next day, on the plane ride home, I wondered if I had just traded financial freedom for the honest truth. There are few moments in life that feel like such a momentous hinge, but even my inexperienced teenage self knew that was one of them. I decided that if I had lost a scholarship opportunity for a declaration of my faith and patriotism, I was still coming out the winner. To speak my conscience freely, to worship freely, to defend what my father had given his life defending -- that’s true freedom. And freedom isn't free. It comes with a cost. If that meant it cost me the scholarship, then so be it. I'd be rich in truth.

I told my mom about what happened, wondering what she'd think of my decision. Had I behaved like the little toddler in the story who, instead of flushing mother's watch, flushed a mother's dreams for her daughter down the toilet? True to her decade's plus narration of the book, she told me that she was proud of me, it didn't matter if I didn't get the scholarship, we would find a way for me to make Duke my future. I felt like she liked me forever, she loved me for always, and that as long as she was living, her baby I'd be.