I Can’t Make You Love Me

“Big John, a Vietnam veteran with a disability pension, lifted the bottle of Thunderbird to his lips and said, ‘My drinking drove her away. Now I drink to forget her.’” So goes a written line with enough drama to fuel multiple seasons of a trite realty show, or at the least fill a two-hour Hallmark movie.

Big John continued to lament about the loss of his marriage and concluded by saying to the reporter, “We both sat there and cried in the courtroom. But you know, you can’t make a damn woman love you, if she don’t.” Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin read that line in the morning paper and knew it was songwriting gold.

The two men, staples in the Nashville song-writing world, worked on a their tune for more than six months. They tried to make it funny, upbeat, and thought about pitching it as a bluegrass song. But in his basement, tinkering with lyrics and arrangements, Reid slowed it down, turned it into a piano ballad, and went for the heart. A year later the eternal Bonny Raitt – with Bruce Hornsby on the piano – recorded Reid and Shamblin’s masterpiece: “I Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t.” 

These days I hear how “all we need is love” to get through these raucous and perilous days. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s the proper medicine for sure, but most of us have no idea what we’re asking for or talking about. Love is not about being nice or making friends. Love is not the return to some untenable status quo or a pipe dream vision of a future utopia. Love isn’t even an emotion; it has little to do with how we feel.

Rather, love is a way of being in the world. It is an attitude and a lifestyle. It is choosing patience, humility, unselfishness, reconciliation, justice, and persevering truth over acrimony, arrogance, greed, hostility, inequality, and easy deceit. Of course, not everyone will choose the former virtues over the latter vices. To paraphrase Big John: You can’t make someone love if they’re unwilling to do so.

But if you choose to love – choose to be more long-suffering and less jealous, more humble and less proud, more conciliatory and less irritable, more just and less dishonest – you don’t have to wait on the unwilling. You can make the decision to love now, and that love will serve as its own power to transform you. As for everyone else, well, you can’t make them love you if they don’t.

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