Unconditional Love

I have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day.  The cynical part of me would like to lock myself in my room, drink Vodka, and curse society.  The rational side of me knows that it’s just another day, for good or bad – lovers can be romantic any day of the year, and I can gripe in my room anytime.  But the tenderer part of me knows that if I had a special someone, I would romance them to the fullest today – I would not leave any romantic gesture untouched.

Since in reality, however, no love is by my side, I’ll content myself to muse and brood over what is meant by love, especially unconditional love.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid and Psyche, 1789

Few concepts have such a noble place in our minds as “unconditional love.”  We consider that the love of a mother is supreme because it is unconditional – we assume a mother will love her children no matter what.  We want desperately to be loved by someone who will never leave our side.  Some of us strive to learn how to love unconditionally.  Surely that is an admirable endeavor.  Surely true love is unconditional.

However, I don’t think it is admirable; I don’t think it is desirable; and I don’t even think it actually exists.  If I love someone with no conditions for that love, then nothing that he could possibly do would cause me to stop loving him.  If he changes the way he looks, I will still love him – his appearance was not a condition for my love.  If he was once kind and becomes testy, I will still love him – his personality was not a condition of my love.  If he changes his mind of every position he once held, I will still love him – his thoughts were not a condition for my love.  This is clearly ridiculous.  I love the people I love because they are who they are.  I love them because I love something about them.  If they cease to be that, will I still love them?

You see, if you say you love someone unconditionally, you are saying that you have no reason to love that person.  I don’t think you can say that you love someone because they are x and also that if that person were to become not x that you would still love them – x was clearly not a reason or a cause for your love.  So unconditional love means there is nothing, no quality, no merit, about the object of your love that is indispensable to you.

I want to be loved for admirable qualities about myself.  If I were to become essentially different, my lover would feel loss because the me (or the various aspects of me) who was loved is no more.  Unconditional love makes love ordinary and bland.  Why love me and not someone else if there are no criteria?  Why not love everyone equally?  Why not have the same love for every person on earth if there are no conditions?  Unconditional love is not special love.

All that said, I don’t think most people have this literal definition of unconditional love in mind when they use the term.  What they probably mean to convey is a love that is not a bargain.

“To give and not expect return, that is what lies at the heart of love.”  ~ Oscar Wilde

In my mind, the most blatant abuse of love as a bargain is the institution of marriage.  Think about it: two people decide they want to be legally bound, sign a contract, and take oaths in a public ceremony.  This is such a strange tradition!  And we consider this the culmination of a relationship: a contract.  I don’t at all mean to imply that forming long-lasting, potentially lifelong bonds with another human being and committing to stick through the hard times together is a bad thing (I think it’s one of the best things!) but rather that a person should not legally bind another human being to her- or himself forever.  I want someone to choose to face life together with me day by day until we grow old for no other reason than that he loves me and enjoys being with me, not because a contract says he should.  This is my ideal.

I consider, too, what marriage implies regarding unconditional love:

I, ____, take you, ____, for my lawful (husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

It is problematic to expect to not be left no matter what you do.  In my experience, many men, after they have captured their brides, cease to do the very things that initially endeared them to their wives.  They don’t try to be lovable anymore.  They have obtained the prize.  And the prize has promised (by law) that, no matter what, she will not leave him.  Ideally, a couple in love will continually re-fall in love as they further get to know the qualities in each other which initially drew them together.

The safety-net of a marriage bond is an illusion.  The glues of fondness, affection, and devotion are much stronger than the ink of a contract.

*     *     *     *     *

Personally, relearning how to love was one of the most challenging aspects of losing my faith.  On one hand, I was used to the very conditional love of God.  I came to know that God’s love was conditional the same way I came to know anything about God: through people who claim to know something about him.  I knew very distinctly the sorts of things I could and couldn’t do if I wished to remain lovable.  The Bible was explicit.  God’s people were very clear.  In a way, this made love and acceptance easy.  If I do A, B, and C and don’t do D, E and F, I will be loved.  Simple as that.  But when my curiosity and appetite for knowledge led me away from religion, all the professed love vanished.  In recent years, getting to know friends who love me for who I am, instead of who they think I should be, has been jarring but extremely refreshing.

On the other hand, I was also used to the myth of unconditional love.  I thought that no matter how I had sinned, if I confessed my sins, God would forgive and love me.  I thought that nothing I could do would sever my familial ties.  I thought that friendship and love were metaphysical “objects” that could not change.  But as I grew up, I realized that conscious beings change over time.  People grow together and drift apart.  Friendship is a relationship between mutable humans, not eternal souls.  Even familial love changes – family members move away – closeness fades – affections become memories.  These realizations made me frantic at first.  People had been my anchor.  I thought I would lose everyone.  I thought life had no meaning if most relationships would be severed by distance, or change, or death.  Now that I have come to peace with these facts of life, they inspire me to treat relationships as precious and breakable things.  I don’t take people for granted.  I can’t treat people however I want and expect them to still love me the same way.  I treasure all the little moments with the people I love because I know I will not have them forever.  Moments come, moments go.  I want to relish those moments.

I also lost a certain security for love’s labors.  I once thought that each act of “love” would be rewarded in heaven.  I thought that even if my good deeds were thrown in my face and even if my thoughtfulness went unnoticed, God would take notice and even the scores in eternity.  Without God, each act of love is a risk.  Whatever I give has to be given freely without guarantee of return.  I have to be careful and chose wisely the people in whom I will invest time.  Each little piece of love I give away is a piece I don’t expect to get back, I don’t expect to be rewarded for, and I don’t even expect to be necessarily appreciated.

In loving without God and loving conditionally I have learned to love people for who they are, to treasure the people in my life, and “to give and not expect return.”  So in these last few hours of Valentine’s Day and in the days, weeks, and years to come, let your loved ones know the ways and reasons you love them.  Love them for who they are.  Cherish them.  Give freely of yourself.  Love.

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~ by falleninparadise on February 14, 2012.

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