26 December, 2008

Unconditional love... real, or an oxymoron?

This is a serious topic for me.

I am not sure if it exists or not.

And it is something that can be called into question in many different situations. The notion that it might exist gives great comfort to those who believe they are the recipients of it. The fear that it cannot exist gives great concern to those who have never experienced it. The fear that it might exist gives discomfort to those who apparently are unable to demonstrate it.

So does it exist? Can it exist? What does it even mean?

Well, there is a Wikipedia entry for it, so perhaps that means it does exist.

But, there are Wikipedia entries for one or two other things, for which I have seen no evidence. So, Wikipedia does not really help us at all in this case.

That said, what do they actually say in this Wikipedia article? Well, they define unconditional love as "to love someone regardless of his actions or beliefs". (Interestingly, the fact that they say "his" makes me wonder if perhaps only a woman is capable of such a thing!)

In this article, they state there are two categories of unconditional love: familial, and romantic. Also, they characterize both of these categories. In the case of romantic love, they provide the example of a partner who is a victim of abuse, yet loves the victimizer unconditionally. I must wonder if there is some bias in the view of the author of the entry.

I rarely will quote entire sections of another body of material within my blog entries, but here is one case where I would like to do this. From the Wikipedia entry above, comes the following passage, under the heading of "Critical Views":

Some secular authors make a distinction between unconditional love and conditional love. In conditional love: love is 'earned' on the basis of conscious or unconscious conditions being met by the lover, whereas in unconditional love, love is 'given freely' to the loved one 'no matter what'. Conditional love requires some kind of finite exchange, whereas unconditional love is seen as infinite and measureless. Unconditional love should not be mistaken with unconditional dedication: unconditional dedication refers to an act of the will irrespective of feelings (e.g a person may consider they have a duty to stay with a person); unconditional love is an act of the feelings irrespective of will.

[...section skipped...]

Unconditional love of self is the concept of loving yourself regardless of external conditions. This includes not denying yourself/your feelings in favor of others. Ultimately in this action a person will have to move away from others who do not love them without condition or teach them to. This idea could be considered imperative to increasing the amount of love one feels. If a person is looking outside him or herself for love they may never find unconditional love or even enough love to be happy. Unconditional love of self is considered the foundation for unconditional love because of this. Once a person is able to love him or herself without condition they will be able to love others without condition. Some gurus/teachers would describe this as an overflow effect as if the person is overflowing with love or agape. Unconditional love of self is most often used in conjunction with self-acceptance as a way to bring the self to a place of well-being and self understanding.

For many people this is not very easy to understand, probably because people have used the term to demand more love from a person than possible for that person to give. And when the person in demand was unable to fulfill the expectations of the other they were accused of not loving without condition. This is a false definition that would actually be more synonymous with guilt or guilt-trip. It is difficult/impossible to define unconditional self love or unconditional love when people put expectations on it that can ultimately end up in disappointment.

So, there's a lot in there. They assert that loving oneself is a prerequisite for being able to unconditionally love another. But is it healthy to love another unconditionally? Well, it really depends, doesn't it? If the person you love unconditionally loves themself unconditionally, then one could posit that it would be a healthy state of being. Because one who loves themself unconditionally would, presumably, not engage in self-abusive behaviors. If one can assert that abusing others is a form of self-abuse (because of the natural guilt one must feel, at least at deep levels of consciousness), then love of self would need to preclude the abuse of self or others. Such an individual who lives in this state would be a ready and deserving recipient of unconditional love. This being because there would likely be no great risk to the giver of unconditional love of being harmed by the recipient.

But is that a utopian scenario? Do any of us love our selves truly unconditionally? And should we? How can we? And what does it mean "to love"? And what are "conditions"? There are so many questions here.

I would assert that to love oneself, one must conduct one's life in a way that meets a set of morals, or ethics, or values, or standards, or whatever you want to call them. If you elect to run through the streets stabbing people, it would be hard to imagine you could love yourself in this context. On a less absurd level, if you engage in behaviors that you are fully aware are causing harm, or may cause harm to others, or to yourself, then it seems to follow it would be difficult to love yourself. So it sounds, by my assertion, like there need to be certain conditions met in order to love oneself.

Also, if one were to consider my last paragraph reasonable (and I don't require that you do), then one might come to the conclusion that love overlaps significantly with "acceptance". Though, obviously, acceptance is a subset of what love is. Regardless, if acceptance is a fundamental component of love, then love must by definition be conditional. Because one can only accept that which is acceptable, therefore it must follow that one can only love that which is acceptable. In essence, to be acceptable means "to meet certain conditions".

So where are we?

Unconditional love. What does it mean? If love must include acceptance, it seems that unconditional love would need to include one or more of the following:

  • Acceptance without condition. This is an oxymoron, because that which is acceptable is, by definition, that which is "capable", "worthy", "meeting requirements", "pleasing", "satisfactory", "tolerable", i.e. meets certain conditions.

  • The conscious choice to ignore, overlook, or forgive (e.g. "accept") any failures to meet one's established set of values, ethics, morals, etc.

The problem here is that, while the first bulleted item is an oxymoron, the second bulleted item could be argued to be in violation of unconditional love of self (which would then, presumably, make it impossible to unconditionally love another). Because, if you choose to accept that which is fundamentally in opposition with core values, ethics, morals, beliefs, is this not to behave in a manner that is unacceptable (i.e. unworthy of love) with respect to self?

The last point I want to discuss relates to the subject of unconditional dedication versus unconditional love, as mentioned in the commentary from Wikipedia. The distinction between the two, as they state, is that dedication is about "action" whereas "love" is about feelings. And it may be here that all of this can be rectified. It may be possible to accept/love another without choosing to dedicate to them. A relationship with another requires both love/acceptance and dedication to the interaction with the other. The absence of either of these can result in either an unfulfilling, or broken relationship. And we can choose, or experience each of these phenomena in conjunction, or exclusive of the other.

I am still not sure where that leaves us. But it is certainly something worth a little thought.

1 comment:

  1. Unconditional love: either a misnomer, or really, really stupid.

    Those who claim to love 'unconditionally' haven't actually had those conditions tested. Or, the idea of unconditional love as one might have for, say, God, is irrelevant and meaningless, based upon blind faith and probably fear or ignorance more so than love.

    People should be proud of expressing CONDITIONAL love; selective love for those who deserve, who reciprocate, who requite.