Is It Right to Love Unconditionally?
What is unconditional love? Does it make us lazy human beings?
Posted Dec 04, 2020
For those who already know
You were born and that is enough, in theory, to know what unconditional love means. When at loss for words to describe unconditional love, people often point to parental love as the easiest example to explain what unconditional love actually means.
You were born and your parents loved you despite all your flaws and strengths.
Good for you!
What about all those who struggled with the love received from their parents? Those whose parents were emotionally immature or those who were never enough for their parents; those who grew up with aloof parents or those who felt suffocated by their parental love? The rest of my reflections are for them:
For those who have no clue
How often have you desired to be loved for who you are? How many times have you caught yourself chasing a relationship because you just wanted to be loved? Have you ever thought that unconditional love should imply sacrifice?
Unconditional love is often the goal of an entire life and very rarely do we stop reflecting on what it is and how it can be achieved. Our instincts might drive us to fulfill our thirst for love in a chaotic way while our mind might lead us in directions that do not necessarily make our heart happy. Where is the right balance? How can we experience unconditional love for ourselves or others?
Christian religion, for sure, dedicated refined discussions on what agape—charitable love—is and how we can achieve it. There’s an animated debate about whether we can take agape as a synonym for unconditional love. In fact, what is called agape refers to that brotherly love that keeps the community together no matter our individual flaws. Also, unconditional seems to be the love that God holds for us regardless of what we feel for God or the damages that we might bring to God (For, God loved all humans unconditionally by sending his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for our sins—John 3:16).
Yet, again, what if we are not Christians? What if we want to understand unconditional love in less Biblical terms? How can we be capable of this form of love? More importantly, should we be striving for this form of love? Or is it somewhat unethical being so forgiving toward ourselves and others.
In the mid-20th century, a group of psychologists rose up against the limitation of Freud’s and Skinner’s interpretations of human nature in search for a more holistic approach to human beings. Their positions were strongly influenced by existential and phenomenological philosophy—which means that they were trying to make sense of human existence as it unfolds in their life-world.
It seems that it was with the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, and then with the humanistic approach of Rogers and Myers that the term ‘unconditional love’ was first introduced under the expression of 'unconditional positive regard.' This showed the healing power of love that developed the full potential of the human being. This term brought the sparkle of divinity to humans as it showed the importance of the unconditional acceptance of who we are in our healing.
Yet, one problem that always emerges in my practice when I talk about unconditional love has to do with the ethical boundaries. What are the ethical boundaries of unconditional love? Should we accept our children if they intentionally produce harm to ourselves and others? Should we keep loving an abusive partner?
Let’s Start with Parental Relationships
Let’s assume that parents should be an example of unconditional love for their children. Yet, how often have we encountered parents who cannot accept a son because he is gay, or a daughter because she is in love with the wrong man? In his 2012 book, Andrew Solomon reads for us a few lines from a bioethicists, Joseph Fletcher, who, in 1968, mentions a parental dilemma in relation to children with down syndrome:
"There is no reason to feel guilty about putting a Down’s syndrome baby away, whether it’s “put away” in the sense of hidden in a sanatorium or in a more responsible lethal sense. It is sad, yes. Dreadful. But it carries no guilt. True guilt arises only from an offense against a person, and a Down’s is not a person" ( Fletcher, Bard, 1968, 59-64)
This is an ethicist who clearly underestimates the power of unconditional love. In fact, now that we have higher acceptance of babies born with down syndrome, their life expectancy increased together with the quality of their life. Yet, before this, plenty of others were hidden in sanatoria or never allowed to live.
I believe that unconditional love can be described as a force capable of bringing to existence the essence of a human being in any form it presents.
In this case, the children were the victims of blind parents. But what happens when the children are causing suffering to others? What if your children are also guilty of despicable crimes?
Let’s take Susan Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, the shooter at Columbine. When interviewed, she was asked what she would have said to Dylan if he were still alive. She would have asked for forgiveness—she said. She was feeling sorry for not having understood the sense of confusion that Dylan was feeling inside, for not having been able to see him.
Clearly, Dylan did something wrong and clearly those parents had to acknowledge the tragedy that this caused. Yet, in reviewing this recent tragedy, Susan realized that more than avoiding all the choices that led up to that catastrophic event—going to college, marrying her husband, having that child—what she would change is paying more attention to the human being she was raising to know who he was and accepting or at least seeing his essence.
This acceptance does not erase the ethical wrong he personally did; it just gives existential justice to his soul. This person is no longer the whole cluster of projection of his parents’ dreams and regrets but he is his own existence.
Same problems arise in abusive relationships
Is unconditional love the ultimate goal of our lives? If we say yes, aren’t we condemned to endure abusive relationships with our romantic halves, unfair parents, or siblings? To what extent does the pursuit of unconditional love nail us to a self-sacrificing life?
I would say to no extent. Unconditional love implies the ability to see, bring to awareness the essence of the person we are living with, whether that is just ourselves or our romantic partner.
How often do we see what we want to see in the person we have in front of us or in ourselves? In one of my previous blog posts, I was playing with the Lacan notion that “love is giving what you do not have to someone who does not want it.” I believe that there is some painful truth in this.
Unconditional love does not mean that we are condemned to accept the rightness of an abusive partner, it means that we can see his unfair violence, but we stop making excuses for them in the pointless effort to justify our life in relation to them.
Unconditional love means to be compassionate toward our child, partner, or ourself especially after the realization that not all the expectations are met; it means to have eyes to see what kind of life is unfolding in front of (and within) us and to have a heart big enough to accept the social implications of that life—whether that involves having a son who is a mass murderer or a daughter who wants to devote her life to justice. Human capacity to love unconditionally is a means to living a meaningful life.
To conclude with a quote from Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning: "Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him."
Frankl, V. (1946). Man's Search For Meaning, Beacon Press.
Fletcher, J. & Bard, B. (1968). "The Right to Die", Atlantic Monthly, 221, 59-64.
Solomon, A. (2012). Far from the Tree, Simon & Shuster.