Lately, I’ve been thinking of love (yet again).
More precisely, I’ve been pondering an idea that has, frankly, confused me for quite some time: unconditional love.
Honestly, this concept can be such a mystery…
Now, growing up, there are many things one hears said about love.
Some of them, such as the concept of a love at first sight, quickly meet their death at the hands of the harsh reality of human interactions. People don’t just look at each other and fall in love. Certainly not if love is to mean anything more than pure lust, anyway.
However, other things one hears, such as talk of unconditional love, can be more difficult to grapple with.
That is why, personally, I have always felt a bit ambivalent touching on that particular subject. Partly it’s because love itself is hard to experience deeply, but mostly it’s because the requirement of unconditionality goes against many of my usual intuitions.
For instance, if love is good for something (and if it isn’t, why pursue it?), then presumably it can only produce its fruit in a delicately nurtured environment and only in the presence of the right person.
In greater detail, that means: if love is to make us happy, then it can only fulfill its purpose in the company of an overall positive partner. And if love is to make us grow, then a partner who doesn’t actively sabotage us would be necessary.
In all cases, however, love always ends up seeming vulnerable and fragile. If a partner’s personality is one brain damage away from its opposite; if a partner’s optimism can be put to sleep by any unfortunate string of events; if there are other potential partners with whom love would be more effective; if all of this and much more is true, then how can one make sense of unconditional love?
Crucially, how can one accept the inherent sacrifice embedded in the very core of the idea? How can one love even when there is apparently nothing left to be loved?
I guess, one can try and regard unconditional love as a nice feel-good story without taking it too seriously. For example, if a loved partner suddenly goes mad and consequently all life turns into hell, of course love should end right then and there. In this view, the unconditional view is only there to facilitate the romanticization of the relationship. It’s not really a sign of any deep commitment. In fact, it’s a lot more like the naive stories teenagers tell themselves about love.
But even if one’s more idealistic and actually regards unconditionality as real, then even more troublesome questions arise.
Firstly, it seems truly irrational to commit to another person unconditionally. The very way relationships develop is meritocratically. In other words, we don’t fall in love with random people. Rather, we love those who did something amazing for us and who made significant differences to our lives through their actions.
But if actions is what it’s all about, what if those actions came to an end? What then? Isn’t an unconditional love persisting in spite of the new reality the very definition of irrational?
Secondly, if unconditional love is about the other person, then we open ourselves to all sorts of haunting questions about identity.
Going back to the brain trauma mentioned above, it’s a good question to ask if the person after the trauma is the same as the one prior to it? (who did we commit to loving unconditionally after all?) And if not, what’s so special about brain traumas anyway? Clearly, the underlying issue is one of an altered attitude and behavior, not of so much one of bodily integrity. But then, what’s so unconditional about such a love?
Making sense of unconditional love thus seems hopeless.
Yet, unconditional love is intuitively attractive nonetheless.
So, following my hunch, I’ve spent the last few days playing with a few ideas approaching the question from a different angle.
Clearly, unconditional love cannot be rooted in the actions of the other, nor their attitude. So, a relationship being composed of (at least) two, there might be something to rooting the unconditionality in yourself.
Put differently, maybe the whole point of unconditional love is that it allows one to reach higher ideals only accessible through such a particular form of commitment.
Maybe we want to love unconditionally not because our partner literally deserves it. (they never could) No, we want to love our partner unconditionally because in them we’ve seen the possibility for truly loving somebody deeply. (a partner that deserves a lot of love is easier to commit to than one that deserves our hatred)
It’s true that this view of love is much more explicitly “selfish”. At its core, it concerns the individual, i.e. the one who loves. Yet, in so doing, it reliably and affectionately reaches out to another. True, it seems a bit paradoxical. But is there a better alternative?
In any case, if the above view is true, then committed relationships are great because they are shared. More precisely, they are great because both sides are free to safely love unconditionally. The safety, of course, deriving from the shared knowledge (or at least trust) that the other is less likely to run away and turn their partner’s unconditional love into an unconditionally painful and unrequited one.
Which leads me to my current exploration: what precisely does unconditional love provide in the way of benefits for the one who does the loving? And are those benefits enough? Is unconditional love worth it, in the final analysis?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I myself will probably share my thoughts as they gradually appear to me over the next few days. But that shall wait for now. The question is indeed fascinating but, admittedly, nuanced and complicated 🙂
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