According to Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind and envies no one.” But is love always unconditional? Should it be?
This week, we discuss love. Now we’ve talked about love a number of times before on the show. We ‘ve done shows on the varieties of love, on the nature of romantic love, a show called “Love, Poetry and Philosophy” in which we compared philosophical approaches to love with poetic approaches to love. All were great shows. So why do we feel the need to do yet another show about love? Well, partly because we’re such love obsessed people, but mainly because it’s a philosophically inexhaustible topic. Our focus this time will be less on romantic love, than on unconditional love, in all its manifestations – whether between romantic partners, between parents and their children, or between humanitarians and all humankind.
I should start out by admitting that unconditional love is rare and difficult thing. Parents may profess to love their children unconditionally. But how often do children test the limits of parental love? Couples in the first blush of new love may make dewy-eyed promises to love each other for better or for worse. But how often do such promises give way to betrayal and recrimination? Still, it’s an amazing gift when it does happen. And it’s one that we all want. We all want someone who will love us forever, through thick and thin, no matter what we do or become.
Part of me thinks that unconditional love is the highest form of love. Most religions certainly seem to believe that. That’s why they attribute unconditional love for all mankind to God. It’s why Christ commands Christians to love thy neighbor as thyself. But, of course, unconditional love is easy for God -- with his infinite patience and boundless capacity to forgive. You can’t hurt God – not really. But humans are vulnerable. In us, too much hurt, betrayal or disappointment kills even the deepest, most enduring love.
Of course, it’s one thing to focus on the work it takes for us to give or sustain unconditional love. That’s hard, I admit. But think about what it’s like to be the recipient of such love. That seems, at first blush, to be a really good thing to the recipient of. Who wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally, despite all your flaws and failings?
On the other hand, part of me thinks that maybe unconditional love isn’t all its cracked up to be. Don’t people want to be loved and appreciated for who and what they are? When somebody loves me unconditionally, doesn’t that mean they don’t care who I am or what I do and they are blind to my particularity? But isn’t love about delighting in the particularity of the other?
But maybe that’s being too quick to dismiss. I mean just because you love somebody unconditionally, doesn’t mean you don’t care about what they are or what they do. Presumably, if you love them, you want them to be their best self. You might even hope and believe that your love will help them become that. The “unconditional” part of unconditional love just means that you won’t withdraw love when things go badly.
Still it seems to me that bad behavior on the part of the beloved has to have consequences or else the lover becomes a mere patsy. Think of battered women who won’t give up on their abusive partners. That is not a model of “unconditional” love, that’s a model of person with a damaged sense of self-worth who is, perhaps, in a state denial, Even when it is unconditional, genuine love doesn’t just involve passive acceptance and blind forgiveness. Unconditional love can be tough and demanding. When our children do bad things, we punish them. We give them stern messages. But we still love them. In fact, we punish them because we love them. Unconditional love may be selfless, but it isn't self destructive.
What does selfless mean though? Selfless love is love that never asks what’s in it for me/ Rather, it is always asking what’s in it for the beloved. What do I need to do to make the life of the beloved better, no matter the cost to myself? Paradoxically, perhaps, when you love somebody unconditionally, it actually puts you in a unique position to hold them to high standards. That’s because when you love them unconditionally, there is no threat involved in your holding them to such standards – since the very holding is itself rooted in an act of love. You can think of unconditional love as an offer to the beloved for a precious resource that is used for the good and betterment of the beloved.
Are most human beings really capable of the kind of this kind of relentlessly other-directed selflessness? For most of us, doesn't the self just get in the way? Even when we think we’re acting out of selfless devotion, we often have hidden selfish motives. We sometimes tell ourselves that romantic love is selfless. But romantic love wants to be reciprocated. That makes it’s almost the opposite of selfless.
Still, I wouldn’t be too quick to underestimate people. Some people really seem to have an amazing capacity for selfless love. It is also important to stress, though, that unconditional love is a gift, not an entitlement. Nobody really deserves our unconditional love. Nobody has the right to demand that you love them selflessly. That would be, well, pretty selfish of them, wouldn't it? Christ commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves not out of a sense of duty and obligation, but out of a sense of selfless generosity and charity.
Is this anything more than a nice sounding ideal, that fails to apply to most people, most of the time? I sure hope so. I would much rather live in a world in which unconditional love is a concrete reality in many people’s lives than in a world in which it is absent. When I think about where to locate concrete examples of unconditional love, I think about parents and their children. If we’re going to find real live examples of unconditional love anywhere, parents are a good place to start looking. Children can put their parents through an awful lot. But I’d like to think that through it all parental love typically remains entirely undiminished. Some philosophers have actually argued that parental love is the pureest form of love. That's because in its healthiest form, parent love is selfless in the sense I articulated above. And though parents may love in the hope that their love will one day be reciprocated, such love begins without even the expectation of the possibility of reciprocation and it will happily persist undiminished even in the absence of eventual reciprocation.