Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
March 2011 - Volume 11, No. 3
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Unconditional Love

 - High Human Accomplishment, Neurotic Projection, or Divine Gift?

This newsletter emerged from the question of a friend who gives herself fully in the relationships of her life, but asks why each time she seems to end up hurt and alone. Her own answer is that she must be incapable of unconditional love - a conclusion that actually gives her some relief.

Is it possible in this world? We hunger for it, we hunger to receive it, and we hunger to be able to give it. But what happens? What does it mean when it so often goes wrong?

My thoughts here are certainly not definitive, but I realize I’ve been asking this question myself professionally for the last 35 years, and personally for most of my life. So here goes.

I’ll begin with how we use the term unconditional love, what does it mean for us? And where does it come from?

First let’s consider some spiritual sources. Initially, it’s not a human term at all, but rather an attribute of the Divine. The Old Testament (especially the prophet Hosea) speaks of God’s Chesed - a Hebrew word commonly translated ‘steadfast love’ - a one-way love not thwarted by betrayal or abandonment. The New Testament speaks of the same God’s love by which God sacrificed his own son for the sake of all people. In both cases, we are not exhorted to copy this behavior, but to order our human lives on the basis that unconditional love is the Divine’s nature. The result for us is not an emulation of God (i.e. to become like God), but by an awareness (and acceptance) of that divine nature, and it’s divine-human relationship, we do have something that will help us build a community/world of (imperfect) loving people. This may seem like splitting hairs, but for me it’s an import element of the conversation.

Psychological literature, both popular and professional, has stripped the concept of its divine reflection, and captured the term unconditional love as the ideal for human relationships. The loss of the transcendent reference can also result in the splitting off of a ‘shadow’ or dark side. The outcome can become a split relationship model which both legitimizes interpersonal abuse, as well as revealing the heights of self-giving that characterize the high accomplishment of mature human relationships.

Unconditional love can say, “abuse me as much as you choose, and I will always respond with love, desiring to prove just how much I love you.”

What I’m saying is that the same ideal can represent both the unhealthy neurotic as well as the sublime. We often set unconditional love as a human ideal, and attempt to emulate it for its own sake. In theology that’s idolatry, and in psychology, that’s neurotic projection - in a sense, the right thing but for the wrong reason. And the wrong reason often becomes an attempt to justify ourselves as good people. It becomes a bargain with the universe or with God, that if we can love someone else enough, then we can become worthy (of love) ourselves.

But that doesn’t explain all cases, nor does it do full justice to the woman asking me the question. Her loving is not self-justification. Her love, like all true human love, is a matter of the heart. The heart of the lover hungers for the heart of the beloved. And without that satisfaction, the heart cannot rest. That best defines unconditional love for me - no ‘condition’ or limitation can satisfy. It really isn’t a matter of behavior, nor a matter of thinking, almost not even a matter of conscious choice. We “fall” into Love. She cannot not love. It’s almost a curse. It’s hard-wired - perhaps like the love a mother knows for the child of her body.

True unconditional love has no self-consciousness. That is a very high achievement in the human world. Perhaps true unconditional love never has to use the term, it just is. Also when it does appear, it’s rarely an accomplishment of the self alone, rather it comes as a ‘gift’ from outside ourselves, from an “other” (whether divine or human). The high purpose of a marriage is to become a sacred container for this conscious and mutual gift-giving of love. That’s why the Church considers marriage a sacrament - a vehicle for grace where the Divine can enter and bless our human lives. Marriage itself may not be fully necessary, but remains a primary model of such high hope. That’s why people cry a weddings.

Another example of unconditional love is a person with Down’s Syndrome. With their very low IQs, they are not fully capable of self-consciousness, and therefore are so delightfully (and innocently) giving in everything they do. That’s why the rest of us must protect them from harm and abuse.

For the rest of us, who do have an awareness of self (the curse and blessing of being fully human), we are forced to know and live with (and often suffer) the imperfection of our relationships. The distance between what we desire and what we have can at moments be excruciating.

I could summarize that unconditional love, that is, love without conditions, may be any of the following three:

1) an ideal model which we can approach, usually through much soul-felt struggle and suffering - yet knowing how easily we can become sidetracked into realm of neurosis and abuse, and/or

2) a heavenly ideal which we can only hope to imperfectly emulate, and/or

3) an attempt to become ‘good enough’ ourselves by giving or over-giving to others (the self-justifying bargain).

But none of these truly answer the question of my friend.

There has to be an answer for those who are givers, lovers, and who hunger for that in return. Behind her frustration and self doubt there has to be a crack in the universe behind which her heart can be open to someone who will love her fully from their heart as well. Maybe all I can tell her is that I fully believe it is possible, and I have seen it, even in this world.

And I hope to God I’m right. So I too,

Pay attention.

Comments (7)

  • Love and Will

    Rolly May said so many years ago, “in Love there is no will to power.”

    — Rob Curtner, 3/1/2011
  • yes, unconditional love is possible w/o self-abuse, but it requires that one recognize and keep love distinct from the form of the relationship. Love is the content, the relationship is the form. i can unconditionally love someone who is abusing me, but not within the relationship that allows the abuse to happen. in my case, i must leave the relationship (or radically transform it), but keep the love. marriage only works if both people are committed to it.

    — Michelle Miller, 3/1/2011
  • Could it be that “unconditional love,” the love that one feels and that survives despite relationship traumas and dramas, is what persuades us to stay- when we really should just go? Unconditional love from afar, not engaged within a relationship with the person, may be the easiest option. In that case, we should be able to practice unconditional love for every person we encounter. There is no risk. Some may know of Ernest Holmes and Science of Mind. The belief is that God is within each of us, and that is the part of us that loves others and is loved unconditionally. Unconditional love and pure thought is extremely challenging.

    — Terry Bretzlaff, 3/1/2011
  • I believe “unconditional love” is the love we feel for mankind in general. People do horrible, awful things to each other but it doesn’t stop us from loving the common man. It’s something that comes from the soul but has to be found in the soul. I myself did not inherently feel unconditional love for my fellow earth-dwellers, be it human or animal — it was something I had to find within myself. I was fortunate to have a college professor who made me dig deep into myself to find my soul which had been buried so deep, perhaps like an unopened gift. Now I am blessed enough to see it all around me and experience it everyday. Unconditional love is a form of self-strength rather than neurosis or acceptance of abuse. Your friend merely needs to find that moment – or that person who can guide her to that moment (it may not be anyone she now knows or even knows well) - when she finds that she IS capable of unconditional love.

    — Amy S. Hall, 3/1/2011
  • “A Divine Gift”

    — Carol, 3/2/2011
  • What is love?

    Before trying to define “unconditional love” we must first define “love”. Love is not a is a choice. It is a choice to put the highest good of another above our own selfish desires. God’s unconditional love is a man made religious belief. In the Bible you will find 1566 IF’s.. IF you will....I will. Yes, God sent His Son for all of us so we can make a CHOICE to love Him back. If we choos not to ask for forgiveness then He does not forgive. Asking for forgiveness does not mean “I'm sorry”. It means "I won’t do it anymore."

    If this woman would understand these meanings of Love and Forgiveness and apply it to her life it would benefit her. Is the one she loves putting her highest good above their selfish desires? and visa versa? And when it comes to abuse, mental or physical, when the one she loves asks for forgiveness do they really mean it? Actions speak louder than words. If the answer is no to any of these questions,then she should look for love somewhere else, preferably to the One who loved us first.

    — Barbara Davis, 3/22/2011
  • To love someone unconditionally you must truly KNOW them

    There exists a duality in all men, where good and bad cohabitate. If man’s nature is to live, love, procreate & flourish then it must be his first nature to co-operate, develop supporting relationships and bonds, and seek out love and attraction to breed. When one of those basic, innate desires is obstructed by abusive caregivers, failed relationships, broken trust, fear, harm, etc. he/she will go into fight or flee mode to survive. This is true of either physically or emotional abuse. Hopefully, the defensive response is not prevalent enough to stick. Kill robe killed mentality, the systematic shirt down of all feelings of guilt, empathy, compassion, shame, and the rejection of one's inherent nature to bond, co-operate and love in order to procreate and flourish is what makes people bad; the conscious choice to turn off the vulnerable, loving, empathetic qualities that we are born with, and instead commit to a learned belief that those feelings are responsible for personal injury, pain and suffering, that is when people turn bad. Giving in to fear of emotional pain is the opposite of trying to love unconditionally. The ability to love unconditionally is inherent but rejection, self consciousness, fear of not having our needs met, neglect, abuse--those things are what shut down our ability to love unconditionally early on. Children will be cruel to each other in an act of projection caused by their own insecurity. I think the ideal human condition and the existence we should all strive to attain is O’Neil which we all love each other unconditionally, as God, who supposedly made us in His likeness, models for us. But for us to achieve that state we must go back to our inherent state, one of UNITY, not division of self, one where it is natural to trust, we strive to understand each other, truly know each other, cooperate and prosper, one in which we know inherently that loving each other and forming strong relationship bonds will lead us to happiness and we will flourish as a species and as individual humans. So where are we going wrong? We are letting the bad things turn us bad, we are shutting off our empathy, and we are dividing, causing greater and greater separation, which would lead to isolation and eventual extinction, if not for the fact that we are continuing to breed, without strong relationship bonds, which has led to population explosion and dense population centers, and those things have led to broken families, increasingly weak morals, more and more early childhood neglect and abuse, causing more people to turn bad, increased conflict, and the disappearance of unconditional love, so much so that it is now the topic of discussion in which its existence is questioned. So how do you get it back? Stop the division, strive to truly KNOW each other again, and nurture your own feelings of empathy. Find out what happened to your enemy as a child and allow yourself to feel empathy for that child. Open up to each other instead of shutting down. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and when others expose vulnerability to you, practice empathy instead of taking advantage of selfish opportunity.

    — Amy, 11/23/2015

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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