Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
March 2011 - Volume 11, No. 3
- 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,
Love and Will
Amy S. Hall,
What is love?
To love someone unconditionally you must truly KNOW them
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