A good friend has been wondering about the possibility and even the advisability of unconditional love. I think I understand her reservation, since it seems logical that to love unconditionally entails suspending moral judgment. The idea of forgiveness is part of this package, and it seems unconscionable to bring forgiveness to the perpetrators of genocide, rape, and the obscenity of the holocaust. Surely, we must temper our idealism with a realistic view of the evil in this world, and not reduce ourselves to being “bliss ninnies,” loving everybody no matter what.
Unraveling the gordian knot of issues implied by my friend’s reservations could fill many libraries. For today, I’d like simply to reflect on some preliminary questions: 1. What is meant by unconditional love? 2. Is unconditional love possible? 3. Is unconditional love advisable? 4. Is unconditional love morally imperative? Are we all morally required to love unconditionally? 5. Does unconditional love necessarily entail forgiveness? and 6. Does forgiveness imply condoning an action?
On its face, unconditional love means loving without conditions. We might call it a Billy Joel kind of love. No matter what a person thinks, says, or does, it would not cause me to close my heart to that person.
I was going to write that unconditional love is easiest in the closest circle of family and friends, but a moment’s thought disabused me of that ideal. Given the rates of divorce and teenage angst, it would seem that familial love is highly conditional. One of the most common conditions in marriage is “You better make me happy, or else…!” Parents, too have the tendency to set strict criteria for a child to be accepted. I would simply say that my own experience tells me that unconditional love in a family is possible. It takes work, wisdom, and dedication to grow toward having a fiercely open heart that would never close, and I have a sense that many of you who are reading this are achieving just that.
On the more general level, those capable of monstrous acts are harder to love. Usually they are not known to us, and easier to judge abstractly. Sometimes, however, they have committed atrocities that have touched us personally. Is love even possible in these circumstances? Here is a story from an article entitled The Power of Love by Alastair McIntosh that suggests the possibility of unconditional love, while prompting many to question its advisability:
“What about rape?” asks a USAF pilot.
And so I tell a real-life story. It was 1985, and I was living in a beautiful but violent third world country. I was close to the family of an Australian history professor at the university – fellow Quakers. One night his seventeen year-old daughter found her car surrounded. Fourteen young men from the nearby squatter settlement abducted and gang-raped her.
Normally the police would have sorted it out in eye-for-eye fashion. They’d have trashed the squatter camp and beaten folks up. Not so on this occasion. The daughter trenchantly asked her father to find a way that might ‘touch their hearts”. Rape can only happen in the absence of empathy. The capacity to feel has to be restored if the cycle of abuse is to be broken.
The family asked the chief of police that there be no retaliation. The father and I then walked into the squatter settlement and requested a meeting with its leaders. They said they were really sorry about what had happened. It was hard to control their young men who had become embittered by poverty and hopelessness. They were relieved not to have been roughed up.
We said that the girl wanted softening and not a hardening of hearts. She wanted whatever, in their culture, would be an appropriate ceremony of confession and reconciliation.
So it was that we subsequently stood at the university gates as the entire squatter community turned out to apologise amidst much bearing of token gifts and beating of drums. Fourteen young men headed the procession. Many had tears in their eyes. They had not expected such humanity.
You just knew that, whilst the re-offending rate might not be zero, it would be very much less than had they been treated in kind. Hearts had indeed been touched.
I find this story incredibly inspiring, but many, if not most, of my students found it offensive. How can you treat men who have done such a horrific thing without punishment? How will they ever learn? So they beat a few drums and shed a few tears. Is that justice? It would seem that unconditional love upsets the entire balance of human society, where fairness (an eye for an eye?) and punishment set things right.
I believe the rightness of punishment is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Spare the rod and spoil the child wasn’t thought up yesterday. Yet those who are seen as great teachers, from Jesus (Do good to them that hurt you) to the Buddha (Hatred is never turned away by hatred. Hatred is only turned away by Love) to Rabbi Hillel ( “‘Love your fellow like yourself’ is the essence of the Torah, and the rest is commentary!”) to myriad poems of Rumi, all advise the primacy of love in the face of hurt and hatred. This is underscored by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he shares the insight that those who managed to maintain equilibrium in the Death Camps of the Nazis all did so by loving and serving others, even their captors. This, for now, is as far as I can take the discussion of the advisability of unconditional love. I think it is for each of us to weigh these teachings with our wisest insights, our strongest hearts, and our unique experiences, in order to reflect and reflect again as we wend our way through life’s labyrinth.
The next question concerns unconditional love as a moral imperative. Frankly, I have always found the commandments to Love difficult to understand. I can see mandating loving behavior (beneficence), but how can the heart be commanded (benevolence)? Can I really be commanded to love the jerk next store? Does it make sense to Love someone because you have been told it is the “right” thing to do? I wonder if the rules of the mind can dictate to the heart, or whether they bypass the heart and go straight to behavior. In my essays on Living the Love of Wisdom on this blog, I have wrestled with the evolution of moral consciousness, and it seems to me that true morality lies “in the field beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing” as Rumi says. Ethics rests upon rules, but there are desirable attitudes and behaviors that lie beyond and above the requirements of the law, moving into Virtue and ultimately Unconditional Love. These are called “supererogatory” or above the demand. Inasmuch as we are called to be fully human, each in our own way, I find these are ideals that lie at the heart of human flourishing.
Finally, does Unconditional Love require forgiveness? I find forgiveness a slippery concept. In many cases, it simply serves the superior ego, when I grant absolution to a “sinner” from the heights of moral superiority: “You are a sleaze, or a monster, or unfaithful, or a cheat, but in my goodness, I forgive you.” To use John Steinbeck’s phrase, this turns forgiveness into a “shoddy virtue.”
I’m not sure about this, but now it seems to me that unconditional love does not require forgiveness at all. In fact, it obviates the need for forgiveness. If I truly have no conditions on my love, then there is nothing to transgress, and therefore nothing to forgive. I know this sounds like idealism in the extreme, but think about the people you deeply cherish. What could they ever do to cause you to close your heart to them? Maybe we sometimes go through the verbal dance of sorrow and forgiveness, but this is done to the melody of love which dissolves guilt and obliterates distance.
I find these ideas devilishly difficult. Each of the elements we have so briefly discussed–the possibility and advisability of unconditional love, punishment, fairness, and forgiveness–is a worthy subject of many books. All the while I was writing, however, my wife Carolyn was in my fingers; she “who brought April into the waiting meadow of my soul.” I live with Unconditional Love, and after all the words have been said, that is how I know it is real.