There is a lot of talk about unconditional love. Allegedly it is the gateway to a higher understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Proponents argue that loving someone unconditionally means that we never withdraw our love. Now that can be exceedingly difficult, and in some situations, totally inappropriate. Take for example the abused spouse or child. For them, unconditional love may literally be the worst thing they could do. Now, before someone jumps on me about that statement, let me unpack what I mean.
Unconditional love dictates that we love everything. We may not approve of the actions of some, but we remain constant in our love. Loving unconditionally requires that we love without strings attached. It’s love you offer freely. So, here’s the relevant question, how do you realistically offer love to a sadistic abuser? How do we love without strings of any kind those who perpetrate the worst crimes such as serial killers and terrorist bombers? For that matter, how about those who prey on the weak and elderly, robbing them of their savings and therefore much of their future. The fact is, even if we forgive them, is it genuinely realistic to love them unconditionally?
I like the idea of unconditional love, but I admit that where I find it a desirable construct, I honestly think that it is unrealistic. What is realistic is unselfish love.
What is unselfish love? If your acts and thoughts are unselfish, then you can respect that you’re no one’s judge. That does not mean that you accept the acts of others, but you do have the ability to forgive because as you judge you shall be judged. Unselfish love allows that we can all make mistakes, err in our ways, hurt others, and so forth—but if our acts were carried out without a selfish motive, we have done our best. In other words, if our every thought and act is built from an unselfish platform, we are not intentionally aiming to injure another.
Let me unpack that idea some. If we’re honest with ourselves I think few among us can look on their lives and fail to find someone they hurt in some way. When we identify those we may have hurt, most of us will discover that when we feel ill about the harm we caused it is because we acted out of selfish motivation. Emotional and physical pain that we may have caused burns a hole in us when our action came about because of selfishness.
Think of something as simple as a broken relationship. Did we make promises in order gain something only later to end the relationship for selfish reasons? Was our promise not based on a selfish motive?
Loving unselfishly allows that we all make mistakes but our motive matters. Indeed, it is primarily our motive that matters. Self-serving motives that lead to the injury of another, again physically and/or emotionally, underlie the difference between failing and doing our best.
Life is complicated. It is also precious. When we look back on our lives at least one of our goals should be minimizing harm and maximizing human potential. I have long argued that unrealistic goals lead to feelings of failure and that conditions us to expect more failure. It is for this reason that I suggest we can realistically live by unselfish love but find unconditional love so godly that it is an ambition literally unattainable from an incarnate perspective.
Now one last caveat. Unselfish love does not mean we abuse or allow others to abuse us. We can and must love ourselves unselfishly as well. Therefore, we can find forgiveness for ourselves and all others understanding that we are incapable of knowing enough to judge anyone, including ourselves. Too much of who we all are is based on genetics, enculturation, and experience. Much of this operates unconsciously, and in many ways predisposes us to potential error. As a result, even our own lives live within parameters that we may not be conscious of. That is one of the reasons for much of my life’s work. Becoming fully conscious of who we are, why we think as we do, how we can change thoughts and behaviors that fail to serve us, and so forth—that is how we learn to live into ourselves.
Ultimately, I’m a pragmatist. As such, I like to hold to ideas that I can make work in real life. Thus, the demarcation between unconditional and selfish love. Those are my thoughts, as always I welcome yours.
Thanks for the read and I wish you all the very best,
Eldon Taylor, PhD
Provocative Enlightenment Radio
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusion