The idea of unconditional love sounds like caring for someone regardless of what might be in it for you. In other words loving others more than oneself. Giving generously with no conditions attached. But is this attitude possible? Can unconditional love exist? And if so is it desirable?
Science can’t fathom any such concept of unconditional love. Biological science explains life in terms of Darwinian evolution and thus natural selection based on survival of the fittest and the selfish gene.
Psychological science sees altruism merely as doing good for a hidden benefit such as feeling good about oneself, relief of guilt feelings or the expectation of future reward. It sees friendly relations as an exchange of benefits. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. No hint of unconditional love here.
Unconditional love in relationships
There is the intimate relationship between mother and infant to consider. No matter what the baby does, vomits over one’s best clothes, or keeps one up all night crying, all is forgiven. No conditions to one’s maternal love apply here.
There are many other instances of selfless love. It shows itself when parents make personal sacrifices for the sake of their hungry children. Also when a soldier gives his life for his comrades in arms.
Counsellors practise unconditional positive regard. They do not simply accept the client when he is behaving in certain ways, and disapprove of him when he behaves in other ways. By showing a warm accepting attitude without any hint of judgment they make it possible for the client to get in touch with and explore shameful feelings in himself.
Couples say they marry with the intention of loving and cherishing each other no matter what life throws at them, in whatever changing conditions they have to face “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”
Unconditional love – a misleading term
Despite these instances of love and sacrifice, I believe the term ‘unconditional love’ is misleading. Here is one reason why. Unconditional love in a partnership implies living together without any conditions, rules or expectations. But would this be wise? What if your partner were to abuse your children, or be regularly unfaithful to you, or try to murder you? “I love you if you hurt me.” That is not in any wedding vow imaginable.
Do some people use the term ‘unconditional love’ as an excuse to stay in bad relationships or to shame someone into staying in one?
Would it be prudent to accept someone’s behaviour unconditionally? No counsellor practising unconditional positive regard would tolerate clients doing harm to him or her. No loving parent would allow children to go uncriticised if acting badly within the home.
Selfless love is a better term than unconditional love
To my mind a better term is selfless love of kindness and compassion. This is wishing someone well regardless of how they might affect you. Continual selflessness is probably more than a tough challenge for most of us and not the central attitude in our daily lives. But it is a worthy ideal attitude to aim towards.
The term unconditional love is misleading because how a caring attitude towards others is exercised should vary according to the conditions one finds oneself in. For example there is a difference in the way care is exercised between a therapy room (unconditional positive regard of the counsellor), a room at home, (tough love of parent towards naughty child) and a courtroom (careful and fair evaluation by the jury on the basis of the facts of the case).
Selfless love shown in a nonjudgmental attitude
A good jury, who wishes the accused well, and assume he is innocent until found guilty, will not jump to conclusions about him on the basis of his appearance or ways of speaking. In a word in making their judgment about whether he is guilty or not guilty they are not being judgmental but fair-minded. Loving kindness is looking for the good in someone rather than dwelling on the bad. In this way a judgmental attitude can be avoided.
Paul Vickers, in commenting on John’s gospel, points out that we tend to use the virtues of honesty and uprightness in judging the behaviour of others. We need to be mindful of any tendency we may have to be judgmental for our own benefit.
There is no condemnation, no criticism or blame, in the action of selfless love. It wants only to give the joy of its life to others. Vickers suggests that Christ was the embodiment of the source of perfect love. As such the gospel view is that Christ’s life was not to judge and condemn, but to heal.
Whether or not you are religious, I would say Jesus can see and loves the potential in all of us and constantly works with love to save us from the negative consequences of self-serving attitudes. My own faith is that this will work in the long run to transform us as long as we try to live our lives with this ideal in mind.
Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
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