Most of what passes for unconditional love is really very conditional – conditional upon the fact that the person being offered unconditional love agrees never to change.
Back in my undergraduate days I took a personality theory class. The major task of the class was to decide whether we believed that life is a constant attempt to re-establish equilibrium or that life is constant growth. In truth, only a few of the very early personality theorists believed the answer was equilibrium. I found myself firmly on the side of the growth folks, and would further maintain that any living thing that doesn’t grow is bound to die. In living organisms, there is no such thing as equilibrium.
That being the case, how in the world can you make anything conditional upon failure to grow? Isn’t that tantamount to making something condition on its death? How in the world can I purport to love someone and then wish for their death? Of course, the more obvious question is how can I claim to unconditionally love someone and then hold conditions upon that love?
You might think that people struggle with understanding what “unconditional” means. While I think there is certainly an argument to be made for that, I think the larger problem is that people fail to understand what “love” means.
Love doesn’t mean gratitude. Just because you do nice things for me and I like that doesn’t mean that I love you – or, for that matter, that you love me. It might mean that, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. Maybe I am just a nice guy, or (and this is unfortunately more likely) maybe I want something from you and am trying to manipulate you to get it.
Love doesn’t mean that you do what I want all the time. That’s called slavery, and it was abolished in 1863 (although it still flourishes in many relationships). Nor does it mean that I do what you want me to do all the time.
Love doesn’t mean lust, although people in love can (and hopefully do) have lusty moments. Lust is a physiological response to another person, and can be present completely absent anything that has any chance of being even remotely enduring.
Love doesn’t mean you meet all my needs, for no one person can possibly meet all the needs of another person (refer to “slavery” above). Hopefully, people in love choose to meet each others’ needs much of the time.
So what is love? True love is a mystical experience, and as such defies verbal description. The best we can hope to do is make attempts at describing something of love. Of this much we can be certain – unconditional love means that I have made a decision and a choice to care about you and your needs even more than I do mine, that I really want what is best for you even if what’s best for you isn’t what’s best for me.
That’s powerful stuff, and it’s rare, and it’s a conscious choice – not something we blindly fall into. It’s also not something to be bandied about lightly or without thought, because if I really love you unconditionally that means I am prepared to put the entirety of my being on the line – and not take it back.
Not for the faint of heart, and not something that you can really do for everyone you meet.