Years ago, a therapist countered my confession of longing to be loved unconditionally with this statement: there is no such thing as unconditional love. Being used to therapists who are more Socratic, I was shocked at the bluntness.
It felt wrong to me, like admitting defeat in a game you weren’t even playing. What’s the point of intimate relationships, if not to be loved, warts and all? Through thick and thin and all that. It felt like our marriage vows are worded just so, to bind us into something before it dawns on us how over our heads we’ve gotten.
I’ve come to appreciate that life in the material world is, by its nature, conditional. Our bodies, miraculous as they are, have limitations. Frailties. They are subject to gravity, to extremes of heat and cold. They need to be fed, cared for. They need rest and also exercise.
When my parents died within eight months of each other, I was flattened under the weight of knowing that never again would I be loved like that. Unconditional was the word I used, but it’s both inaccurate and the best I have. Of course, my mother’s love often felt tethered to my being a good girl, doing well in school, meeting her sometimes impossibly high expectations. Her conditions were of two types: the stated ones and the trickier hidden ones like: go out in the world and make something of yourself, but whatever you do, don’t outshine me.
And yet in the time after their passing, some eternal part of me knew it was never about any of those externals. My mother’s critical remarks, her cynicism and refusal to see other points of view were not the armor I had often experienced; they were but thin coatings on a love that she was born to embody. In her final weeks, as the shell of her body became more transparent, a pure light radiated through with increasing brightness.
At the time, I knew it to be the light of unconditional love, and I recognized that I carry it within me, too. We all do. It binds us to each other. It’s how we recognize each other, and love each other, even people we’ve just met. Even people we’ll never meet.
I love the world this way, too. A bin of Bosc pears at the farmer’s market the other day nearly reduced me to weeping. As I held one in my hand, I was fully conscious of the miracle of it. Its heft, density, slight weight, its shape and color. It was perfect.
Unconditional love, we are told, is not available to us in our human relationships. By habit, I put conditions on everything. I want my son to pick up his socks, to unload the dishwasher, to feed the dog and always eat what we put in front o him. And he doesn’t always comply. I must give him the impression that my love hinges on these trivial expectations.
When my husband questions my latest idea in that critical, baffled way he has, I long for his unconditional support. I want him to tell me what an original genius I am and how he pinches himself daily, he can’t believe his luck in marrying me.
Romantic movies are a good distraction from this longing. As Anne Lamott puts it, they help to “keep the patient comfortable.” But comfort and distraction aren’t the only nourishment I need. The price of distraction is everything, including knowing that unconditional love is ever present, within my own heart.
I would do well to remind myself that love is conditional and unconditional, both. Gravity is real, yes — and so is the weightless flight of imagination. Sleep is necessary and so are dreams. Heat and cold are real — and so are shade and breezes, and so is fire. Who hasn’t experienced the fierceness of love as a fire that burns away self-deception? Therapists may truck in the world of conditional love, teaching their clients to suck it up, cope, live with limitation and practice using your “I” words. But they are missing 99.9% of the wonder of living.