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The truth of unconditional love

By Ernesto Tinajero

We need love to live. While this seems to be a truism bordering on cliche, it is in reality a revolutionary statement. We need love. Yet, the world is full of misconceptions about the nature of love. The reason because love as been defined in our consumeristic culture as total acceptance of another’s desires and lusts. Call this hedonistic love. But, this meaning rejects both the Christian definition of love and the reality of love.

As I raise my son, I have to give him a special sort of attention. Yes, such attention comes with correctives, but the correctives come from wanting the best for him and he knows it. If I just blindly accepted his actions as the false love of unconditional love tells to do, then I would not love him, but be indifferent to him. Any parent can tell you that unconditional love leads to mayhem, and in reality indifference.

Love for a Christian means to be with another as God is with us. The glory of the incarnation of Jesus is that we believe God loved us so much God became a man to be with us, to share space with us. Love means to give attention by wanting to be with us. When we are with people or with God in prayer, we connect and we love. We have to manage our own disappointments with the other and the only way to do so is to forgive. If I unconditionally accept another, then their is no room for forgiveness and their is nothing to forgive. That makes for good sit-coms or silly Hollywood romantic comedies, but life is not a sit-com and without forgiveness, we sit in our own bitterness.

I know my son knows I love him as he continues to cry out to me. I can tell my wife I love her until I am blue in the face, but only in spending time together does that love incarnate in our lives. If we are with each other, face to face, then love appears. Such a love is not reduced just to family, but when I with another even as we pass each other on the bus or on the street, love appears. That is what I have come to understand: Jesus’ twin commandments of loving God and loving others. Only in loving others can I find God, and that means paying attention to my love and those in front of me.

About Ernesto Tinajero

Art, says Ernesto Tinajero, comes from the border of what has come before and what is coming next. Tinajero uses his experience studying poetry and theology to write about the intersecting borders of art, poetry and religion.

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5 comments

  1. It’s not clear to me what your definition of “love” is here. You mention presence and attention–spiffy things, no doubt–but it’s a muddled and performatively ambiguous notion at best.

    So perhaps it’s best to start with a little conceptual clarity. To dust off a classic, I’ll go ahead and define love as 1) the desire for the wellbeing of another for the sake of the other, and 2) the lived expression of that desire. Clearly, #1 is foundational, but both are necessary if love is to be authentic. Fair enough?

    Now, if the desire for the wellbeing of the other is for the *sake* of the other–if love is love and not selfish desire to please/benefit those who please you by meeting some criterion–then it by definition *has* to be unconditional. If you put conditions on it, it is no longer for the sake of the other, but rather for the sake of their choices so long as those choices are pleasing to you. That’s not love, it’s posessiveness.

    Of course, this does nothing to obviate the need for nouthesis nor reconciliation. If you love someone whose lifestyle is self-destructive, then the only loving response is to get them to change that lifestyle (to the degree that your intervention would be less destructive than the path they currently follow, and in the least destructive/intrusive way possible). And if someone you love has hurt you, you have an obligation to express that hurt and work towards reconciliation, because the wellbeing of the other requires that they not drive away those who love them, and unredressed pain can kill even the strongest of love.

    But note what else follows. If love is unconditional, then it applies to everyone and everything. That means that, to the degree to which any person–or animal, or ecosystem, et cetera–is capable of what the Greeks called “eudaimonea” (roughly meaning “all-around excellence”), the demand of love is that you pursue that regardless of how well they please you. And this can lead to some difficult choices: how does the good provided to society by slave labour compare to the harm done to the people forced to work as slaves? How does the pleasure and nutritive value of meat compare to the suffering of animals raised for food? How does the immediate convenience of being able to drive to the grocery store for a gallon of milk compare to the amount of pollution doing so produces? How does the life of a Daesh fighter and the ideals for which he struggles compare to the harm done to those he views as an impediment? How does the dignity and autonomy of a political libertarian compare to the harm done by the predations of the powerful in the absence of a strong government to intervene?

    I would submit that these all have easy, visceral answers–that reading them, it’s nigh impossible not to take a side. But the challenge of love is that it doesn’t allow us to leap to the easy answer, doesn’t allow us to simply choose sides. Love demands that we understand the situation, understand the other in all their messy glory, weigh our response and the likely results of it, and act for the ultimate good. Even–especially–when it’s hard.

    • On you definition of love. You locate love in the individual and their desires and not in the intersubjectivity of reality. The problem is that you already contradict yourself. If you love someone and they have what you think is a negative lifestyle then by definition, you have accept it (if not you are putting “conditions” in your concern … wellbeing, then you prove me right on the limitations in saying love can’t be unconditional. Is love conditional or not? Muddle, muddle muddle the common definition is all muddle. But if you sell beer, big Screen and toothpaste, unconditional love helps, because they are about desires and unconditional love means giving into desires.

      Unconditional love is really indifference because to accept all in the other means one does not care about the other. Do you accept hatred in another? Racism? Unconditional love say by definition… yes. Since that can never be love, unconditional love is simply a false notion of romantic love that makes the individual the center. Do accept these baad elements in another? If I do, then really don’t care about them. This the point.

      Dr. Barbara Fredrickson defines love as shared positive states between people. That is closer to the Buber Idea I-Thou and the realty of love. Meaning it happens between the person and other (or the world) and lays in relationship and not in the individual. Liberating love from the marketing ideas of unconditional love to a bond between he person and the other then start to see the world clearly to echo Wittengstein. When you neglect intersubjectivity or relationship them you lose love.

      • Um… no. So much sloppy-minded fuzzy-headed fashionable wrongness, in fact, that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s try anyway:

        1. “If you love someone and they have what you think is a negative lifestyle then by definition, you have accept it (if not you are putting “conditions” in your concern … wellbeing, then you prove me right on the limitations in saying love can’t be unconditional.”

        Incorrect. There is a difference between loving someone and being pleased by them. Indeed, my point is that if you cannot love someone who is displeasing to you, then what you call “love” is mere selfishness. You love the sinner just as you, a sinner, are loved by God–or at least, you are called to do so. We humans are good at failing and falling short.

        If you love someone and that person has a lifestyle that you believe undercuts their wellbeing, you don’t stop loving them. Rather, you are moved by love for them to help them to change it. In other words, you desire their good, not their approval. And you are willing to endure their disapproval if that’s what it takes to help them find their way to wholeness and eudaimonism as a person.

        2. “Unconditional love is really indifference because to accept all in the other means one does not care about the other. Do you accept hatred in another? Racism? Unconditional love say by definition… yes. Since that can never be love, unconditional love is simply a false notion of romantic love that makes the individual the center. Do accept these baad elements in another? If I do, then really don’t care about them.”

        Again, this is completely false. Unconditional love is an openness to the other that sees their flaws, their faults, and that grieves for those flaws and faults and moves you to do your level best to help them improve and keep them from harming others, whom you are also bound to love.

        As to whether perfect love is possible for a human being: no, it’s probably not. Neither is perfect justice, nor perfect faith, nor perfect wisdom, nor perfect compassion–yet we are called to all these things. We aspire to them, for in our aspirations we are able to transcend ourselves in our own, limited little way. In aspiring to be perfect, we walk as nearly as we are able in the footsteps of the Perfect Creator. We’ll never be God, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying to be godly.

        3. “Dr. Barbara Fredrickson defines love as shared positive states between people.”

        And here’s where you’re buying into the same “love = warm fuzzies” mindset that you claim is good for “sell[ing] beer, big Screen and toothpaste.” But love isn’t about how the other person makes you feel. Love isn’t that shared tingling in the nether regions–there’s an altogether different name for that. Love isn’t that flood of oxytocin that drowns out rational thought when you see that “special someone.”

        Love is painful. Love is hard work. Love is never giving up, no matter how difficult things get, because you’re not doing it for yourself. Love is putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of your own–not because you want them to like you or you’d like to see them naked, but because they, too, are created in the image and likeness of God and are therefore intrinsically worthy of love.

        4. “That is closer to the Buber Idea I-Thou and the realty of love. Meaning it happens between the person and other (or the world) and lays in relationship and not in the individual.”

        Admittedly, I’m not as well-versed in Buber as I’d like, but I’m pretty sure he’d reject the conflation of love with the shared desire for regard and happy feels. By locating love in the relationship between the I and the Thou, (assuming my understanding is correct) Buber is emphasising what I detailed as the second aspect of love–a lived commitment to the fulfillment of that desire. Moreover, as any half-decent existentialist will tell you, that lived commitment is inseparable from that desire. That is, if you *don’t* seek the good of the other through your actions, your love is mere lip service. You are “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” I may well be wrong; it’s been years since I read him, but I believe this is what Buber is getting at.

        I’m not at all clear on Wittgenstein’s contribution to your analysis; perhaps you’d care to elaborate? Elsewise, I hope this clarifies things for you somewhat.

        • Again, I want to do share this from the being section of Buber’s I-Thou. I would make the claim that once we make love unconditional (or conditional for that matter) we make other the object of our world and are in the I-it. Love always lives in the I-thou. As Buber puts it better:

          *

          The life of human beings is not passed in the sphere of transitive verbs alone. It does not exist in virtue of activities alone which have some thing for their object.

          I perceive something. I am sensible of something. I imagine something. I will something. I feel something. I think something. The life of human beings does not consist of all this and the like alone.

          This and the like together establish the realm of It.

          But the realm of Thou has a different basis.

          When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.

          When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.

          *

          It is said that man experiences his world. What does that mean?

          Man travels over the surface of things and experiences them. He extracts knowledge about their constitution from them: he wins an experience from them. He experiences what belongs to the things.

          But the world is not presented to man by experiences alone. These present him only with a world composed of It and He and She and It again. . . .

          As experience, the world belongs to the primary word I-It.

          The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation.

          *

          If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

          This human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbor, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light. . . .

          Tito Here:
          In others word, it is face face with another as a thou in living presence that love appears. We enter relationship and are transformed in the relationship.

          • This reminds me of John of the Cross’ understanding of the soul’s love of an absolutely transcendent (and therefore apparently absent) God. And that works, when the beloved is so other as to be ineffable. But as soon as you get “face to face” with the other, as soon as the other has a “face,” has a concrete and particular reality, then just as your “I” is always and inseparably a “me” the “Thou” of the other is both subject and object. Not a reductive “it,” mind you, but a concrete entity to which you relate. Otherwise, what you have is a relationship with only one relatum, which is merely the illusion of a relationship. Now, that works fine when the beloved other is an absolutely transcendent God (or at least, the notion is sufficiently incoherent that it’s hard to pose a challenge to it), but it breaks down when the beloved is a finite, particular individual.

            Thanks, that was illuminating.

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