Love without Conditions
This column about unconditional love may be difficult to read, especially now when Valentine’s Day turns our minds to romance, flowers, and chocolate.
The love expressed in greeting cards tends to be schmaltzy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Diamonds and sweet treats can compliment the faithfulness, determination, and strength that forge a love that can stand up to hardship and mockery. As we read in First Corinthians:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.1 Cor 13:4-7 NIV
Love is all this and many other generous and gracious things.
But love is also vicious. When our beloved is threatened, we can become rabid in our thirst to topple enemies. Love spurned or betrayed can thrust us into depression or into the madness of rage. Beneath its veneer of docility, love demands more than we know how to give and takes more than we thought possible.
Of course, we would never feel such intensity without great intimacy. We may care about children separated from their parents at the Mexican border or couples cleaved apart by insensitive slave masters, but, assuming that isn’t our story, we probably feel little more than empathetic sorrow or intellectual outrage.
Unconditional love may be like this. Distant, cerebral. Yet unconditional love is a love without conditions, and that may can be more disquieting than we realize. In fact, unconditional love can carry with it a measure of brutality.
We see this in the poetry of Frederick Seidel. In a review of Seidel’s work, Dwight Garner likens the poet to a “snake that doesn’t hiss but just strikes.”  His poems contrast a regal decadence with harshness, whipping out commentary on the pleasant and urbane, shocking us with savagery or thoughtlessness, uncovering, without apology, the odious urges that lurk within a human psyche.
Seidel understands that if we allow ourselves to, if we stand in just the right conjunction of trauma and memory or in that visceral sensing of another’s shame, we can feel a tingle of satisfaction, like a frisson of power, that arises when we observe someone else’s torment.
After he performed “Boys,” one of Seidel’s poems, Ta-Nehisi Coates admitted to such a feeling. In the poem, which is filled with contradictions, with gentility and ignorance, with the fruits of our country’s complicated relationship with race and gender, Seidel unflinchingly exposes a secret and shameful moment of glee. Toward the poem’s end, the narrator recalls one of the “sovereign experiences” of his life. When his “impeccable,” beautifully-mannered father “cut the shit” and called a black, shoeshine man, “Boy,” he felt a shiver of happiness.
Later, Coates commented that, while he read the poem, he felt as if he had donned another person’s skin. He experienced, deep to his bone, the perversity of the emotion that Seidel aroused. Coates noted, “It is human to revel in brutality.” He could imagine himself taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. 
Like a Fire or An Avalanche
I think of a dream I referenced in another column, one in which God chortles with delight as vigilantes slaughter their enemies. Guts are spilled and heads decapitated, a field is defiled with savagery and lust, and though God feels the horror, She also feels the exhilaration.
If you haven’t felt a rush of dopamine surge through you in the heat of a rampage, what a blessing for you, but God is not so fortunate. When we seethe or take revenge, when we writhe with the orgasmic pleasure of wielding power over someone else, God seethes, shivers, and laughs with us.
Whatever mystery and power made life possible, whether it be Yahweh or Vishnu or the Merciful or light itself, that force lives deep to the bone within us. It wrestles with us in the muck and the blood, and cries in agony with the battered and beaten. God is there through it all. When someone suffers, so does God; when someone wins, God feels the joy. But this divine essence does not condemn, nor catalog right or wrong, nor attempt to change us or punish us or temper our excesses. This God loves us without conditions, and that means no expectations, no judgment.
Such a god is wholly other. Trying to understand this deity is like trying to understand our consciousness. Though we develop theories and conceive tests, we still don’t know what thought is, nor do we know who or what or why or if God is. The love this mystery spreads over us is just as alien. As such, it is terrifying, because if we aren’t careful, it could sweep over us like a raging fire or crush us like an avalanche.
“Yes” to Everything
At the same time, this love is more tender than a mother’s touch, more constant than a mountain. It contains within it the rage of a scorned lover and the delight of an infant discovering her toes. It is not personal, for God loves all of us the same. Still, She also loves us uniquely and longs to be in relationship with us. She wants us to feel Her love and love Her back. God won’t coerce us, though.
That’s why unconditional love knows no right or wrong, so we won’t feel coerced. God says “Yes” to everything. Everything. In the Hebrew Bible there is a covenant, and there are commandments, and Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, but if God is unconditional love, then God wants us to be irredeemably human. We might hate ourselves because of our shameful thoughts and feelings, but God invites us to embrace the entirety of who we are, to cry and laugh at the same time, to bleed with all the passion possible. Live fully and suffer immensely and allow the universe’s unconditional love to enter us through every pore. Embrace and forgive. Enjoy who and what we are, barring nothing.
How terrifying is that? And infuriating. In Deuteronomy, didn’t God say that we should “choose life” (Deut 30:19)? Did She give us commandments so we could break them? Surely there is justice and injustice, goodness and evil. Why doesn’t God bless the poor and punish the abuser? Yahweh rallies around a lowly band of upstarts, using His might to settle wrongs, sweeping through deserts and hills with an avenging wrath, always on the side of the righteous. Is this not so?
Many religious leaders tell this story. Liberation theologians, for instance, preach a Christian ideology based on what Karen Enriquez calls “the preferential option for the poor.”  It promotes the voices of the oppressed and seeks redress and relief.
But such partiality may have unintended consequences. In her article comparing liberation theology with engaged Buddhism, Enriquez notes that, according to Buddhist philosophy, such a preference can lead “to partial, dualistic, and exclusionary language, attitudes, and actions that lead to greater suffering.” 
In other words, though we may identify with the downtrodden and believe they need our compassion more than do the tyrants who oppress them, the ones who cause suffering are “oppressed as well.” Only if we recognize that and address it will change occur. 
Look within yourself. Do you see anxiety, sadness, discomfort, resentment? If so, you have seen your suffering. Our uncomfortable feelings arise from past confusions and hurts. If we aren’t conscious of the pain within us, we will act it out into the world. In this way, we not only hurt others, but harm our own souls. By recognizing the pain of the tyrant, we may help her see it, as well.
If We Are One, There Is No Blame
From a Buddhist perspective, we are all one. We are part of the eternal consciousness, connected to everything as the wave is connected to the ocean. That means that what we do to others, we do also to ourselves. Every act of violence we commit hurts us as deeply as it wounds those around us. This is true whether we turn our aggression on ourselves or on others. Thus, even the oppressor suffers.
This also means that none of us is blameless, nor are we completely blameworthy. Though we contain within us the seeds of resilience and beauty, we contain also those of brutality. Buddhism teaches us to notice the suffering that lies within both the oppressed and the oppressor, and to have compassion for the pain found in them both.
A liberating God understands this. She sees the suffering on both sides and loves us all.
Even so, Buddhists do not shrug at the misery of the poor and vulnerable. The Buddha taught compassion, right thought, right speech, right action, and the rest of the eightfold path. We can avoid a lot of suffering by changing how we think about reality. Individual enlightenment can bring us a great deal of peace. At the same time, we have a responsibility to treat people as if they were of the same essence as ourselves, with as much kindness as a loving person treats herself.
Balancing Acceptance and Accountability
Liberation theologians, for their part, recognize the need to understand our enemies, to empathize with them, and to invite them to be our “friends.”  We can do the first part by ourselves, imagining what wounds could lead to rage and tyranny, for instance, and we can be open to hearing the stories of those who have harmed us.
Yet if only the abusers get to speak, that becomes another abuse. For our enemies to become our friends, those who caused harm must open themselves and truly listen. The dialogue of reconciliation works best if the oppressor humbles herself and honors the story of the oppressed. If the oppressed and the oppressor are equal, then we are left to balance a love that contains no conditions and accepts everything without censure, with a love that demands accountability, compassion, and reconciliation.
In the end, what will save us from an eternal legacy of abuse and desecration is individual, personal, spiritual liberation. Before we can engage in spiritual practices, however, or even care about transforming our spirits, we must be safe from violation and murder. We must have food and shelter. Both liberation theology and engaged Buddhism recognize this. So does love, for love allows us to see the suffering in those we hate, while also encouraging us to protect the innocent and feed the hungry. Even unconditional love does this.
Not knowing the mind of God, I cannot guess why She does what She does. Nonetheless, I am convinced that unconditional love has a purpose beyond simple existence. If God is love, then God would express love. She could do nothing else. Yet I suspect that God, or the Universe, or the Isness, also spreads love because love helps us heal. Love can redeem us from brutality and despair.
While reading a Lisel Mueller poem, “An Unanswered Question,”  I was struck by the possibility for redemption it contained. In the poem, a Tasmanian woman, the last of her tribe, the only one left who speaks her language, is locked in a cage in England. Strangers stare and laugh at her. This person, a human being of value, has been transformed into a toy for the ignorant and heartless.
Yet Mueller imagines that in the crowd there is a sympathetic face, a woman, perhaps, who sees, not a monster or animal in that cage, but a kindred soul degraded and scorned. Maybe she tries to reach out. Maybe some emotion in her eyes radiates caring, or the shape of her mouth.
If so, might not the Tasmanian search for something to say to her, Mueller wonders, one word from her language to pass onto this white person? Could she share a sacred bit of her heritage? If she can offer that sound, give voice to the thing that matters most to her, and if the woman who sees her can accept that gift, then, even she doesn’t understand what the term means, redemption is possible.
Can We Experience Unconditional Love?
This poem shows us that love can flow between two people who share no history, no common story, no lifestyle. Out of that love can arise healing. Love can soothe the wounds that bind us. It can redeem our suffering. It can make us whole.
Yet is this unconditional love? After all, that which loves us unconditionally loves us no matter what we do. It is as delighted with the ones who poke sticks through the bars as it is with the cowering woman. This love embraces the ones who stole her from her home and who brutalized her family, the ones who traffic teenagers and torture children, who shot all the passenger pigeons, and who razed the earth for profit, just as it embraces the woman who reaches out with compassion. For that deity who is love, there is no distinction.
How can we humans comprehend such a love? We believe in righteousness, in justice, in restoration. With unconditional love, none of that matters. All is right, all is just, and restoration is unimportant, because it has already occurred.
Maybe unconditional love isn’t meant for us humans. Maybe it’s a God thing. On the other hand, maybe we can experience it, at least in small doses. We might be able to open ourselves to complete understanding and forgiveness, to acceptance and appreciation. For a little while, anyway.
Love Is the Beginning
Perhaps what confuses us, however, and makes it hard for us to imagine loving unconditionally, is that we think love is the end. It is not. It is the beginning, the wisdom out of which we act. Binding up a wound is a gesture of love. So is tending to the heart pain of a battered woman and of a violent man.
Unless the love out of which we act is unconditional, however, we will perpetuate the suffering of the abuser, for we will confirm the very thing she fears most about herself, that she is unworthy. Or, if she has traveled through her pain all the way to shamelessness and no longer realizes she is broken and battered, then our judgmental and conditional love will corroborate her belief that love is a farce and that we are hypocrites.
But if love is not the end, if it can inspire us to nurture and comfort and hold, it can also inspire us to be cruel. Because we cherish one another, because we tend to one another’s wounds, it is easy for our love to twist into cruelty. We all have the capacity to be brutal. Not only can we act out of rage and despair, but sometimes we enjoy it when we do. That’s why it’s so important that we look deeply into our own suffering. In that way, we can ease our pain, hold ourselves with compassion, and begin to heal.
This is the first step toward unconditional love.
Reveling in Beauty
If, as Coates said, “It is human to revel in brutality,” it is also human “to revel in beauty.”  Along with Seidel’s poem “Boys,” Coates read “October,” a poem about a woman in the October of her life. Her faithful husband offers her home-cooked meals and “medication in bed.” On a frosty morning, he stops to buy her flowers, because he remembers the beauty of his wife’s “blond hair,” of her breasts, and of her heart. In that remembering is love, a love that doesn’t care that she is growing old, but accepts her unconditionally.
Such love gives meaning to the man’s’ life and eases the woman’s process of dying. Instead of brutality, he embraces beauty, and that makes all the difference.
Beauty can also make all the difference in the field where vigilantes spilled blood, where offal stained the earth, where maggots and flies swarmed. We can dig up the defiled clay and shape pots of willowy grace, daub them with delicate lines of color and image, and create, out of brutality, a thing of beauty. By transforming horror into meaning, we heal. This is a form of love. For what is love but that which relieves our shame, opens our hearts, eases our suffering, and turns us from monsters into neighbors? Love does this, and unconditional love does it best.
The Gift of Unconditional Love
We should strive to protect the vulnerable and the innocent. By enacting laws, building places of shelter and safety, providing food and clothing, teaching resilience, praying and singing sacred songs together, we express love. That matters.
Yet unless we also honor the suffering of the perpetrator, in the end, our efforts will fail. Perhaps they are destined to fail, anyway, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we can, we should succor the wounded, whoever they are.
In as much as we can express unconditional love, we will be able to offer one of the most healing gifts there is. Unconditional love may be a God thing, but mystics say we all have a bit of God within us. If so, then we, too, have some capacity to offer this gift. We can offer it to ourselves, then to others. That may make all the difference.
In faith and fondness
- Garner, Dwight, “The Glittering Malice of a Rich Man’s Son,” The New York Times, C4.
- Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “Because It’s Wednesday,” The Atlantic, April 22, 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2009/04/because-its-wednesday/16480/, accessed 2/9/21.
- Enriquez, Karen B, “Expanding the Cultivation and Practice of Love and Compassion in Our Suffering World: Continuing the Dialogue between Liberation Theologians and Engaged Buddhists,” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 36, 2016, pp. 69–86, 70, www.jstor.org/stable/24801547. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.
- Ibid 70.
- Ibid 73.
- Ibid 72.
- Mueller, Lisel, “An Unanswered Question,” Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996, 11.
Photo by Roman Kraft from Unsplash
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