Monthly Archives: December 2019

Unconditional Love

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I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.

One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.

I was wrong.

Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.

But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.

You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.

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Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.

In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.

Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.

A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”

Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.

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Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.

When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.

On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!

I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.

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When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.

My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!

Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.

Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.

Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.

Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.

Sometimes unconditional love requires the hardest thing of all—letting the loved one go.

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My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.

Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.

As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.

We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.

Practicing unconditional love. My daily crime.

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A Winter Blessing

I went for a walk today in the cold sun. The dirt road led me up and up; my feet slipped on treacherous patches of ice lurking invisibly under a thin layer of earth and sand. Water ran in the ditch alongside the road under winter skin, thin and glassy in the sun and opaque and layered in the shade.

The bones of the trees show clearly during this thin and aging time of year. We’ve had heavy wind in the last few days, and new, jagged wounds show where trunks and boughs snapped and splintered.

Winter Solstice is a strange time of year. Spending time among the bony, sleeping trees under the pale light of the low sun is such a contrast to the frenetic human activity accompanying the holiday season. The fields and forests sleep, letting the long dark hours and cold do what they will.

Nature has always been my best teacher, leading the way to faith, trust and renewal—the endless natural cycles of life and death. Even from my small, ant-like perspective, I find comfort in the ebb and flow of life.

I’m in need of comfort. Our woods are beginning to fall silent. Our bird feeders are full, but we see very few songbirds now, and when they do appear, they’re in small groups or single, rather than in flocks. Many insects are vanishing, which means the avian insectivore populations are diminishing fast. It seems to me we’re losing so many kinds of life—so many lives—as well as other things like trust, respect, dignity and integrity.

But I know that loss is just another word for gain. The dark is another kind of light. Good-bye is another kind of hello. All we know now is loss; our inability to imagine what might come into the empty spaces of our loss does not mean nothing will.

It’s easy to forget about the light in the darkness.

Yet I welcome the longest night of the year with my whole heart. Something in me loves the deep, cold darkness, unlit by flame or star. The darkness is like a womb, and in that womb is a glowing seed containing rebirth, transformation, and the new cycle.

As I celebrate Yule, I sit in the darkest place I can find and open myself to it. I call up the shadows in my heart and mind and embrace them without fear or resentment. My eyes are blind, but inside me something old and primal listens and watches, waiting for guidance or wisdom, waiting for the light to return.

This time of year I do the ancient women’s work of sorting one thing from another. How do we discern the difference between natural cycles of darkness and light and the frozen, unending darkness our choices and behavior can lead us into? What habits of thought and action keep us groping, blind and despairing, without a star to light our way?

What offering can we make to the dark? What can we let go of? What is ready for recycling and transformation? What do we need to do in order to greet the dawn of the new cycle less burdened?

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When I have rocked in the cradle of darkness long enough with these questions, I light a candle and tell that small flame of all my gratitudes, great and small. Each one is like a prayer of thanks, an offering, a guiding star in the dark night.

The candle flame is a spark of life cupped tenderly in the hands of the dark. What might grow out of it? What new paths might we tread; what terrain might we explore? What new intentions have rooted in our hearts? What can we call into birth and being within ourselves? What undiscovered guides and friends wait in the year ahead? How can we keep the flame of our courage, love, and strength alive?

What is waiting to be born in the next cycle?

A winter blessing on you, my friends. May your Yule be dark and the following dawn be bright.

For each of us
There is a desert to travel
A star to discover
And a being within ourselves to bring to life.
–From an Iranian Christmas Card

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Whose Need?

I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?

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The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.

I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.

Ironically, I realize now that by far my greatest failure in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover that accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.

This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.

The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another—a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide.

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Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.

As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.

I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.

Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!

The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is that there’s no recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.

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I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.

As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?

As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again—that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?

Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume that others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.

Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs along with the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.

Asking “Whose need is this?” My daily crime.

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