Some speak of unconditional love as though it were something superior that has to be distinguished from a poor relation called “conditional love”. Few human beings are capable of it, apparently,as it is only something that one’s pet dog can express (seriously, I’ve heard that said).
Visions come to mind of pure souls sitting atop mountains in cross-legged postures with beaming smiles radiating unconditional love for the benefit of the world, pausing from time to time, no doubt, to sip pure water or perhaps some green tea. Some talk about unconditional love with as much dispassion and dryness as a dehydrated tea-leaf. That’s not love, not in my book anyway.
Unconditional love can still have passion
Love needs fire, it needs heat and it needs the fluidity of water and the reality of earth, otherwise it isn’t real. There is no such thing as conditional love because love is pure. If there is love, there is love, full-stop. A pond may have lots of dirt in it but it’s still full of water.
Someone said to me once, “I love everybody, all humanity, unconditionally.” She may well have believed it. Had it been true, she would have been filled with a passion so great that she would not have been able to rest until every last drop of suffering was removed from the world. There are precious few great souls like that. Love is like water. We all love to some degree but none of us is perfect. We are like ponds or rivers – not as pure as a bottle of Evian maybe but supporting life, nonetheless.
Love or attachment?
What can mar the expression of love and is sometimes mistaken for love is attachment. Attachment is when we hold onto something – or someone – because we want to keep it. If it is taken away from us, we are bereft and if we think we might lose it, we may feel threatened or insecure. This can happen with regard to material things, to our health, to our lifestyle – in fact, if you can think of it there can be attachment to it. As a general rule, though, we don’t mistake attachment to those things as love.
With relationships, it is not so easy to distinguish between attachment and love. Do we become attached to people? Of course we do, because we know that when many sorts of relationship end, people feel loss, grieving, anger and so on. But it isn’t love, that gives rise to these difficult, and very human, reactions and emotions.
Suppose, for example, that a young woman – let’s call her Jill – falls in love with Ben. They start a relationship and Ben tells Jill that he loves her very much. They soon decide to live together and at first everything seems to be going well. Then one day, Jill sees Ben flirting with her best friend in a way that suggests to her something might be going on between them. Later Jill challenges Ben; they argue and become angry with each other. That’s a very simplistic outline of a fairly common type of situation but the question is, to quote the title of a famous Tina Turner song, “What’s love got to do with it?”
Love or attraction?
When we start a relationship with someone, it is because there is an attraction. There is something in that other person we are attracted to, something that we like and don’t want to be without. “Isn’t that love?” one might say and the answer is, “No, it isn’t.” Love may arise, and often does, but the desire for the other person is attachment. That isn’t meant to sound mercenary but the truth is, when we start a relationship, or have the desire to start a relationship with someone, it is because we see something in the other person that will help to make us feel more complete. It is a natural thing that we seek things in life to make us feel “whole”, more fulfilled; but that in itself isn’t love. What we are doing is seeking something for ourselves. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But it’s true. This is attachment and the result of attachment is that when the object of our attachment is threatened, or rather our relationship with it is threatened, we feel pain.
Love is inherently unconditional and stable
Love, on the other hand, is nothing so volatile or unstable. Love is totally selfless. To love means we don’t seek anything for ourselves; if we love someone, we want them to be happy for their own sake – not because seeing them happy makes us feel better. Most personal relationships will have an element of attachment in them but the important thing is that there must be the selfless aspect also. It has been said that “ideal relationships are based on giving” and we must be able to receive well, too. And love doesn’t just occur in personal relationships; we all develop love for all manner of people, and many for animals and nature. It is possible and natural, for example, to love those we work with or meet with. The point is, love does not involve desire for the other person nor sentimental attachment, or at least if it is there, we should be able to distinguish between desire and attachment on the one hand and “true” love on the other.
The purpose of us spending a little time differentiating between love and attachment is not to condemn attachment but rather to emphasise the difference. We can then guard against strengthening attachment, with the inevitable pain that will someday cause as the object of our attachment changes or is lost, and instead build up the selfless aspect, love, which will reduce pain and bring about lasting happiness.
More on this in chapter 4 of The Great Little Book of Happiness
To receive a notification of the next post, subscribe to this blog.