This extended series is inspired by the morning talks that Rebecca and I had over the past year while living in our yurt in the woods. It will follow our talks in the order we had them, so that you can journey along on the same path we followed while living very simply and close to nature. The series is called “Playing Hide-and-Seek”, and explores a model of reality where we are all incarnations of God, who is hiding in every person, star, pebble, and moment. As with all models, it shouldn’t be mistaken for reality. It’s just a way to urge our attention toward our own direct experience of reality.
One of our first morning talks was in regards to love. Not romantic love, so to speak, but the sort of love written about by the Sufi poet Hafiz. Agape. Unconditional love.
Love, we realized, is usually very conditional. Our love ebbs and flows based on how much someone deserves our love. Indeed, whether it is our love for a partner, for a child, for a friend or for ourselves, we’re often setting up a sort of ‘point counter’ in our heads. We give people points when they do nice things for us, when they behave in a manner consistent with our own life perspective, and when they seem to exist in accordance with their own stated values. We detract points when they are mean or disrespectful to us, when they act against our values, or when they say one thing but do another. These ‘points’ may not be a conscious counting, but our feelings can evolve into love when someone acts as we want them to, and our feelings can change to loathing, disregard, or ridicule when someone doesn’t.
Then along comes someone like Hafiz, writing poem after poem about a sort of love that fills up your whole life. This sort of love is all-pervasive. It isn’t just aimed at a single person. It migrates out to every being, every thing, and every moment of our lives.
Does Anyone Experience Unconditional Love?
Jesus asks us to love our enemies. Not tolerate them. Not think upon them with compassion and pity. No. He asks us to love them. But is unconditional love even possible for the human animal?
What would this love look like? Love for everyone and everything, regardless of whether the object of our love (be it a person, a thing, a place, or the moment we’re experiencing right now) adheres to our values or ideas of what is right or wrong. Can we truly love the victim of a rape, as well as the rapist, with equal heart? Can we love Mother Theresa and Adolph Hitler with equal passion? Can we love both chocolate cake and the oil executives? Both the moment when our child kisses us and the moment when they break our favorite dish?
This seems difficult for us. Indeed, for some people it even seems wrong to love this much. Yet when we love conditionally, what foundation are we building for life? What are the conditions of conditional love?
Conditional Love As a Form of Violence
Consider that conditional love is based on performance. If a person, thing, or moment performs well (according to our standards/values/ideas/expectations), then we extend warmth and goodwill toward it. If it doesn’t perform well, our feelings sour. What sort of world does this create? Surprise surprise! It creates the world we’re living in. This is perhaps easiest to see when we look at what conditional love does to our own sense of self.
Do you love yourself unconditionally? Or is your love for yourself based on performance? Are you filled with expectations of how you should behave, how you should react, how you should act in a given situation? When we love ourselves like this, we become blind to who we really are. Instead, we hold up an imaginary image of ourselves (built out of standards/values/ideas/expectations), and constantly compare ourselves to that image. Usually, our image is rather unrealistic. We think we should look good, smell good, act rationally (or with well-regulated emotion), and appear intelligent to others. When we have a bad hair day, or forget our deodorant, or have an emotional breakdown, or do something stupid, we chastise ourselves and begin a process of inner self-punishment. Is this not a form of violence? And is it not a rather harsh form of violence? What would you think of someone (a person or government) that outlined strict standards of emotional, mental and physical behavior, and then punished anyone who didn’t hold to those standards? What if your government made a law that you couldn’t cry, or misplace your keys, or drop something, or forget to call your mom on her birthday? What if your government would punish you for these things? You’d get pretty upset, right? Yet every day, most of us hold ourselves to just these sorts of expectations, and punish ourselves when we don’t meet those expectations.
Conditional love is really a form of violence. With it, we justify physical violence, including wars. With it, we create a world where most, if not all, of the people/places/things/events/moments we witness will not live up to our expectations, and thus will not be deserving of our full love. We create a world where we see failure and lack all around us, and where we are filled with a chronic sense of disappointment, frustration, or fatigue (because we’re trying to hold so much up to our sense of “how things should be”). We get bumper stickers that say “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. We get organizations trying to teach racial “tolerance”. We get daily (or even hourly) doses of our own self-violence because we’re never going to live up to our own expectations. We get a lifetime of trying to make things better in both our outer and inner worlds, often not getting to stop and immerse ourselves in This Very Moment until we’re at the moment of death.
A World of Agape
What if we loved without expectation? It might be difficult to imagine. Our world would probably look very different, and our relationship with our selves, including our relationship with every moment we experience, would look very different.
Next week, we’ll look more closely at unconditional love. Is it really a good thing? What does it look like? And how can each of us bring unconditional love into our own lives?