On a note related to my last entry, I have often heard this phrase “unconditional love” bandied about whenever people are misbehaving or have watched too many romantic comedies. We have all heard it uttered, and many of us are guilty of uttering it, but few seem to explore both what it actually means and what expectations it implies.
Of course the term itself implies something universal and boundless, and we think, “How can universal and boundless love fail to be a good, appropriate thing?” We often sense that there is something valid about the concept of unconditional love. However, we are all aware of crime and punishment, right and wrong (or in extreme cases, people usually at least believe in “more and less inherently productive”), etc. So what is really being talked about and how can unconditional love manifest itself in the conditional world?
Many years ago, my favorite author, Ken Wilber, wrote an essay called “The Pre/Trans Fallacy.” In brief, it describes how (in developmental terms) various capacities or movements develop or unfold in the direction from pre-x, to x, to trans-x. We all talk about “conventional” approaches to things, but whatever approach we are talking about develops from pre-conventional, to conventional, to trans-conventional (or “post-conventional”). One example might be to build a house. At first, maybe we just try slapping some materials together crudely with no systematic approach until they stay up long enough for us to take shelter. Later we might begin to understand basic principles of construction and follow a systematic set of guidelines. Still later, perhaps we will develop new systems that, while they incorporate those guidelines, go beyond them either on a case-by-case basis or by integrating them with still larger and more encompassing systems. I’m sure one can find an abundance of examples like this with construction alone in ancient Roman architecture.
Wilber shows how this concept leads to confusion between “pre” states and “trans” or “post” states, because both of those have a “center of gravity” that is “non” (i.e. “pre-conventional” and “post-conventional” both look alike because they both appear to be “non-conventional”). He also shows how this can be applied to terms like “verbal” (pre-verbal, verbal, trans-verbal), “modern,” “rational,” “personal,” etc. He further illustrates the concepts of reductionism and elevationism, where—due to this confusion between pre and trans—”pre” states are mistaken for “trans” states (elevating them) or “trans” states are mistaken for “pre” states (reducing them). This is the reason, for example, why narcissists often side with post-conventional types, and why people often have similar reactions to both postmodern art and infantile finger-painting (even in the case of the artist).
Similarly, I feel something like this works with “unconditional love.” I think “pre-conditional” and “trans-conditional” get fused into this one term of “unconditional,” and much reductionism and elevationism ensue. To put it plainly, pre-conditional love is love at a level that is simply either unaware of conditional factors for love, or is unable to take them into account. Or it might be deemed as love directed towards such a person or creature. Little children and pets often exhibit this kind of love, as they are entirely dependent upon their caretakers and usually cognitively incapable of separating need from love or various other conditional factors. Conversely, the love we feel for them (or towards other mentally incapable individuals like dementia patients and developmentally disabled people) is a love that does not expect them to live up to the behavioral conditions we would normally expect from others.
Conditional love is what we all know as a general range of feelings based on behaviors, trust, expectation and consistency of experience. We love those who are good to us, demonstrate trustworthiness, and who can be relied upon. And there is the reciprocal expectation that behaving well and treating others earns us the right to a certain amount of positive regard—as much as negative behavior warrants negative regard and retribution. This is the standard crime and punishment, virtue and reward sort of love.
Trans-conditional love, if I may attempt to describe it, is a love that incorporates conditions and conditional love (as a tool of expression), but is not defined by it. It is a love for the foundational nature of a person (or other object). It is, if you will, a love for the driving force or spirit of a person rather than the personal manifestations of that drive. Or we can also say it is the love given from this spirit within a person, as a gift to the innate nature of others. Perhaps a person has a deep affinity for detail, attention, and learning, and we can love that, or those qualities make a person better able to love—but those qualities also make for successful serial killers. They are virtues, but they can still manifest conditionally in bad ways. This is one potential view of trans-conditional love, but we all know people who we feel we can “see” the positive nature of, even when they act in a completely reprehensible fashion. We also sometimes contact this part of ourselves that sees things in a positive and even fun light, loving everything it sees, but these experiences are mere confusing glimpses for most of us.
The obvious point is that, because both pre-conditional and trans-conditional love appear basically unconditional, most of us confuse them an awful lot, and end up acting in very conflicted and unfortunate ways. On the reductionistic side, it is common for deep nature, virtue, and strength of spirit to be mistaken for infantile grandiosity, innocence, and naiveté. In elevationist terms, the world is full of people who have taken some unconscious association with their parents from early childhood, projected it onto someone who resembles those parents, and believing they have “finally found their soul mate,” before plunging into a repetition of the same dysfunctional dating pattern they employed the last 15 times.
Without understanding this fallacy, or really thinking much at all about what “unconditional love” even means, we’re doomed to create our own monsters. Most people think “unconditional love” means “love me for who I am, no matter what.” It is what the pre-conditional do, and it is what the pre-conditional deserve. It is what the trans-conditional do, and it is what the trans-conditional deserve. But it has little to do with the conditional spaces in which we spend so much time. We cannot apply “unconditional love” to conditional reality in blanket fashion with any more success than we can apply our hands to a nail to drive it into a plank without something resembling a hammer. All of these kinds of love exist, and all of these levels within us exist, and we must use the right tools for the right jobs.
If you see the good nature in someone, and you feel like it is held hostage by that same person’s conditionally dysfunctional boorish abuser persona, and trotted out by that persona every time it wants something, of course you love their nature unconditionally. And of course you should conditionally turn and walk away. The only alternative is to negotiate with people who take their own better natures hostage, or to simply act as though everything they do is tolerable because you love them. No, unconditional love is for the unconditional parts of them (pre and trans), and it is from the unconditional parts of us (pre and trans), whether it be animalistic sexual chemistry or spiritual affinity.
Our conditional selves are what enable us to act appropriately in the conditional world we inhabit. I may unconditionally love my rabid dog, but its rabid condition will compel me to have it put down. It is conditional love that allows us to be kind to the disabled, and to be punitive with the negligent. It is what we use to hold people accountable not only to social graces, but to their own higher natures. If I am a good butler to my inner master, should I have unguarded and trusting dealings with the duplicitous and rebellious servant of the friend I love? On the contrary, my love for my friend merely increases my anger at anyone acting against him—including his own conditional vehicle of self. And do we really want people to function any other way?
So when you look for those and ask for those who will give you unconditional love, what are you really seeking? Do you want others to give you the love they would give to a toddler because the expectation that you act like an adult is too great? Do you want others to see your inner beauty and weigh that heaviest among all aspects of you so that your image is immune to the effects of your self-neglect? And when you offer this love to others, physical, spiritual, or absolute, and paint it over all of conditional, social reality, are you really proud of this boon you bestow? Or are you rather painting a smiley face over the whole realm of cause and effect that is the very playground of human manifestation?