“A dog will teach you unconditional love. If you can have that in your life, things won’t be too bad.”
-Robert Wagner, Actor
All beings are born perfectly whole. This includes humans. It doesn’t mean that we’re all the same, because people are born with physical differences that range from something as simple as different hair color, to something more impactful, such as somebody born with a congenital heart defect. In addition to physical differences, each person also has a unique life experience. Despite these differences, all beings are whole and perfect as they are, in the grand scheme of things, as they reflect the wonder of life. Because of the way our world is set up, some people “fit in” better than others, and accordingly, judgments get made about what is healthy, whole, etc. But, when you pause and think about it, life truly is miraculous, whatever form it takes. Clearly, we don’t pause and reflect enough.
Through shaping experiences within our immediate surroundings and beyond, we lose touch with the inherent goodness and wholeness with which all people are born. How does this happen? It typically starts with the interactions we have with our family, especially our parents, where love may be given on a conditional, rather than unconditional, basis. The specific community in which we live also plays a role. These early, powerful relationships shape behavior and one’s sense of self through both implicit and explicit exchanges of conditional love. Additional experiences throughout life then either reinforce or contradict these messages of provisional, rather than inherent, goodness.
Let’s look at the course conditional love takes, by looking at the behavior and learning process of children. It is the natural state of a young person to have a sense of curiosity about the world, exploring its different components, often through play, as a means of learning about and navigating through life. This is perfectly normal to the child and is healthy behavior. Unfortunately, what often happens is that at some point somebody, like a parent, disapproves of the child in either a subtle or blatant way.
For example, the child is curious about what is being made for dinner, so reaches into the mixing bowl and creates a big mess. The parent, rather than encouraging this spontaneous exploration, or even just shrugging it off, gets upset because of the spill. This is sometimes referred to as an “empathic failure,” whereby a parent, for whatever reason, does not respond to the child in a thoughtful and supportive manner (often times, it’s simply due to the parent re-enacting what they learned as children). The child then learns to question his/her innate instincts, which triggers a sense of doubt and fear. After this, the child draws the conclusion that acceptance is something they receive under certain circumstances; this is conditional love.
But, “conditional love” is an oxymoron, because real love is never conditional. If love is being given only under certain situations (e.g., he was loving to me, so I’ll be loving back), then that really is more of a type of manipulation. As renowned self-help author Wayne Dyer wrote: “love is the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves without any insistence that they satisfy you.” “Satisfaction” can take many forms, such as a parent feeling satisfied if their child doesn’t create any “problems” or when a friend or spouse approves of only certain behaviors.
Barring negative shaping experiences, love is the natural way that a human interacts with other sentient beings. So, when unconditional love is not present, it’s a sign that something needs to be addressed, in one or both parties.
Due to the many shaping experiences of conditional or limited love, which taught us that we’re not complete as we are, many of us need to re-learn to be comfortable in our own skin. We need to choose to value ourselves and at the same time, recognize that there’s always room for growth and change. This is different from negative self-judgment, which isn’t that helpful.
As Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, a Zen master often credited with bringing Zen Buddhism to the West, wrote: “all of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” We can hold both places simultaneously, as they are not mutually exclusive. It’s also important to note that our parents are not to blame for their conditional love; they learned it from their parents and others, who learned it from theirs and so on. These things get passed down from one generation to the next.
Our Western society places a premium on competition and individualism. This fosters a devaluation of self and other, often leading people on this never-ending quest to make themselves “more” than what they are: better, nicer, smarter, more successful, etc…you name it. But, the fact of the matter is that we are already whole by virtue of being alive. Rather than focusing so much on “adding” more to ourselves, it can be fruitful to start “removing” the layers of conditioning that obfuscate our innate goodness and wholeness. Starting with oneself paves the way for the spreading of unconditional love to others, which leads to the next section on Self-Love.
On a personal note, I strive to offer unconditional love to those around me. Note the emphasis on the word “strive.” Since I am only human, despite my best efforts, I am unable to do this 100% of the time, but I do try to hold this out as a direction for myself. When I am unable to genuinely feel unconditional love toward another living being, then I take that as an opportunity to investigate what’s getting in the way and work with that. Fortunately, I have a Labrador retriever as my role model, which certainly helps with the process :-).