At some point during my marital separation in 2008, my (now late) husband accused me of lacking commitment. I didn’t quite see it the same way, considering I felt like I had lived in figurative and literal hell for the better part of 15 years…..but the accusation did make me question whether I could love unconditionally. I always thought that I was capable and did love in that way, but there I was placing all sorts of conditions on him and the marriage. Maybe I wasn’t capable of it at all.
Whenever I encounter questions like this, I often take walks and ponder the possibilities. And so, this is what I did, as I felt my identity was being challenged and I was concerned that I might not be the person I had always strived to be. But then, on one of my walks, I came to a conclusion…..which seemed, at the time, to be one of those “aha” moments that I have since shared countless times with others who may find themselves encountering the same struggle. Loving someone unconditionally isn’t quite the same as placing conditions on a relationship. In fact, they’re not the same. I can love someone and not engage in a relationship with the person. For example…..I can love family members, but maintain a healthy distance from them if I find that their behavior to be unhealthy or toxic. Loving unconditionally does not mean allowing someone to abuse or cause emotional harm.
But this is, perhaps, the extreme. Sometimes, those we love aren’t toxic or abusive, but they simply change…..as people often do. Maybe they lose their zest and love for life because they allowed themselves to get bogged down by work and responsibilities. Maybe their beliefs or interests changed…..or they’ve developed and/or re-established bad habits or addictions. Whatever the case, they’re not the same person they used to be. What then? Do we end the relationship or marriage or do we continue along as best as we can? Often, even these kind of changes also lead us to ending the relationship….and we’re back to square one, questioning our own identity once again.
But here’s another thought to maybe keep in mind. Just because we may be capable of loving unconditionally doesn’t mean we will love everyone this way. Just because we are capable of seeing others beyond what they do, their interests and habits, etc….does not mean we will see everyone this way. Sometimes, we find that we just like people because of the “things” on our mental checklists and once they don’t meet those criteria any longer, they lose their luster. Sure, it’s superficial…..but no individual is any more absolute or set-in-stone as any other. We all are sometimes superficial and other times deep. We’re not ever entirely “this” or “that,” but a combination of all sorts of characteristics, no matter what labels attempt to attach themselves to us.
And so, just because we may not love unconditionally in one instance does not mean that we can’t learn to love this way or won’t ever love another this way. But how do we do that? One may wonder…..and I do have an answer. But first, I want to share something I recently came across on social media that prompted this post. Although I’m unfamiliar with the author of this piece, I find it quite insightful and relevant to my current perspective on unconditional love.
“To love someone long-term is to attend a thousand funerals of the people they used to be. The people they’re too exhausted to be any longer. The people they grew out of, the people they never ended up growing into. We so badly want the people we love to get their spark back when it burns out, to become speedily found when they are lost. But it is not our job to hold anyone accountable to the people they used to be. It is our job to travel with them between each version and to honor what emerges along the way. Sometimes it will be an even more luminescent flame. Sometimes it will be a flicker that temporarily floods the room with a perfect and necessary darkness.” ~ Heidi Priebe
As you ponder the words of this little piece of writing, I want you to know that the answer I’d like to propose is in them…..but not necessarily in their immediate and most obvious translation. Taken at face value, it seems like this piece is attempting to inspire one to love others at a higher level…..to accept others in all of their incarnations, changes, development. Although this sounds all great, noble, and beautiful, it leaves out one very important step on how to even get to this point. And that is…..that one must first and foremost love his/her self this way before attempting it with anyone else.
And so, I propose to anyone reading this to try it……grieve the loss and let go of who you used to be, who you’re too tired to be any longer, the people you grew out of, the people you never ended up growing into, the people you may never become, the people you find yourself being in each moment…..and love, honor, and embrace all of the versions of “you” encountered on your journey through life. In short, love yourself unconditionally first, embracing each new version of yourself and each inevitable death. Only then, may you increase your capacity to love others the same way.