Unconditional love – Can it exist and if so is it desirable?

spiritual questions and answers

Unconditional love – Can it exist and if so is it desirable?

The idea of unconditional love sounds like caring for someone regardless of what might be in it for you. In other words loving others more than oneself. Giving generously with no conditions attached. But is this attitude possible? Can unconditional love exist? And if so is it desirable?


Science can’t fathom any such concept of unconditional love. Biological science explains life in terms of Darwinian evolution and thus natural selection based on survival of the fittest and the selfish gene.

Psychological science sees altruism merely as doing good for a hidden benefit such as feeling good about oneself, relief of guilt feelings or the expectation of future reward. It sees friendly relations as an exchange of benefits. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. No hint of unconditional love here.

Unconditional love in relationships

unconditional love

There is the intimate relationship between mother and infant to consider. No matter what the baby does, vomits over one’s best clothes, or keeps one up all night crying, all is forgiven. No conditions to one’s maternal love apply here.

There are many other instances of selfless love. It shows itself when parents make personal sacrifices for the sake of their hungry children. Also when a soldier gives his life for his comrades in arms.

Counsellors practise unconditional positive regard. They do not simply accept the client when he is behaving in certain ways, and disapprove of him when he behaves in other ways. By showing a warm accepting attitude without any hint of judgment they make it possible for the client to get in touch with and explore shameful feelings in himself.

Couples say they marry with the intention of loving and cherishing each other no matter what life throws at them, in whatever changing conditions they have to face “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”

Unconditional love – a misleading term

Despite these instances of love and sacrifice, I believe the term ‘unconditional love’ is misleading. Here is one reason why. Unconditional love in a partnership implies living together without any conditions, rules or expectations. But would this be wise? What if your partner were to abuse your children, or be regularly unfaithful to you, or try to murder you? “I love you if you hurt me.” That is not in any wedding vow imaginable.

Do some people use the term ‘unconditional love’ as an excuse to stay in bad relationships or to shame someone into staying in one?

Would it be prudent to accept someone’s behaviour unconditionally? No counsellor practising unconditional positive regard would tolerate clients doing harm to him or her. No loving parent would allow children to go uncriticised if acting badly within the home.

Selfless love is a better term than unconditional love

To my mind a better term is selfless love of kindness and compassion. This is wishing someone well regardless of how they might affect you. Continual selflessness is probably more than a tough challenge for most of us and not the central attitude in our daily lives. But it is a worthy ideal attitude to aim towards.

The term unconditional love is misleading because how a caring attitude towards others is exercised should vary according to the conditions one finds oneself in. For example there is a difference in the way care is exercised between a therapy room (unconditional positive regard of the counsellor), a room at home, (tough love of parent towards naughty child) and a courtroom (careful and fair evaluation by the jury on the basis of the facts of the case).

Selfless love shown in a nonjudgmental attitude

A good jury, who wishes the accused well, and assume he is innocent until found guilty, will not jump to conclusions about him on the basis of his appearance or ways of speaking. In a word in making their judgment about whether he is guilty or not guilty they are not being judgmental but fair-minded. Loving kindness is looking for the good in someone rather than dwelling on the bad. In this way a judgmental attitude can be avoided.

Paul Vickers, in commenting on John’s gospel, points out that we tend to use the virtues of honesty and uprightness in judging the behaviour of others. We need to be mindful of any tendency we may have to be judgmental for our own benefit.

There is no condemnation, no criticism or blame, in the action of selfless love. It wants only to give the joy of its life to others. Vickers suggests that Christ was the embodiment of the source of perfect love. As such the gospel view is that Christ’s life was not to judge and condemn, but to heal.

Whether or not you are religious, I would say Jesus can see and loves the potential in all of us and constantly works with love to save us from the negative consequences of self-serving attitudes. My own faith is that this will work in the long run to transform us as long as we try to live our lives with this ideal in mind.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Personal tragedy – How could I face it?

Personal tragedyPersonal tragedy visited Jack. Although in his sixties and retired, he still felt young. His whole life revolved around doing handyman jobs in his own home and in the homes of his three daughters. He greatly enjoyed the company of his family and their appreciation. But recently he was experiencing some troubling ailments.

First he noticed he was getting blood in
his stools. He put this down to
haemorrhoids, a common enough problem in his age group. However, it was when he started experiencing some abnormal bowel complaints that he took himself off to the doctor who immediately did tests. The results were rather worrying. The doctor explained that cancer gives people no symptoms or signs that exclusively indicate the disease and that he should see a specialist immediately for further examination.

Typical fears in response to personal tragedy

We can imagine how Jack felt. He was facing the prospect of taking some powerful drugs with all sorts of uncomfortable side effects. He dreaded the thought of likely skin changes and fatigue due to radiation therapy, and his imagination started to run away with itself as he dwelt on surgery. Would treatment work? Would his body be permanently impaired? Would he die?

How could Jack best deal with his fears? Just how does one face a personal tragedy?

Passive victim role in response to a personal tragedy

Some people respond to bad personal news by becoming a passive victim: repeatedly saying to themselves “It’s not right… I don’t deserve this… I am helpless.” It is as if they see a dangerous animal approaching and instead of doing something about it, they become paralysed. They had always believed the world should be fair and can’t seem to get their heads around the point that sometimes this isn’t necessarily so.

Not everyone allows himself or herself to become a passive victim of personal tragedy even when confronted by the most appalling circumstances. Many of the survivors of concentration camps were able to endure because they refused to give in to feeling victimized. For example Viktor Frankl in Auschwitz, whose basic human rights and possessions were removed, used his one remaining freedom to keep up his spirits. This was the freedom to choose his own inner attitude of mind in response to the outer horrible situation.

Making assumptions about the consequences of a personal tragedy

If you had been sent to a death camp maybe you would have feared the worst. But how would you have known? Assuming you are utterly helpless in the face of fate is a feature of being a passive victim. But no one can know the future. Frankl wasn’t to know whether he would survive or die.

If your baby were deaf, mute and blind, this indeed would be a personal tragedy and you would probably assume the end of the world for your child. But how could you know this? Through exactly this profound disability Helen Keller found an uplifting spirit and fulfilling adult life.

There was a man who had syphilis. His wife had TB. One of their four children dies and the others suffer from an incurable illness that is considered terminal. The mother is pregnant. What should she do? You might say she should have an abortion. If so, you have just killed the composer Ludwig Van Beethoven.

The prospects for anyone may seem dire. But how do you know? How do know what is going to happen in the next hour let alone the next month? Who can be so sure about what is going on around the corner?

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in
life!” (Marcus Aurelius)

Some things will be bad; a few things are exceptionally bad but not the end of the world. And no matter how bad it is, can’t you stand it? Can’t you adapt?

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them” (Epictetus)

Wanting to cast blame in response to a personal tragedy

In his book ‘Why does God let it happen?’ Bruce Henderson suggests that people often make the mistake of assuming that whatever personal tragedy God permits to happen in the world, he must be the cause. He also criticizes the belief that ill fortune is a deserved punishment for a past misdeed.

He puts forward an alternative religious view that God is like a parent who allows the children freedom to do as they choose even if this means mankind behaves badly at times with tragic consequences. According to this view, trying to impose total control over our behaviour or ways of thinking would stifle us and we would not be free to develop as individuals as we wish but instead turn out like pre-programmed robots.

A loving parent who allows the child freedom to make mistakes is one who wants to help as much as possible giving advice, offering support and encouragement and so on. The religious person trusts that likewise God is a loving parent whose divine providence is flowing into our lives to counterbalance the bad things we are experiencing. In other words it is claimed that a loving God provides some element of hope to make up for misery, some degree of sense to offset foolishness or an inflow of good feeling to compensate for evil.

Just as the child learns through mistakes so spiritual growth can sometimes only happen if first a person has to face and deal with something of personal tragedy.

I do believe that no matter what hardships we endure, God is with us all the time, lifting us up, helping us to find a way through, if we will only be open to this.

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Child rearing – What spiritual practice helps?

Children and grandchildren can provide your child rearing with wonderful moments. Their spontaneity and sense of fun can brighten your day. But almost out of the blue all hell can break loose and they can be a real pain testing your limits and boundaries. child rearingWhat they want can be different from what you want. They seem to be noisier, more untidy and more demanding than ever you expected. A spiritual practice is needed for difficult child rearing.

Responding as a good carer can be a real struggle, particularly when you feel stressed and tired. What psycho-spiritual ideas can help? The professionals talk about empathy, consistency, and unconditional love in child rearing. But how do you find these within yourself when you are feeling challenged?

Deeper aspects of child rearing

I would like to suggest the answer is that understanding and acceptance come from focusing the mind on deeper aspects of the interaction with the child; more than on just how you are feeling at the time and more than what you are immediately aware of that is going on.

This deeper watchfulness is a form of spiritual discipline: staying in the moment, and being alert to deeper issues, rather than mindlessly jumping to judgment or being attached to what you hope for. Experience shows illuminating insights can emerge as one stills the mind.

Some challenges of child rearing

When the baby is crying non-stop it might be caused by a wet nappy, or hunger, or perhaps due to an uncomfortable position, or teething pain or maybe it is a sign of illness.  If whatever you do doesn’t seem to work and the problem keeps recurring most days you might be feeling fraught and think something like ‘This is a wilful attempt to control me’ or ‘It’s an emotional cry for help’ or ‘This baby has too low a level of tolerance of discomfort’.

Whatever you happen to think colours your feelings and actions. The danger is you become unduly upset and this will affect the trust the infant has in you.

Jumping to conclusions during child rearing

It will probably take an effort to reserve judgment, to remember that the cause of the crying might be different on separate occasions. To become alert to such possibilities often means staying in the moment and focusing on the problem rather than jumping to conclusions.

Likewise how do we see it when a school age child is having a tantrum of shouting, hitting, and spitting at you? As a sign of a psychiatric condition? An evil disposition? A spoilt brat who requires harsh punishment? When caught up in the feelings of the situation it can be hard to see other possibilities.

Not rushing to judgment would mean you calmly dealing with the immediate crisis and only later trying to explore whatever had been going on. The child is not in thinking mode just yet. Filled up with anger he or she isn’t ready to be reasoned with. That can come later.

Reflection during child rearing

I hear you thinking ‘It’s all very well saying don’t jump to conclusions, but how do I do that?’ One suggestion is that you try to consciously reflect on what you are saying to yourself.  Question what it is you are assuming, what you are expecting to happen and what belief is being aroused by the situation?

Admittedly this requires some effort but once thoughtful consideration becomes something you are used to doing then it becomes easier to put one’s emotions on one side and instead gain some insights into what might be going on. This accords with the old idea of counting to ten and taking a step back before reacting. Like all spiritual practice this requires self-discipline.

Unfair expectations during child rearing

One common assumption is that the child will conform to one’s hopes and aspirations: for example be sensitive, hardworking, or athletic. Such beliefs are unfair as children come with their own characteristics and dispositions and cannot be molded against their will to fit in with adult expectations. By being attached to certain future outcomes there is a danger of mindlessly denying the child a sense of individual uniqueness.

Acceptance in child rearing

One thing that can enhance a relationship is when adults make room for children accepting each of them as they are, for example being prepared to negotiate and compromise.

Accepting a child’s warts and all as a person in his or her own right doesn’t mean encouraging any socially unacceptable behaviour but rather acknowledging that, like the rest of us, he or she has certain negative as well as positive tendencies. I would suggest it means looking for opportunities to encourage and support new behaviours.

Giving care to children is one of the most important and challenging of all jobs yet people often expect to be able to do it without any help. For those people, who have the time and resources, help can be gained from a mindfulness meditation retreat coupled with daily practice. Alternatively, no money is needed to set aside a little time by yourself each day to deeply reflect on the challenges of a child’s behaviour.

You may think that it is only natural to feel unconditional love and selfless concern for children but no one has limitless amounts of patience and self-restraint. We all need some rest to restore our inner resources and find the concentration and forbearance required to focus our attention on somebody else’s needs.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems