A few weeks ago I was searching online to find items of possible interest when I spotted the website for “Philosophy Talk”, a US radio series presented by two serious academics from reputable institutions. Specifically, it was the introduction to an episode entitled “Unconditional Love” which caught my attention. I don’t know when it was actually first broadcast. It could have been a while ago, but that is immaterial: the subject is timeless. The presenter (Ken Taylor) indicates that they had explored the subject of love on several previous occasions, but there was plenty more to say as it is “…a philosophically inexhaustible topic” (I would be inclined to say “universally” inexhaustible).
Much about what he said puzzled me (to say the least!). To begin with, he seemed to think that unconditional love was separate from other types of love, and he “admitted” (his word) it was a “…rare and difficult thing.” Really? Of course, the manifestation and expression of love will be different within different relationships: romantic partners, parents and children, friends, or engagement with humankind in a wider, global sense. However, fundamental to the nature of love, I believe, is that it is unconditional. Anything less is not love, it seems to me.
He also says that “…it’s an amazing gift when it does happen” (remember, according to him, it is rare). But then he questions whether it is, after all, such a good thing to be the recipient of such love:
“When someone loves me unconditionally, doesn’t that mean they don’t care who I am and what I do and are they blind to my particularity?”
It appears to me that he has taken an almighty leap to an unsubstantiated, unjustified conclusion. Indeed he seems to reconsider and continues:
“… just because you love someone unconditionally, doesn’t mean you care about what they are or what they do … [of course it doesn’t: “unconditional doesn’t mean imperceptive, obtuse or even uncritical] …The ‘unconditional’ part of unconditional love just … [“just”??! – there’s no “just” about it] … means you won’t withdraw love when things go badly.”
The concept of withdrawing love makes no sense to me. Love is forever: it’s about the only thing that is, I believe. To love can bring the greatest elation and the most savage pain, of that there is no doubt. (He does touch on the matter of abusive relationships. However, as he doesn’t deal with this in any depth I won’t expand on it here. It deserves a proper examination of its own.)
Let me show you why I believe I am in sound company in my understanding.
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this, but not infrequently, in a variety of contexts, I have heard someone deliver a weighty quote, followed by the response “The Bible or Shakespeare?” – the implication being that many profound words of wisdom come from one or the other! Why the Bible and Shakespeare? Well, I think I am on reasonably firm ground if I say that these two works are still widely regarded as hugely significant, encompassing, as they do, such a great deal about human experience, which might encourage, inspire, hearten and generally provide a basis for worthwhile reflection.
I mention all this because both the Bible (I have a specific New Testament passage in mind) and Shakespeare write about love in words which, to me, quite simply, strike home, to the very depths of my heart.
In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare expresses the immutable, steadfast nature of love. He conveys the conviction that there is no circumstance which can cause love to fail: if it fails, then the “it” was/is not love:
“… Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds …”
is the phrase that particularly stays in my mind, though the entire sonnet expresses the enduring nature of love, which remains unshaken by life’s storms and does not atrophy with the passing of time.
St Paul, writing centuries earlier to the church in Corinth (where many members were, basically, busy outdoing each other in “religiousness”) lays out what really matters, the only thing they should focus on with all their heart, mind and strength. He writes:
“… Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends …”
In this reflection on the nature of love, I do need to say this: in Christian tradition the two greatest commandments expressed by Jesus are to love God, and your fellow human beings as yourself. I also came across this from the Buddha:
“You, as much as anyone in the universe, deserve your love and respect.”
Never lose sight of this: it is crucial.
As we have stepped, albeit briefly, onto the path of the Buddha, let me just say that, were we to pursue it, we would find very many exhortations to cherish the world and “cultivate a boundless love for all beings in the world, above, below, and across, unhindered …”
It will be obvious I am sure, that I write from the heart. For me, love is nothing less than the beginning and the end of everything that matters, the key to the richest, most fulfilling and well-lived Life.