Not too long ago, I was at the checkout line in a grocery store. The young woman in front of me was madly going through her purse to find any extra cash. When she couldn’t find it, she began to look at what she might have to put back in order to pay for her groceries. Those groceries included staples, not luxuries. Acting on a whim, I told the checkout clerk to put the additional on my bill. Perhaps it was because I had recently seen the movie, Pay It Forward; perhaps it was just that I remembered days when I struggled with meeting my own expenses. Whatever the reason, I committed this act of kindness because I wanted this young mother to have all that she needed for her family. And, I must admit, it felt really good.
Many would call this unconditional love – an expression of kindness without expecting anything in return.
Who can really define it? Poets have tried; professionals in the field of psychology and theology have tried; and we try to define it ourselves as we go through life and experience relationships – with our parents, our siblings, our lovers, our children, and our friends. And each of these “types” of love has different characteristics. We love in many different ways and therefore define the word differently depending upon the relationship.
Conditioned for Conditional Love
Most of us are the givers and recipients of conditional love. We love other people who “do” for us, who make us feel good, and with whom we have enough in common that we enjoy hanging out together. We “get” something out of these love relationships, and so do they.
We enter into love relationships with life partners, but, again, we do not love unconditionally. The divorce rate alone demonstrates that when a partner is not “getting” what s/he needs, walking away is often the best resolution for both.
Most of our life love experiences are based on conditional love, or at least the feeling that the love given is somewhat conditional. And we are also conditioned to expect things from those who love us.
The Freedom of Unconditional Love
Can we learn to love unconditionally? The short answer is, yes, we can. The long answer is that it is a difficult change to make, takes daily commitment, and a real change in behavior and thinking. It is much like a recovering alcoholic – taking one day at a time and living by the new “rules” we have set for ourselves.
And just as alcoholics who recover become free of their addiction, so too can we become free of our “addiction” to making love conditional. It can be amazing freedom that transforms our lives for the better.
How We Can Practice Unconditional Love Every Day
First, we have to accept the fact that unconditional love is behavior we must nurture, not any type of “feeling.” The “feeling” comes as a natural side effect of the behavior.
- The first step into the waters of unconditional love may be with strangers. We have a lot of baggage with those who surround us, so beginning in this way is perhaps the easiest start in developing the mindset and beginning to practice the daily behaviors. Let someone in front of you on the roadway; buy the next person’s order at the drive thru; find any ways you can to express generosity and kindness without any expectation of a return.
- Practice non-judgment and forgiveness. This is tough – at home, in your personal relationships, and in the workplace. We have all been wronged by others. Harboring anger and resentment over those wrongs really does not accomplish anything. In fact, those people and those wrongs are “living rent-free” in our heads, keeping us from the freedom we deserve. It’s hard, but when you can truly let go, you will understand that those individuals are on their own paths, not yours. Develop some mantras that will guide your thinking about these people. When a negative thought about them comes into your head, simply recite your mantra: “I send you love and peace. Our past difficulties are in the past and no longer important. You and I are both free.” Then, do something nice for that person, even if it is something as minor as bringing them a cup of coffee or a doughnut when you go to work. Even a compliment will begin to set you free. Practice doing small nice things for people with whom you have had issues. Don’t wait for them to take a step – that is conditional love.
- Approach tough issues and circumstances with acceptance and calm. A good friend of mine has a son suffering from drug addiction. He has caused horrible emotional and financial harm to the rest of the family, and it would be easy to harbor lots of anger. Ultimately, her unconditional love allowed her to be strong enough to say: “You can no longer live here. We will find a rehab program for you, and you must go.” Now that he is in the program, she can practice unconditional love for him – through visits, letters, calls, etc., providing support and encouragement. These activities have allowed her to release all of the anger, disappointment, and frustrations of the past. She has also released him to be in charge of his own life. And the beauty in her new-found calm? She expects no apologies or repentance from him. She just wants to see him well.
- Love others enough to let them go. If you are in a relationship that is not healthy, that is causing negative feelings, then you are not unconditionally loving that other person. What you want is for that person to change. This is conditional love, and it will not work. You need to let that person go, even if you have to be the one to end it. Now, you are in a position where you love yourself unconditionally and you can love them unconditionally too – just from afar, as you hope for only the best for them in their new life.
- If you have a religious faith to which you adhere, unconditional love may be easier to practice. You accept that God has unconditional love for you, no matter what you do, no matter how much you may have wronged others. And that unconditional love is also asked of you as you live and move in your own life. If the higher power can love you unconditionally, then you should find it a bit easier to love others in the same way.
This article has talked a lot about freedom. As you practice unconditional love daily; as you develop those behaviors that signal unconditional love to others, you will experience emotional freedom that you have not known before. You no longer have to be “in charge” of others; you no longer have to place conditions on relationships; you no longer have to cling to judgments, criticisms, anger, resentment. You will find that doing good to others, that forgiving others, without any expectations of a “return” create a new, amazing you.