Monday, September 21, 2009



I know a lot of people in therapy. Pretty soon I might join them. In one way or another, everyone deals with emotional disturbance and unhappiness in our society. Life can be incredibly painful. After all, we live in a competitive world. We basically contend with two types of people: (1) Indifferent people who want to outdo us; and (2) people we love who are biologically bound to die one day. It is stressful to cope with high stakes and loss all the time. We suffer defeats, losses and setbacks every day. Freud said that it is "much easier to experience unhappiness than happiness." Civilization and its Discontents, 26 (Strachey trans. 1961). Sometimes unhappiness grinds us into submission, no matter how optimistic we try to be. In brief, life takes a toll, even if you had a relatively stable childhood. And that's a rarity.

Yet for all our vulnerability to unhappiness and emotional pain, we strive for love. See generally Civilization and its Discontents, 33-34. We think that love will counteract our unhappiness, or at least make it more bearable. But we seek a very specific kind of love: Love without conditions or qualifications. We want love without first fulfilling others' demands or acceding to others' conceptions about "what we should be." As simple as it sounds, we want people to love us "for who we are," without manipulation or expectation. Generally speaking, expectations result at least in stress and at most in unhappiness. Expectations create a disparity between our conceptions about the future and reality. When reality does not match the expectation, we feel failure or worse. "Love with expectations" results in serious emotional pain. But love without expectations--simple, unconditional love--results in emotional satisfaction, even euphoria. That is what we want from life--strongly positive emotions--because when we feel that good, nothing else can bring us down.

But this is exactly the problem. After all, it is almost impossible to find unconditional love in society. First, our entire social structure does not really value individual happiness. Rather, it merely expects objective economic productivity and "service." Those two basic goals do not require happiness. Quite the contrary, they typically induce unhappiness. Very few people are ever happy about being "objectively economically productive" for someone else, nor are they ever happy about serving some domineering economic master. Yet "success" in our society flows from "productivity" and "service." It does not matter whether a "successful man" feels happy while he productively serves. It does not affect the bottom line. Subjective, individual feelings, in other words, simply do not matter in this objective social scheme.

But what are human beings if not feeling creatures? In the final analysis, every man and woman is a unique entity with emotions and thoughts. Emotions and thoughts are entirely subjective. While they might mean nothing to society or the economy, they mean everything to the individual who thinks and feels. Unconditional love is one of the best feelings a person can experience. Society, however, could care less about it. It is not essential either to productivity or service. This is why unhappiness is so rampant, even among people who appear "successful" and "content." They may reach "objective" standards for social success, but miserably fail to satisfy their own "subjective" emotional needs. In a word, there is much more to life than success.

We should not be surprised that it is hard to find unconditional love in our society. After all, everything has conditions attached in the merciless commercial crucible of life. A condition means something that must be fulfilled before something else is given. It is "bargain-like:" "If you cut my grass, I will give you $100." It channels behavior: You don't get the $100 if you don’t cut the grass. No one does anything for anyone else in our society without imposing some condition on performance. Conditions allow people to induce behavior in others. They allow people to tyrannize and manipulate others for their own gain. This might be perfectly appropriate in cutthroat commerce. But conditions attach not just to contracts and business deals. Rather, they attach just as often to human affections.

We want unconditional love because we are accustomed to conditional love. I read an article in the New York Times last week arguing that modern psychiatry can be explained by reference to "selling unconditional love" in a society that rarely loves, and only conditionally when it does. According to the article, living with conditional love cripples us emotionally. It said that even our parents do not often love us unconditionally. Much to the contrary, they typically want to "control our behavior" by baiting us with love. The article claimed that parents could warp their children not just by scolding and criticizing them, but also by excessively praising them. Each case implicates "conditional love." Praise creates an internal urge for conformity in a child, leading him or her to modify behavior in order to win the praise. Parents only give praise when the child acts "as they wish;" that is conditional love. Without fulfilling the condition, the parent does not praise--and does not love. Praise, then, can be just as damaging as critique.

If parents do not love unconditionally, who will? That is a serious question. If our closest relatives do not love us "for who we are," can we expect commercial actors, bosses and clients to do so? Certainly not. In fact, in commerce we never expect unconditional relationships. We always know that someone wants something from us in return for what they give. As fundamental as that "bargain imperative" may be in commerce, it is anathema to our emotional needs. We might steel ourselves to conditional relationships as we move through life. But in the process we deny ourselves the one thing that might bring us happiness. We will never find unconditional love in commerce; we will never find it in our careers. We never even find it within our own families. People always want us to act in some way that benefits them, or at least matches their sentiments. It is never enough to "be who we are." To fulfill conditions, we must always "be someone else." That leads to emotional ruin in the end.

This is the psychiatrist's niche. The psychiatrist, unlike the boss, the parent, the admirer or even the sometime friend, staunchly empathizes with his patient no matter what. He listens attentively. He does not impose his own moral or family-based judgments on the patient's choices or lifestyle. He offers the love that the patient's own parents refused to give without conditions. This is modern therapy. It is a dose of unconditional love in a world without unconditional love. Perplexingly, however, it is also a commercial relationship. Therapists do not support their patients because they genuinely want to give unconditional love; they do it because they are on the clock. In this sense, they offer "unconditional love conditional upon payment," but even that is better than purely conditional love.

Unconditional love is a precious commodity. The fact that so many people turn to therapy testifies to its pricelessness in our emotional lives. No matter how much we cynically harden ourselves to commercial realities and its myriad conditions, we always must attend to our own emotional health. Unconditional love makes us feel really good. It makes us feel better than any hard-won, competitive victory. Nothing can match it because it affirms our own personality without any effort on our part. It feels good to be loved "simply for who we are" without having first performed a song and dance to placate some demanding taskmaster.

Taskmasters surround us in life. They come in many guises. Even our own spouses and parents might force us to act in unappealing ways to win their love. When it comes to love, no one wants to compete. If we compete for love, it is not really love. We want others to love us because we are who we are, not because we do things for them. But this is a hard thing to do in a world that consistently heaps us with conditions and expectations. This society does not make individual happiness a primary goal. So it leaves us to struggle--often vainly--to obtain it.


MaxThrust said...


Reciprocation is what most people search for in relationships. Wisdom, courage, and compassion help to love, plus the person giving cannot have a large void they expect to be filled or they'll be needy. If we have expectations and demands that is not unconditional love. Can we ever expect anyone to love us no matter what we do? It's an unreasonable, childish demand. It worked when we were a baby, but not now.

Mature unconditional love doesn't exist. I think it's a wonderful thing that when I give to someone and they feel good, I feel good! This is a higher form of selfishness, but still selfish none-the-less. It's win-win. It's better than win-lose behavior when I make someone else feel bad so I feel good.

On a deeper level, if we cultivate understanding that the other person, at their core, is in their essence the same as we are, we will feel compassion towards them. This may be as close as we can get to unconditional love.

Unconditional love is what people search for in life, trying to recapture that feeling of rapture which the baby felt it had. That is a feeling of absolute security and acceptance, which cannot be found again.

If the mother gives up the child, the child dies, that was the situation on which unconditional love was first imprinted upon us. No matter what the child did, the mother was there. Adults cannot be expected to act that way to each other. After a time if the inequity is too strong, one side will stop the exchange, unless they are a masochist, in which case it's still win-win.


Timoteo said...

I knew my parents did not love me unconditionally when they started making me go to school.
The closest thing to unconditional love I will ever receive comes from my dog.