Friday, October 11, 2013

Words of love

The words we use to describe love are really pretty silly.  The thing that gets me most riled up is unconditional love, particularly when it is held up as an ideal rather than an option.  Unconditional love, if you look at the literal interpretation of the words, clearly implies love regardless of any change in conditions.  This is often utter lunacy, sometimes is just wrong, and certainly doesn't deserve to put upon any sort of pedestal.  Love of a person regardless of their characteristics bothers me in the same way faith does - fundamentally it is about holding a viewpoint regardless of any reasons to the contrary.  You *should* change your opinion of someone if they decide to stab you with a fork, blow up a bunch of random folks, dump toxic waste into a river, or make really bad yo momma jokes.

Now of course people don't usually mean unconditional love when they say unconditional love.  They usually mean "I love you a lot and I will keep doing so even if you do things I think are weird or silly."  They reserve the right to stop loving should the target of said love do any of the heinous things described above.  In this way unconditional is abused in much the way literally is; we all know that what is being said is not what is meant but we understand anyway because we have context.  I am one of those people that doesn't mind the word literally being used to mean 'sort of like this but not exactly' because I can tell when it is being used this way.  Unconditional love though bothers me because people often seem to think it is literally true when it is clear that this is not the case.  (Using literally in its dictionary sense here, in case you need clarification.)

Fundamentally unconditional love robs the relationship of much of its meaning since it implies a love based around a body, a sack of chromosomes, a bloodline, or a particular sack of meat, rather than basing it on the personality and actions of the person in question.  If someone claims to love me unconditionally they are claiming to love the body sitting in my chair and not my motivations, my passion, my wit, my thoughts, or my dreams.  Those things all can change to become something terrible, twisted, and terrifying and I very much want to be loved for all that I am, not just for the somewhat temporally continuous mass that my mind inhabits.

Parents may well take umbrage at all this but examined closely even parental love is very unlikely to be unconditional.  You might well feel an unconditional responsibility towards your children, or an unconditional concern about them, but unconditional love implies that there is nothing your children could do to disrupt that love and thinking that no such thing exists probably implies more about your lack of imagination than anything else.  My love for my child is not unconditional.  The conditions under which I would stop loving her are extreme indeed but they exist; I certainly do not expect to ever encounter them and I hope very much I never learn my exact limits but I know those limits are out there somewhere.

I don't want to be loved unconditionally in the same way that I don't want to be needed.  I want to be loved conditionally and wanted.  Both those things imply an active choice that can be revoked and that very possibility of revoking them makes the fact that they exist now a thousand times more sweet.


  1. Well, here we go:

    First of all, on literally, people don't use it wrong, they use it metaphorically or jokingly, and any word can be used this way. For anyone who believes that those damn kids are ruining English by using "literally" wrong, I direct you to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where a particular damn kid (Mark Twain) used the phrase "literally rolling in money" to refer to someone who is merely rich in 1876. Those damn, world-reknowned-master-of-English-literature, dead-for-more-than-100-years kids these days.

    Anyway, on to unconditional love. I'm not sure you're really tapping the well on what it means to love someone here. I know this may seem like an unfair question, but would you really stop loving your child just because they blew a bunch of people up and dumped a bunch of toxic waste in a river? Does loving someone mean that you can't think they should be in jail? That you can't be afraid to be in the same room as them? That you can't feel pain when you think of them?

    Maybe that pain you feel when you think of them is evidence for rather than against your ongoing love for them. Mass murder can be upsetting in any event, but the agony of having someone you deeply care about commit it seems hard to imagine. One expression of this - as seen repeated throughout fiction - is the idea of disowning a family member, "You're no son of mine." In order to stop feeling so deeply about the person who once was their baby they tell themselves that the adult that baby became isn't really the same person. The trope in fiction is often about the pride of the parent rather than the evil of the child, but it doesn't really matter.

    How would you feel if a loved relative had dementia and couldn't even remember who you were or any shared events in your lives. Is it time to say, "Well, that's not really my mother/father/wife/husband anymore, so I guess I just move on"? And if they do commit mass murder, is that all there is to it? Are they merely that one action and everything that went into them up to that point just vanishes?

    A friend of mine, for an art show, dressed up as a mermaid and sat in a display she made. Part of the costume was a tattoo on her arm. It was colourful and elaborate and covered half of her forearm. I recall observing that it was pretty incredible that she would do something so permanent for an art show that was going to run a few days. She reminded me that nothing was permanent. While many people who speak of unconditional love may think they are going to heaven when they die, surely it's possible to say that you love someone unconditionally being aware that one day there will be nothing left of you to love that person. If someone is aware of their mortality, then that's at least one condition on them continuing the love the person in the future, but does it have to be stated? Do others? "I love you unconditionally, but remember that one day all things will end!" is a little grim, and "I love my mental construction of you - based on the glimpse I have at what is presumably a real thing I refer to as you - unconditionally but I am aware that I may one discover that you are not the thing I thought you were at all, as we always have the chance to be mistaken, Hell, I might be a brain in a jar and you and everything else an elaborate construction for my benefit or torment." lacks pizzazz.

  2. I do have to agree with Sthenno - declarations of unconditional love are really all about the pizzazz after all.

    Also, just because I love you unconditionally, doesn't mean I *like* you unconditionally.