Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On the Practice of not Being Jaded (with Some Thich Nhat Hanh Thrown in for Good Measure)

This was initially posted almost three years ago. I revisit it from time to time whenever I need to remind myself that there's no shame in loving another when there's no expectation of reciprocity.


I was thinking about someone who passed through my life not too long ago and a conversation we'd once (or twice) had about unconditional love. He'd indicated that anyone who gave it any sort of consideration in terms of its feasibility was certainly trying to compensate for some sort of lack in childhood with which they hadn't managed to come to terms in their adult lives. He brought up single women who adopt babies as an example of people seeking an instant fix to their own similar childhood lacks by taking in a human who'd more or less be forced to love them, by virtue of his or her helplessness and complete reliance on the woman / adoptive mother in question. It struck me at the time that he seemed to have no understanding of the concept of the reciprocity of love, or of the possibility that people might actually seek to love in and of itself, and not necessarily merely desperately seek to set themselves up to be its recipients.

It's along the same lines as people who enjoy giving for the sake of giving versus those who restrict their giving to reward-like affirmations (verbal, physical, et al.) to modify others' behaviour. There are some who dole out "love" as if it's just another component of some sort of reward-based system -- a controlling sort of habit that's ultimately, especially when done consciously, just another variation of emotional blackmail. So I come back to wondering about unconditional love and its place, if any, in human relationships. In the end, does it really all just boil down to baggage and strings? So this got me thinking about
Thich Nhat Hanh (1926- ), and a passage of his I'd read and remembered about a more general way to approach those milling about in the world:

When we come into contact with the other person, our thoughts and actions should express our mind of compassion, even if that person says and does things that are not easy to accept. We practice in this way until we see clearly that our love is not contingent upon the other person being lovable.
I guess in a sense, it's about love being more of an approach or mindset when engaging anybody in our lives than it is a tool to define and frame our contexts and relationships. In this sense, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, we need to learn to offer it unconditionally. It's "not contingent upon the other person being lovable". In a sense, love shouldn't be conditional upon someone's loving us back, or someone's being able to give us exactly whatever it is that we want. Maybe it's naive (or side-stepping into the murk) to think of it as such, or to strive to adopt that understanding of it into one's own life and one-on-one relationships, and particularly with romantic interests. And as long as we continue to think of it as a reward we can dole out to the deserving--the worthy, it's difficult to "love" when engaging those with whom we disagree, or those who choose to challenge, discourage or even disparage us. But is that really how we ultimately want to think of love?


Allysia said...

Though this post is on love in a general sense, one thing I kept thinking as I read it was how much it relates to our attitude toward animals, among other things. By choosing not to eat an animal, I don't get a "reward" (unless you count the good feeling you get when you do something kind), and I'm not expecting anything in return. I do it because I love - the animals, creation, this life.

Perhaps more on-topic with your post is how I'm endlessly grateful that my parents never played that reward-system love game with me - they never implied, "If you do not do this, you will not be loved". I would just get grounded. :)

Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

M said...

I'm glad that you liked it, Allysia. I really need to sit down to re-write it altogether. This is the third time I post it in as many years, but I think that I've spent so much time thinking around it that it could be something more clear and more elaborate. It's mostly just a reminder to myself that I can (and should) love without expectation -- that it's perfectly healthy to do so, and that loving others should never be done with strings attached. If you love without strings -- without letting obligations and expectations control your love, there's so much less room for disappointment and intellectualizing the emotion into meaninglessness.

Denise said...

I really enjoyed this, thank you for the reminder of Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings. I have many of his books and he was the reason I went vegan.