In a recent interview for the poetry journal Rattle, Troy Jollimore put his finger on exactly what has always bothered me about the language of “unconditional love.” And–seeing as how he’s a highly credentialed philosopher and poet–he nailed it pretty darn well, so I’ma just step back now and let him speak (though any emphasis you see is added by yours truly):
“The reaction I find myself having when I really think about genuinely unconditional love is that I wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally, because it would almost have nothing to do with me. I think what we really want is strong love that it would take a whole lot to threaten.
Like if somebody said to me, “I love you but if you change your hairstyle I won’t love you anymore,” that’s no good. That’s not nearly stable enough. So I want somebody who’s going to stay by me and continue to love me even through some pretty radical changes that I might undergo.
But if somebody said to me, and really meant it, “I would love you no matter what. I would love you if you became a Nazi, if you became a child murderer and just went around killing children randomly—I would still love you,” I would think, “Well, that’s terrifying.” I don’t want to be loved that way.
It’s unconditional but I don’t want to be loved unconditionally, partly because—Freud said this, actually, that part of why being loved is valuable is because you feel like you’re being seen as worthy of it; this person admires you, they see these positive things about you.
If someone said, “I would love you no matter how awful you became,” then suddenly the love is worth less. You’d say, “Wait a minute, no, I want you to love me because I’m wonderful, and I want you to keep loving me even if some pretty bad things happen, but I don’t want you to love me no matter what I am.”
I mean, what good is your love if it’s just sort of a brute attachment?”
I love this discussion. It’s got Nazis, Freud, and “love me despite this terrible poodle perm!”–all rolled into one glorious tribute to the goal of a strong love that can endure, yet remain human.