Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Unconditional Love, Myth or Fiction

July 3, 2004. It's eighty-degrees and dry, not a cloud in the sky. About seventy of our closest friends and family have gathered beneath a pavilion that stands between the VFW hall and the Charles, just on the Cambridge side of the Cambridge/Watertown border. Pretty cool since we only invited about thirty-five.

The music starts. Everyone rises and turns to see the bride and her father emerge from the hall. Iris and her dad glide across the grass to the back of the pavilion and then slowly process up the aisle that divides the two clusters of card-table chairs. Her dad mumbles to himself, trying to remember the words he'll say when the Buddhist priest/justice-of-the-piece asks, "Who gives this woman away?"

Iris is radiant. She beams as her gaze floats from face to face, each one reflecting the joy that she feels. My smile is so wide that I can feel cheek muscles starting to lock up.

Seconds later, Iris stands next to me. Her dad shuffles back to his seat. The priest asks everyone to be seated. Iris and I take seats at the front facing everyone as friends and family take turns standing at the lectern to share stories and insights through spoken word or song.

Time for the vows.

In our first meeting with the priest, he gives us a little booklet of commonly used vows. Later that evening I hear Iris laughing as she reads through them.

I ask her, "What are you reading?"

She says, "These vows that the priest gave us this afternoon."

"They're funny?"

"Yeah, ridiculous."

"For example?"

"For example, this one talks about us being two halves that when brought together will become a whole. Isn't that ridiculous?"

I sit next to Iris. We read through the vows together. She puts down the booklet and looks at me. We decide that we might as well write our own vows. Forget about two halves creating a whole. We'll talk about two wholes creating something even bigger. Forget about needing each other. Forget about unconditional love. Forget about obligation.

We write are vows as we would have them and email them to the priest.

While most people can get onboard with the idea of two wholes rather than two halves, they seem to have a problem with the idea of a marriage without obligation or commitment. Many have a problem with the absence of unconditional love.

Yet that's the basis of our relationship and it works remarkably well, at least for us.

The absence of obligation and commitment is actually biblical. In Matthew 5:36-37, Jesus is quoted as saying, "And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one."

No matter how strongly you feel or believe in your intentions, you cannot guarantee them. The number of variables outside your control far exceeds the number inside. The best you can do is to state your intent.

When you do more than this, what starts as a commitment morphs over time into an obligation. You no longer do what you do because you want to do it in the moment. Instead, you do it because you said you would some time ago. When this phenomenon is applied to love, love dies.

The best you can do is to state your intention. For us that came in the form: I intend to love you more each day than the day before.

I really like this intention because a) it's real for me, b) it's active and growing (many commitments tend towards maintenance and preservation), and c) it takes place one day at time (it has no words like always and forever.) I would even suggest that if your intention were a lifelong commitment, then this approach would have a greater probability of success (both quantitatively and qualitatively) than obligation.

What about unconditional love?

I believe that unconditional love is a philosophical concept with no real-world correlates. I've never met anyone who loved unconditionally. The ones who claim to tend to redefine love to accommodate it's absence in various situations. They use phrases like tough love and love the sinner, hate the sin. Rather than simply saying, "You know, there are things that you do that leave me feeling anything but love."

Iris and I are clear on things that we don't want in our marriage, things that would be deal-breakers. We could say that we would continue to love each other after a breakup because one or the other of us became abusive. We might in fact do so. However, from a practical perspective regarding our staying together as partners, we have conditions.

When you throw the word unconditional in front of the word love, you hasten love's transition to obligation. So, if your intent is to love deeply and fully for the long haul, I would avoid the unconditional part.

Our vows stated, we reach the time for the exchange of rings. The priest explains that rather than exchanging rings, we have a determined a different way to express our intentions for our relationship. We proceed with the unveiling of the matching tattoos that pretty much cover Iris' left-upper and my right-upper arms.

Later people comment saying things like, "I don't get it. You have a relationship with no commitments, no obligations and conditional love, and yet you have matching tattoos to signify it? What happens if the relationship ends? You'll still have that tatto?"

"Yup, I would. The tattoo would still symbolize my intent when I got it. Nothing would ever change that. I wouldn't want to forget it, even if our intentions weren't fulfilled."

I guess it's a funny way to think about things. What do you think?

Happy Wednesday,

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