Conditional love in the chaos of unfamiliar times

“What good is love if it’s toxic?” I ask my therapist. “Perhaps it’s not love that’s toxic, but the expression of it that is.”

I used to think that unconditional love was the greatest love. To love someone regardless of any action they do even if it’s against you and to love them fully and wholly throughout every tribulation. After exploring the idea of love for a while, I’ve realized that unconditional love is toxic love that lives without boundaries.

It’s fair to say I had a lot of unconditional love for the world. “Unconditional love” in some ways is quite the understatement. I believed that everyone was a good person, deserving of love and grace, despite what they have done and what has been done to them. My therapist argues that, “We need love to humanize someone else’s humanity,” when they do something wrong, especially if we need to respond to them. She says that if we can recognize and hold their humanity we can respond to them with compassion and kindness. This past spring, I survived a very grueling and traumatizing series of events that had multiple perpetrators. The main person behind the horrendous acts, committed a foul and awful act of violence to another person I cared about. I was in survival mode throughout the span of the events, but when I finally got space to breathe I realized how awful the situation was and how foul the people I met must be to have done such horrible and abhorrent things.

There was no way I could see their humanity. This is coming from someone that originally held the belief that every person is a good person and everyone is trying their best, but what they did shocked me. It shook the very foundation of the belief I thought was a universal truth.

My therapist says, “People can do hurtful things, seeing their humanity doesn’t make things right or justify their wrong doings. It’s to say that yes, they made a mistake, but that they aren’t the sum of their mistakes. That people are more complicated and nuanced than that. It’s to believe many of them are capable of change and growth too.” In writing this I’m also realizing that maybe not everyone is a good person and not everyone that makes mistakes is “trying their best” but every human is just as human as the rest of us. It feels naive to think that all people are capable of growth, but I believe most of us truly are.

We sometimes get into the bias to define people based on their history and their record of mistakes, but people are so much bigger than that. It also doesn’t excuse them from the consequences of their mistakes nor does it serve to minimize the magnitude of impact their actions have on others.

My therapist goes on to say that most of the love we experience is conditional. It’s either time bound or bounded by boundaries. I want you to think about a person you love(d) who has hurt you profoundly. Did your love for them change after this? Or did the expression of it adapt?

How can we adapt our expression of love towards ourselves so that it is radical, wholesome, and filled with grace?

While I have no love for the people that hurt me and those I cared about from the spring, I do recognize that their humanness is also aligned with their hurt and their pain. They committed an irreversible, selfish, and violent act they do not have my love or forgiveness, but they do have my attention that there are likely more people like this. Thankfully, it’s not the whole world.

So while I appreciate my therapist’s ultra-compassionate understanding and compassion for the humanity of mankind-it’s still an adjustment to embody parts of this belief. In the meantime, I choose to surround myself in the familiar love of family, friends, comfort foods, and my good pup Bella.

There is so much love in this world. It just takes an openness to love and be loved in order to embrace it.

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