When I was young, I was fascinated by the ideal of unconditional love. I fell in love, and I tried to be totally devoted. At that time I was working in an office with a group of young men. They had stories to tell about the women they had been out with, and they flirted with the women in the typing pool, but I closed my ears. I had no interest in anything but being a perfect partner, completely loyal to my woman. The woman in question, however, was jealous anyway. Although I never so much as glanced at another woman, I still got accused regularly of having unfaithful thoughts. The injustice of this cut me to the quick, and in no time she and I would be engaged in grievous arguments. My attempt to be the perfect partner had led me into being just the opposite. I was fighting her with all the wit and energy I could muster. So much for unconditional love.
My attempt at self-perfection was a story that I told to myself. I sincerely attempted to live out this story, but doing so was still a self-perfection project that caused many problems both at home, where it was attacked, and at work, where it cut me off and caused uneasiness in my relations with my workmates. When my story was attacked, I grew defensive. Of course, she also had self-stories. Part of her story involved getting emotional reactions from me. The easiest way to get an emotional reaction from somebody is to undermine their self-story. Many couples live like this, locked together by their battles over their self-stories, each trying to undermine the other. The story has become so important that it becomes vital to defend it, and so one engages in the fruitless task of trying to get the other person to buy the story. This kind of dysfunctional stability can go on for a long time.
It is many years later. I have, in the meantime, done much spiritual training. I have meditated, prayed, studied, and disciplined myself. I have consulted some of the greatest spiritual teachers alive and lived in communities with the highest ideals. The result has been totally different from what I originally thought that it was going to be.
I thought I would learn to love unconditionally. I didn’t. Instead, I discovered my vulnerable human nature. I came to realize that my attempt to be perfect was simply a story about myself that I was tenaciously attached to. In my nature are the same hormones, the same weaknesses, the same propensity to distraction, the same appetites that everybody else has. I have learned that my love is not unconditional. In fact, in an important sense, I am now less tolerant. There is no need to go on and on participating in situations of emotional self-harm when other options are available. Why would one? Only out of some more deeply seated self-hatred, which is another story.
The reality is that nothing about me or my life is ideal. The stories that I tell myself about myself are never complete or watertight, and they all involve some element of self-deception that makes me vulnerable to hurt and to spontaneous reactions that I will later regret. My very attempt to make myself into a perfect being has precisely the opposite effect. It distances me from the other person and makes it difficult to get on with them. Yet it is impossible to live without stories.
It is quite likely that you, the reader, are reading this article with a mostly unconscious motive of finding ways to shore up your self-story. You may be looking for a way to be a better person, but you can, in reality, only be the person that you are. My writing this article is also part of one of my stories to myself. If we did not have such stories we would not do anything, yet every story has the potential to get us into trouble. My spiritual progress, if we can call it that, has therefore given me a sense of gentle irony about human nature. I have learned that I am as prone to getting emotionally hurt as the next person. Far from reaching a state of supreme equanimity, I have discovered that such coolness only alienates one from others. I realize now that my original ideal was really to turn myself into a perfectly programmed robot.
What I have discovered that is of supreme importance, however, is that I now have a sense of being one who is loved by the universe. Imperfect, limited, and vulnerable as I am, the sun still shines upon me, things do work out, food appears, rain falls, wonderful conversations take place, and the grass grows without any help from me. I grow old and my teeth fall out, but I am more comfortable in my skin than I was, and in consequence I do not feel so critical of others, because we are all in the same boat. I have not learned great compassion, but I have acquired fellow feeling. I have not learned to bestow blessings on the multitude, but I do feel more blessed.
We do not radiate the unconditional love that we read about in holy texts ourselves, but, inadvertently, we often reflect it. All the little loves that make our life what it is are sparks that fly off from a cosmic wheel that is much greater than ourselves. We do live in the midst of an unconditional love that we can never fully comprehend. We can be grateful for that.