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Center for Action and Contemplation

Building Strong Identity with Unconditional and Conditional Love

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Two Halves of Life: Week 2

Unconditional and Conditional Love
Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The only happy people I have ever met are those who have found some way to serve. I do mean that. Such folks are not preoccupied with self-image, success, and power. They almost always began conservative and traditional with rules, discipline, and structure that created a kind of compression chamber. Only very comfortable people can believe in the performance principle for long. As we grow, the chamber becomes tight and oppressive and usually based on exclusion. So we begin to practice what we call “the sacred no” against self-serving laws, traditions, and cultural practices that pose as the will of God. We are no longer willing to prop up the status quo and believe this is all there is to life.

It seems many of the people raised in our culture in the last few decades grew up backwards by beginning “liberal.” This leaves the unconverted ego in the position of decider. I don’t think we’re doing our children any favors by raising them without boundaries or rules and largely letting them decide for themselves what is right for them. Basically, we’re asking them to start from zero. In an overreaction to the generation before them, parents and the church have been trying hard to love unconditionally. I know this from doing it myself with the young people in the New Jerusalem community in my early years as a priest. I was endlessly preaching about God’s unconditional love. To be honest, although we drew thousands of young people, most did not take this very far in terms of a deep and lasting transformation or service to the world.

Eric Fromm, in his classic book The Art of Loving, states that the healthiest people he has known are those who received from their two parents and early authority figures a combination of unconditional love and conditional love. This does seem to be true of so many effective and influential people, like St. Francis, John Muir, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Mother Teresa. I know my siblings and I received conditional love from our mother and unconditional love from our father. We all admit now that Mom’s demanding love served us very well later in life, although we sure fought her when we were young. And we were glad Daddy was there to balance her out.

I am convinced that Fromm is wise and correct, and his wisdom surely matches my own lifetime of observation. It seems we need a goad, a wall to butt up against to create a proper ego structure, and a strong identity. Such a foil is the way we internalize our own deeper values, educate our feeling function, and dethrone our own narcissism. We all need to internalize the sacred no to our natural egocentricity. It seems we need a certain level of frustration, a certain amount of not having our needs met. Then we realize there are other people who also have needs and desires and feelings. As my mother told me, “Dickie, your rights end at the end of your nose; that’s where somebody else’s nose begins.”

Gateway to Silence:
Take up your cross and follow me.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Franciscan Media: 2004), discs 1 and 2 (CD); and

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 32-34.

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