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Center for Action and Contemplation
The First Half of Life
The First Half of Life

Unconditional and Conditional Love

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Father Richard considers how a balance of unconditional and conditional love serves growth in the first half of life:

The only happy people I’ve met are those who have found some way to serve. Such folks are not preoccupied with self-image, success, and power. Many of us began with traditional rules, discipline, and structure that created a kind of compression chamber, often based on exclusion. As we grow, the chamber becomes tight and oppressive, 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’re no longer willing to prop up the status quo and believe that is all there is to life.

It seems many 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 do 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 endlessly preached 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 deep and lasting transformation or service to the world.

To borrow an idea from Erich Fromm’s classic book The Art of Loving, I believe that the healthiest people are those who received from their two parents and early authority figures a combination of unconditional love and conditional love. This seems 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.

It appears 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.”

Reference: Adapted from Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love, selected by Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 15–16.

Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Benjamin Yazza, Untitled 13 and 7. Jenna Keiper, Bisti Badlands. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image

A hawk judges its environment for survival and eventually takes flight. 

Story from Our Community:

Reading Fr. Rohr’s Daily Meditations has been an integral part of my own exploration into the “Second Half of Life.” After I devour the daily dose of spiritual wisdom, I process it with a band of friends and mentors who have come to form a weekly book group. Reading from the mystics the past two years, it is uncanny how often the Daily Meditations posts and book references tie into our discussions! Having recently struggled through a dark night of my own, the Daily Meditations have provided a fresh take on embracing suffering and realizing deep joy. —Daniel C. 

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