This weekend I facilitated a strategic planning workshop for a small nonprofit organization in Biloxi. Contemplating their collaboratively-produced vision statement, a participant took issue with the phrase "unconditionally committed," or, more specifically, the use of the word "unconditionally."
I could appreciate her perspective. Is "unconditional commitment" something that can be required, or demanded or even requested?
It's a huge concept; impossible to verify until we take our last breath. It is a survivor's observation at the bedside of the deceased: Yes, her [love, commitment, faith, generosity, etc] was unconditional. It never failed.
Unconditional is a vow we make in the privacy of our own hearts--to be unwavering, steadfast, reliable until the end.
Today I am thinking about all the people I have disappointed over my lifetime, particularly those who I love. Almost never has it been a situation in which my reneging on an agreement or consciously, intentionally betraying them provoked the disappointment.
Maybe I did or said something which I knew or suspected, from prior events in our shared history, they would not approve of. Maybe we'd never encountered or explored the issue in our relationship to date so I had no idea what their response might be.
Whatever it was, I felt strongly enough about it to say or do it.
In those cases where I knew the other's opinion beforehand, I often assumed there was sufficient love, tolerance and flexibility between us to allow a difference of opinion. Sometimes I knew I risked disappointment (which, with so many people, quickly evolves into a sense of personal injury) but with people I love unconditionally, I proceed with a mostly unconscious confidence that the situation will not devolve into estrangement of the relationship.
I believe we'll keep going. I believe we'll work it out.
But it doesn't always work that way. I am estranged from, what seems to me today, a staggering number of people who I love unconditionally.
The familial estrangements provoke a distinctly dynamic emotional reaction in me. It is as though "unconditional love" comes in at least two varieties-- one denoting "til the end of time" and the other having no end; a "forever, everywhere...and nowhere as well if you go there" kind of unconditional love. An "I am with you and for you and of you always. Amen" kind of unconditional love.
Some would say it is a lot to give. I would respond that, when it comes, it is impossible not to give it. It is mysterious and insistent and gently profound--like air. There's no choice. It isn't even mine to give or withhold.
I'm saying that's the way Unconditional Love reveals itself to me. I can't say how it comes to other people.
I love my immediate blood family unconditionally. I have little to no contact with most of them. In some cases we simply haven't crossed each other's mind with enough vitality to inspire initiating contact. My youngest sister, and to some extent my only brother, fall into this category. I also have easily hundreds of cousins who fall into this category.
I've encountered and internalized some teachings on family and family love in poetry and wisdom traditions. I've also undergone a lot of psychological therapy and read substantially inside the practice. These biases shape my understanding and emotional experience of being estranged from blood relatives who I love unconditionally.
I Googled "quotations about family" and found:
In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.
In each family a story is playing itself out, and each family's story embodies its hope and despair.
If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
In every dispute between parent and child, both cannot be right, but they may be, and usually are, both wrong. It is this situation which gives family life its peculiar hysterical charm.
There are times when my estrangement from my mother and father provokes extreme self loathing--what kind of monster or miscreant am I? Normal people talk to their living parents. Don't they?!
Other times I see myself as just another little human whose life story happens to be unfolding this way. My story is not a lightening bolt ripping the fabric of the cosmos. It is one little strand in the tapestry of Life.
It is a small strand and it is not unique. It recurs. It is mostly through biographical literature that I discover the universality of my experience. Estrangement is a bleak plane that others have visited. And written about. Or painted or composed music or danced about.
Sometimes I attempt a therapeutic analysis. What do the "experts" say about estranged adult children? What do the wisdom traditions say is possible for an estranged being?
Perhaps three years ago, it was extremely painful to think of the gulf between my divorced parents and the individual gulfs between me and each of them. Very rarely do I feel that kind of pain anymore. And very rarely does an urge come to "fix" the situation. It is what it is. Tragic, sad, ridiculous, paradoxical. It is the way it is.
I love them. We do not talk.
Who is to blame? A dead-end, deadening question.
What did I do? I disappointed them. Deeply. Early in my life. They were hurt and disappointed because of something I was or said or did. And I experienced their wounded disappointment as a fatal wound to my heart. And, as soon as I could, I set about placing as much space and time between us as possible. I ran from the scene and the source of pain.
But I was young. I still needed them psychically. I loved them and needed them. And I felt wounded by their disappointment. For a few years I reached out through occasional letters written in raw, reaching language trying to reconnect to what felt like essential, life-sustaining relationship. My father never responded but his wife sent a friendly handwritten card saying thanks for writing and best of luck always. My mother never responded to letters but was full of smile and surface chat when I saw her at my son's wedding after at least 3 years of silence between us.
I learned that I could survive without an engaged relationship with my parents.
Perhaps my parents feel the same unconditional love for me and each other that I feel for each of them. What proof will exist as we each breath our last that "yes, our love was unconditional. It never failed"?