It’s a big question. What is love?
For a start, the word “love” can mean a lot of different things. The ancient Greeks had five main types:
- Philia – loyalty. Motivated by practical reasons; one or both the parties benefit from the relationship
- Xenia – hospitality. The almost ritualised friendship between a host and their guest.
- Storge – natural affection, like parents have for their child
- Eros – passionate, romantic love, with sensual desire and longing
- Agape – pure love. Soul love. For lack of a better description, God’s unconditional love.
Mostly on this blog I’ve been talking about unconditional love, what the Greeks called agape. Why? Simply because this is a superset of all the other forms of love.
If you have unconditional love for someone, it doesn’t matter if they are guest, child, an intimate or business partner – you’ll treat them as lovingly as (or more than) if you had only the first four types of love.
Agape, unconditional love, is the deep root beneath all other forms of love.
Ok. Well, that’s nice. Now what?
I’ve always struggled to find a good synonym for the word love. How do we identify if we’re being truly loving or not? How can we look at it from slightly to one side, just to be sure?
Up until recently I’d often described love as “unconditional positive regard.” However, this lacked something. I wasn’t sure what, but I knew it wasn’t the whole picture.
I could feel myself feeling unconditional positive regard towards people I knew that I still thought were complete shitbags.
Then, recently, I was (finally, it’s amazing) reading Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. In there, I found the missing pieces of the puzzle.
These pieces are: admiration and great respect.
So now in total I understand that unconditional love means unconditional positive regard, admiration and great respect.
(obviously this may not be the entire thing, but it feels damn close. If it’s not complete, I don’t feel there’s very much to go.)
Of course, as soon as we think about anyone like this, part of our brain will scream “Why the hell should I respect them? I refuse to admire them! They’re…” (etc).
Well guess what? That’s us being judgemental. No matter how “right” we (think we) are, it’s not unconditional love.
This is a tricky area.
This is where Christians with their cries of “love the sinner hate the sin” start to slide – it’s still being judgemental.
As soon as we say “this is wrong”, we’re sliding into judgement. It’s what makes it so insidious, and unconditional love so tricky.
Think of the worst people you can imagine – typically something along the lines of a serial murderer, rapist, paedophile or Hitler. Or, closer to home, those that have harmed us in the past.
Obviously these people have done some atrocious things. This is why they’re good examples. Because it’s so hard for us to unconditionally love them.
If we put aside the rule of law (what should society do with people that commit atrocities), we can simplify this situation enormously.
In terms of being (or not) unconditionally loving, what are we really talking about?
We’re talking about how we feel.
So, pick one of the cases above. What we’re doing by not choosing to be unconditionally loving is this: we are letting someone else’s behaviour decide for us how we are going to feel.
In other words, we decide they’ve been awful, therefore we are going to hold negative (non loving) feelings towards them.
We are giving our power away.
Well, how silly is that?
Surely we are the boss of us? Surely we decide how we should feel?
Of course, there are people out there doing simply awful things. But why should we let them make us feel bad? Who gave them that power over us?
Well, by choosing to be judgemental, by choosing to hold back from loving them (particularly when we feel they “don’t deserve it”), we did. We gave them power over us.
So really, by choosing to be unconditionally loving, by choosing to give them unconditional positive regard, admiration and great respect what we’re really doing is choosing to let go of their power over us.
We’re choosing to feel as positively as humanly possible, no matter what they do.
This is the ultimate power we have. As Viktor Frankl (who survived Auschwitz) said
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
This is why unconditional love is so important.
This is why understanding what love is is so important.
Of course, if love as “unconditional positive regard, admiration and great respect” doesn’t resonate completely for you – please do keep looking. I’d be most curious to hear your thoughts. I’m always eager to learn more.
At this stage, this is the best I’ve found. It feels complete to me. Most importantly, when I think about applying that definition to people (or organisations) in my life I’m least likely to feel this way about, I feel challenged and uncomfortable. Which is probably a very good sign I’m stumbling in the right direction.
Now obviously, the next practical question (and I do like to keep things practical, as much as possible) is what do we do with this information?
Well, here’s what’s been working for me, it’s super simple.
Basically, just imagine someone (or something) horrible in front of you. Then think the phrase “unconditional positive regard, admiration and great respect” towards them.
If there’s any part of you that disagrees with giving them these things, those are the parts of you that are holding you back from loving them completely and unconditionally.
From there, you can simply let those feelings or thoughts go. Or tap them out. Or breathe them out. Whatever works for you.
The key is to keep letting go of all the objections, arguments and generally non-loving reactions that come up in response to trying to feel unconditional positive regard, admiration and great respect for that person (or organisation).
Once you let go of all of these reactions, you’ll feel yourself naturally slip into genuinely feeling those feelings towards that person.
In other words, regardless of that person’s behaviour, you are now feeling genuine unconditional love, agape (the highest possible way of feeling).
You’ve stopped yourself (your emotions and energetic state at the very least) from being a victim of their behaviour. You’ve regained mastery over yourself.
Now, I’m definitely not saying you should put yourself in harm’s way here.
For example, you can cross the road safely (a very dangerous thing to do, statistically), but you can do that happily and at peace, or you can freak out and be full of fear. It’s completely your choice.
For me, I choose unconditional love. I choose happiness. I choose peace. Oh, and I choose not to stand in oncoming traffic, human or otherwise.