This was the view over Belfast Lough the other night. The vista from the Craigantlet hills above Holywood is a favourite of mine but last night was a pretty special show.
A connection between beauty and love goes back a long way – for example to Plato’s Symposium where beauty is the highest or primary form of love.
Here’s a very short musing evoked by this beautiful scene that goes in a slightly different direction.
One of the most popular sayings about love is that “true love is unconditional”. But what is meant by that phrase is often left unclear.
It could mean that love just loves with no strings attached, with no expectations of the other at all. Yes, this expression of love does occur – but it is pretty rare.
One example is a devoted daughter caring for her terminally ill mother, who cannot communicate or do anything much for herself at all. The relationship is very much ‘one-way’ – the giver selflessly giving out of love that does not expect anything in return (unconditional).
But let me suggest that generally human love is anything but unconditional. Typically it is conditioned (evoked or dependent on) specific qualities in the object of love.
Take the scene above. It is a lovely view. There is a tight connection between beauty and love – think of a place that you love to go to. Why? I bet it is not generally an anonymous industrial estate on the fringe of city. It will probably be beautiful, or it will have a deep personal connection in the story of your life. I love this view not only because of its beauty but because this is where I grew up – it links to many good memories and connects to stories and people.
Or take a person you love. A son’s love for his dad is conditioned on the fact that he is his father. It is anything but an unconditioned love. Human love tends to be very specific in direction. It is far from random.
Or take two lovers. They are drawn to each other for specific reasons. It’s a pretty cold sort of relationship where partners have nothing to say about the special, attractive qualities of the other!
Think of the woman from the Songs of Songs chapter 5 extolling at great length the unique physical characteristics of her lover:
My beloved is radiant and ruddy,
outstanding among ten thousand.Song of Songs 5:10
Her love is obviously conditioned on who he is, just as his love is conditioned on who she is – both are intensely attracted to each other and pretty well the whole book is a celebration of their delight in one another.
And if we jump forward from their relationship to modern relationships today, for a couple’s bond to last and flourish both individuals need to be loving the other. Relationships die if only one partner actively loves (cares for, is kind to, acts for the other’s good). Love in this sense is conditional on the other person loving back. Yes there are many examples of one partner relentlessly loving the other even in the face of betrayal and coldness, but generally for love to survive and develop it is conditional on reciprocity.
So the next time you hear the slogan ‘True love is unconditional’ maybe ask the person, ‘What do you mean?’ and see where the conversation goes.