Marquez T Woods Nov 12th, 2020

Flick on any screen and you’ll see, our country is completely divided. The tribalism seeps from politics into our conversations infecting our minds with not-so-nuanced world views. I set out on a long journey to see, among other things, if the media was reporting a true story. Are we really irreversibly disconnected?

Before I left, I posed a question on my Instagram (shameless plug). I hadn’t realized how inexplicably tied it was to my journey.

Is unconditional love innate or earned?

I received a range of answers. Some were contrived and obvious indicators of trauma. Some were declarations of transcendent spirituality. All of them opened the way I thought about the question.

“Unconditional [love] doesn’t exist anyway. Completely unconditional love is nothing humans can even fathom because we’re too capable to hurt others and not even based on survival.”

“I’d say inherent for the most part, but I do feel it can be earned as well. Like with a child or pet I feel like it’s an immediate thing. With a significant other it is something that happens with time.”

“I would argue that it’s not as much ‘earned’ as it is ‘learned.’”

I took reasonings from some standpoints and applied them in other conversations, contorting each ideology and clarifying my own. The conversations always posed more questions than they answered.

How do you define unconditional love?

Is it romantic by nature?

Is it synonymous with trust? Respect?

The deeper I got into these conversations, respectively, the more I realized how spiritual the question was. I was probing minds and hearts deeper than I anticipated. It had become a philosophy exercise, an exposé on humanitarianism, a prioritization of nature or nurture, and ultimately, an enlightenment experience.

Newly understanding the profoundness of the question, I squared it away into my mind as I stuffed a week's worth of clothes into a backpack. For the next month, I’d see what America had to say.

Admittedly, I allowed the beauty of the country to distract me for a while. Before I knew it, I was in Tallahassee. I found myself in a very loosely regulated dive bar, as it seems, is a Florida tradition. I came across Joey, a writer and podcaster. He looked like a scrappy guy who had stories. I sat to chat. Before long, I posed the question.

Is unconditional love innate or earned?

At first, his answer was defiant, “Unconditional love doesn’t exist”. He explained he had seen betrayal. Betrayal that was so vile it couldn’t allow for any faith in unconditional love.

He was an EMT for six years. He recounted a specific call he had gotten while on the job. A man threatening suicide had finally submitted and entered the ambulance after hours of deliberating with the police.

Even in the ambulance, the man’s sorrow overflowed. Joey acted out restraining the man as he tried to leap out of the back door. I could tell the memory was still vivid in his mind.

Once calmed, the man bore his guts.

His wife had confessed that she was HIV positive.

She had been hiding it their entire marriage. Even before she gave birth to their two children.

Joey remembered the children’s ages and names like they were his own. He saw himself in the man. He carried the fear of betrayal into his own life. It forced his perspective.

I was, of course, taken aback. But I found myself wondering. Why was the man so hurt? Well, the obvious reason is he’s been put in a potentially life-threatening situation. But why did he try to end his life?

Would he have been so destroyed if he didn’t still love her?

Joey paused and reluctantly agreed, the love must still exist. It was the root of what caused the gut-wrenching dissonance.

If love still existed in the face of treachery that malicious, unconditional love must exist.

My perspective had been, if unconditional love could be earned, it could be squandered.

Joey's experience had proved, at least anecdotally, that it couldn’t be completely eradicated.

Perhaps like energy, love cannot be created or destroyed. It wouldn’t be a stretch if the source of fiery passion followed the laws of thermodynamics.

Still, so many of us live without love. So, where was our love going?

I thought back to one of the first people I asked, an Aikido student named Jordan. I met him in a lonely patch of grass in Koreatown, Los Angeles. He greeted me as he sheathed his Bokken.

I posed the question to him, and as expected, he gave an organic and sagacious answer.

Is unconditional love innate or earned?

“Love is the force that allows us to exist. It let us be here, speaking today. The trees have grown regardless of condition. Even in winter, their potential to grow exists. That is love. When love ceases, so do we.”

Jordan had made an important distinction. He removed the word unconditional because to him, love is by nature unconditional. It was redundant.

I told him that I was looking for a commonality that connected us all. Something to cut through the dichotomy we’ve been forced into. He said I was asking the right question.

Love was the answer.

Still, I couldn’t ignore some of the points made throughout my journey. More important than the points, the perspectives they were spoken from. Some people truly did not believe in it. If I took Jordan’s definition, they didn’t believe in the ever-presence of love.

Then I looked back on one of my instagram conversations. I made a minor tweak that made all the difference to me.

“I would argue that it’s not as much ‘earned’ as it is ‘realized’”

The change from, ‘learned’ to ‘realized’, may seem minor but it pulls a thread through both of the answers.

Most of the conversations had come to the conclusion that if unconditional love exists, it is innate. You are born with the natural inclination to love your fellow human. But, your environment may require you to unlearn it subconsciously or even consciously.

Living in a shadow, however, does not make the sun disappear.

You can live your entire life ignoring it, maybe out of habit, maybe as a decision. But before long the right person or circumstance will force you to become aware and be immersed in that undying love again.

What if we never lived in the shadow?

“Unconditional” conflicts with most people’s idea of love, mainly when it comes to betrayal. The vulnerability almost guarantees it.

But, what if we loved without the fear of betrayal?

So many of us reserve unconditional love solely for romantic partners or family — the people who are best positioned for the most painful forms of deception. Yet still, that love is so often unshaken.

Those who have felt the deceit know, unconditional love is not synonymous with ignorance. Just because I love you doesn’t mean I trust you. It doesn’t automatically make me a victim.

Unconditional love is not an act, it is a spiritual posture.

It is bravery. It is forgiveness that precedes pain.

What if we looked at love, whether for family, significant other, or stranger, as the same love? A love that lives in our hearts, unpoisoned by our hatred or fear.

What if we walked through the world basking in that light instead of hiding from betrayal out of fear?

I believe love, unconditional love specifically, is the basis of human decency. It allows for compassion. It opens the door to break down the tribalism we are so entrenched in.

It is quite possibly the only force that crosses the aisle, permeates culture, and has the potential to build an empathetic and near utopian society.

And so, I ask you, beloved reader, are you walking through life in the sunlight, or are you living in a shadow?

Are you in tune with the love that you were born with or have you unlearned it?