So…is unconditional love a good thing? Is it possible? It seems to me that the answers to both questions are going to have to be No, but the exploration of the context of this answer, these answers, will be meandering. The next and last of these reflections will take Christian theology as its frame of reference. This one does not.
I said when I began this set of thought experiments that the real cost of a question is the value of all the questions it precludes. For unconditional love, the best of those questions is, “What conditions are you talking about?” That seems to me an eminently reasonable question, but if there really ought not to be conditions under which love is not extended (or, having been extended, is withdrawn), then “what conditions” is not a question that can be asked. If no conditions preclude “unconditional love,” then it is both foolish and wasteful to ask the question.
I think it is a question that will be asked and will be answered, no matter what. If we forbid these words, the question will be asked in other words. If we forbid all such words, the question will be asked without words. But it will be asked and it will be answered. In the meantime, we dodge and weave, trying not to get hit that hard.
I think there are two kinds of this dodging and weaving. One is practiced by the people I called Servants; the other by people I called Stewards. Servants know what kinds of attitudes and actions are “loving.” Generosity is good. Forgiveness is good. Empathy is good. It is thought that these ought to be available on demand, like water in a well. People who want some come to the well and help themselves. No one restricts their drawing privileges and the well never runs out of water. I wonder sometimes how they know things I don’t know. Maybe it’s the earpiece.
I have described this as an inherently unsustainable situation, but people who favor it say it looks unsustainable to me only because I have misunderstood how the process works. I have heard three kinds of justifications from Servants. Here is the first. When I love someone, a Servant says, it increases the amount of love I have to give to others. Love is not, as you are picturing it, like a well, where you can draw water until you overdraw and none is left; it is like a muscle that gets stronger the more it is used.
Second, they say that when you love people in any of these ways, offering empathy, for instance, it changes them. They now return resources to the relationship, so it is stronger than it was before. And not only do they return this gift to you, but they also have more resources to give to others. Empathy was the gift she needed, let’s say, and you provided it; now she is stronger and is able to give the next person the gift he needs, which, let’s say, is forgiveness. So the supply of resources doesn’t run out and they take whatever shape is needed. The original relationship is replenished and other relationships are enriched. And it goes on and on.
The third element of the perspective is the response to what are called “failures.” People like me are apt to look at an action that was lovingly intended and point out that both the giver and the receiver are now worse off than before. Crucial resources—think, again, of how much water is in the well— have been drawn down and everyone is worse off than before. That’s the criticism. But that criticism requires that a judgment be made at a particular time about a particular cast of characters and this judgment requires, in addition, that an outside observer can tell which outcomes are good and which are bad. None of these is actually true, say the Servants.
If I say the outcomes are bad, they will say they have not yet become good and that time will tell. If I say that these people are worse off, they will say that others—people I am not looking at—are better off and that I should take everyone into account. If I say that I can tell which are good and which are bad, they will say that I really can’t. Some that appear bad turn out to have been blessings in disguise and some that I would have called good, turn out to have been steps in the wrong direction.
And, if these people are of a secular cast of mind, they might tell me the story of the Zen master. The little boy breaks his leg and the villages say, “How awful.” The Zen master says, “We’ll see.” Then the army comes to recruit boys from the village away for a military campaign, but they can’t take the boy with the broken leg. “How wonderful,” say the villagers. “We’ll see,” says the Zen master. You get the idea. If people are of a Christian cast of mind, they might say that God has some good in mind that cannot be seen by us and that the right way to assess what is good and what is bad is from God’s perspective and on God’s timeline, not ours.
All those defenses are entirely reasonable, it seems to me. I wouldn’t argue with a one of them on principle. You will recall, however, that the Steward sees his business as reconciling the means that are available with the end he thinks is the best that can be achieved. All the Servant’s points render the Steward’s way of coming at the world as fundamentally flawed. Stewards tend not to like that. These principles also work to justify the Servants in producing outcomes that Stewards think are regrettable and unnecessary.
The Stewards come at it a different way, of course. If you really can tell what results are better, only timidity or cowardice—not transcendent faith— would prevent you from doing what needed to be done. Or, of course, lack of love. That one probably stings, if you are a Servant and have to listen to it. There are certainly better ways to explain the Steward’s way of coming at the question of unconditional love, but the Servant’s perspective sounded really good to me as I wrote it and I think I’ll feel better if I try just to dent it a little.
On the well analogy, a Steward—this particular Steward, in any case—will raise no objection at all. If loving unconditionally (meaning by that what a Servant would mean) fills you with the resources needed to accomplish the job, go at it. The Steward’s point is that very often, the Unconditional Love Project leaves the practitioners exhausted, frustrated, and alienated from their own support networks. It is not a good time to use the unfailing well metaphor when the well is already dry. And if the unconditional love image requires you to say that the well is never dry, then acknowledging that it is dry will be hard, hard, hard. The Steward, but not the Servant, can say, “This is not sustainable. We’re going to have to come at this a different way.” That is because the Servant is fixed on the means, while the Steward is fixed on the ends. And, of course, the costs.
The second justification, which is that love given unconditionally returns to the giver and spreads through an unknown legion of others, is also something Stewards approve of. There are two ways this can go wrong. In the first, you point out that what the Servant calls “loving” might be called irresponsible complicity by other people. It does “return to the source,” in a sense, and it is catastrophic. And it does ripple through the bystanders, where it models and rewards bad behavior.
The second objecting is more fundamental. You chose this behavior, the Steward reproves the Servant, because it was “the right thing to do.” But look at the results. They are consistently bad. They exhaust you. Everyone is worse off as a result. At some point, you are going to have to look at whether the results are “loving” or not. Does a person who loves the way you do really want to produce effects like that?
This brings us to the final and the most serious element of the Servant’s beliefs. Let me put this disagreement into as sharp a focus as I can. The Servant says you can’t really know ultimate outcomes and to pretend you can is simply arrogant. The Steward says that it’s hard to argue about what outcomes are truly “ultimate,” but the results as far down the road as they can be seen are really bad and it is irresponsible to keep on doing whatever produces these outcomes. So there you are; arrogance on the one side and irresponsibility on the other. It’s not pretty at all, is it?
The Servant says that God has certain outcomes in mind—or that fate has intended certain outcomes—and we are not competent to judge them. That means we are not free to adjust our behavior so that we are producing outcomes we judge to be good. The Steward says we can know outcomes—not ultimate outcomes, of course—and “loving” requires that we do whatever needs to be done to produce them. If that means withdrawing from exhausting and unsustainable relationships, withdraw from them. All the others who want and need your love will benefit. If it means doing things that are really going to piss off the beloved, do them anyway. Sometimes saying “I will not help you do that” is the only loving thing to say.
That’s really the whole argument as I understand it. As a Steward myself, I say the well will run dry if you abuse it and that will not be good. I say that some loving acts do return to bless everyone, even yourself, but other loving acts impoverish the original relationship and deprive many others from the benefits you could otherwise provide them. I say that we can know many of the immediate effects of our acts and even some of the long term effects. Not “ultimate effect,” of course. But if we are truly called to love, we are called to bring the benefits of our love to those who need them.
It almost seems, sometimes, that Servants judge whether an act is loving by how much it costs them to do it. The measurement they are sensitive to is this: “Am I willing to pay the price or is my love so pallid I shrink from inconveniencing myself in the way I love?” For the life of me, I cannot see that as a useful measure. Being willing to love, even at substantial cost to myself? I get that. I have even, on occasion, done it. But the cost is not a measure of the love. It is truly lamentable to judge the “quality” of the love by how much it costs. I say if you can produce the same benefit at negligible cost, do it.
Sometimes costly love is all that will work. But when it isn’t all that will work, it isn’t “costly;” it’s exhorbitant.
 The line is drawn between people who feel they are not and cannot be responsible for the outcome of events and who, therefore, fix on actions that are thought to be virtuous in themselves. These are the Servants. The other people think they can know what the outcome will be and are morally bound to adopt the means what will lead to the achievement of that outcome. These are the Stewards. Obviously, either approach can be abused.
 I heard this story in Charlie Wilson’s War, tellingly delivered by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I think we were supposed to understand that it is a well-known story.
 Actually, it is hard to disapprove of it while you are watching Pay It Forward, the best “unknown beneficiaries” movie I know.
 I realize that the contemporary word for this behavior is “enabling,” but “making people more able” should more good than bad to me. Besides, able is the Anglo-Saxon version of the Latin habilis, from which we get —making able again—and I don’t want to give up rehab, having needed it so often myself. It all depends, of course, or just what behavior is being “enabled,” but neither word specifies that so I am going to keep both words.