The conditions for unconditional love


I’ve been thinking about love a lot lately. My sister is getting married this weekend, and I am going to be her witness, and sign my name on a document officially declaring her and Arek husband and wife (or the other way round, as the case may be). And this makes me feel happy and grateful and proud and a little in awe. But, my own role in this event aside, my bearing witness, both officially and unofficially, to what is truly and unequivocally an excellent thing, I cannot help but question the purpose of such declarations. Weddings, marriages, and their necessity in connection to love.

My sister and I are not wedding people. In fact, the mere mention of the topic as it relates to our own lives is likely to cause, in both of us, an almost phobic reaction. In addition to this, we share a – partly justifiable – mistrust of marriage itself, as exemplified by our parents and society at large. The phonecall in which she announced to me the fact of her engagement could be described, without exaggeration, as one of the happiest and most awkward conversations two people have ever had. We have never talked about weddings; we have never fantasised, as other girls, of dresses and engagement rings. This was a foreign land, full of dragons and booby traps, and we circumnavigated these terrors as best we could, to arrive, clumsily, at a mutual conclusion of joy. We weren’t trying to be obscure, or unconventional; we just don’t have the vocabulary for this sort of thing. None of us really do.

And yet we try. We try, with words, to explain why people get married, to define a marriage, to express love. To capture its essence, to measure it, quantify it, evaluate it – demystify it, perhaps, to make it more manageable, more attainable. We are, as a society, entirely preoccupied with love, endlessly producing quotes, metaphors, clichés and contradictions. They’re in our art and our literature, our everyday conversations, our highbrow theories and our pop songs. And, regardless of whether we subscribe to fairytale endings or take the cynical view and reject love and marriage outright, in our moments of elation and of pain we all drunkenly sing along.

And if you turn to Eastern philosophies in search of a more sober perspective, as I have, it gets even more confusing. The teachings of Buddhism encourage loving kindness and compassion, yet discourage attachment, while Buddhist monks are happy to bless a union that is basically a marriage by another name. The Buddha is quoted as having said: “He who loves fifty people has fifty woes; he who loves no one has no woes.” And I don’t understand whether this is a warning or simply a statement of fact; whether those woes are to be avoided, or accepted – welcomed, even – as a part of love.

It is then suggested that we should love, but love all creatures equally. And I don’t think that’s possible, sustainable or even desirable. I can see the virtue in approaching each person and each situation with love; it takes practice, but it can be done, and I call that kindness. But to enact love, to love, as a verb, is a different thing entirely and I, for one, cannot produce that level of emotion for everyone I meet.

And further: love, in its truest, purest form, should be unconditional. And sometimes it is. But the reason it became love, the reason it grew into love is because certain conditions were in place when it began. Conditions as in circumstances rather than terms, but conditions, nonetheless. Does this negate its unconditional nature, retroactively, once it reaches that stage? Perhaps I’m taking things too literally, and this is just another case of our vocabulary letting us down, but it seems to me that for all their dogma, these philosophies are placing conditions on who and how I love.

But love is not possession: this one I can live with. Yet I have lain in a man’s arms and felt, with my whole, entire self: “I am yours. You are mine.” And it has nothing to do with ownership, but with the fact that something in the way this universe moves has brought us together and that’s exactly where we should be. A place where all the definitions of love cease to matter. But when I try to explain it, these are the words that come out. They’re the only words I have.

But what does all of this say about marriage? Does a wedding validate a love? Is placing a ring on someone’s finger a declaration of ownership? Is it, as Beyonce suggests in the eloquent lyric “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it”, all about staking a claim? I think in many cases, in many marriages, it is. I may find the notion of ownership incompatible with my understanding of love, but to many people, the idea of belonging to someone, of someone belonging to them, is an arrival, a homecoming – it’s where they want to be. Just like I want to be in that place of stillness and certainty that I have found lying next to a man I love, and most marriages are lands I never want to visit.

But there are other marriages. Ones where love needs no validation. Where commitment transcends the signing of papers, if papers have been signed at all. It depends on where you place yourself in this equation. You can stand next to someone, or you can follow them, or you can lead the way. You can stand next to someone and place a ring on your own finger, not a promise to anyone else, but a symbol for yourself, for how you feel. You can get married, or you can marry; you can be a passive or an active part of the grammar that makes up your relationship. You can have a marriage where nobody belongs to anybody else but perhaps, if you’re lucky, you belong together. And you can hold their hand, but loosely; if they want to go away, they will, no matter how tightly you grip.

Words, grammar, syntax. Xs and Ys and the mathematical formulas that bring them together. The laws of physics, the laws of nature. Symbols and signatures, rings and vows and altars. Faith, fate, god and endless theories. We summon all these things to try and explain the inexplicable, to express something that defies expression, as elusive as it is ever-present, as abstract as it is tangible, as extraordinary as it is commonplace; something that slips through your fingers like your lover’s hand when you squeeze too tight, but will happily settle in your open palm if you know enough to hold it out, and wait. And it’s the human condition that we keep trying, that we will always keep trying, because if there ever comes a day when we stop trying, it will mean we have captured something that shouldn’t be caught, demystified the mystery that keeps our lives in motion. And that, I think, will be the day that everything stops. That will be the day when saying the words “I love you” will express exactly what we mean, and I cannot think of anything sadder than that.

There is no such thing as a universal marriage, just as there’s no universal definition of love. Those are choices we make, each of us, for ourselves, and saying you don’t believe in marriage is not an ideology, it’s a cop out. Love no one. Have no woes.

I still think my sister is very brave, and there’ll be dragons to slay (or approach with love, and convert to household pets), but I’m not worried. I have every reason to believe that she and Arek will have one of those other marriages, the ones that don’t make me want to run away screaming. I think they have it already. Because neither of them is getting married: both are marrying the person they love. Because, at times when I’ve lost my faith, I’ve looked to them and seen that they have built their life in that same place of stillness and certainty, and though they may wander off sometimes, they always know how to get back. Because they’ve shown me that big love doesn’t necessarily equal big drama, and when you’re faced with it, you might no longer need to put it into words.

But words are sometimes all we have, and mine are all I have to give. So this is dedicated to them: in hope, in admiration, and in love. Not equal, but as unconditional as it comes.


Taken from This Reluctant Yogi: everyday adventures in the yoga world. View it on Amazon, or join my readers’ list and get an e-book copy for free.

Author: Daphne Kapsali

Daphne lives in Sifnos, where she writes books and collects firewood to get her through the winter. She is the author of "100 days of solitude" and another seven books, all available from Amazon.