What is Unconditional Love?

I’ve been trying to figure out how and if I want to rebuild some relationships that I’ve let slide (and in some cases really sabotaged out of anger) with Mormon friends and family. In search of this, I asked a friend to roleplay a conversation I might have with a particular person. I’ve done these kinds of conversations in my head before, but this time I needed someone else to help me along. I highly recommend finding someone (probably another former Mormon) who can help you do a similar roleplay if you’re in the same situation. I will say that it didn’t work for my friend to roleplay this particular person because they had no relationship, so I ended up playing that role.

I’m not going to give any specifics of this conversation because I try really hard to not out other people on-line or make them out to be the bad guy. I really hope that I’m nuanced enough to see both the good and bad in myself and in others. Ultimately, what came out of this conversation was the realization that I’m not so different from my loved one and that it’s time for me to stop thinking of myself as better at unconditional love and start trying to practice this thing that I keep preaching.

As my friend asked me the questions I wanted to ask, about perceptions I had that my children and my family were not as valued or loved because of our disengagement from the church, I skipped the part that I think would happen where my loved one would insist this wasn’t true. Denial is always the first defense against problems, and it’s the most annoying part of trying to repair a relationship. If you can’t even admit the problem exists, then we’re not going to get very far. So I pretended that we’d gotten further along than the initial conversation. And then I pretended that my loved one got down to brass tacks, to explaining to me bluntly why this was the reality of our family life.

“You’ve chosen to take your family down a dark and dangerous path,” I found myself saying. “Now your children will pay the price of you not giving them stricter rules and consequences for straying from the strait and narrow way.”

There it was, laid out stark and glaring. It wasn’t just my children. It was me. I was the one who was the canker at the heart of this gangrenous wound. I had blithely rejected the church that saved this loved one’s life in childhood. And I was going to reap the whirlwind, along with my children.

I may disagree with this assessment. I might even point to various proofs as evidence that my children were doing fine outside the church. But this loved one was always going to believe that there were disasters just ahead, waiting because of our bad choices. And whenever something bad happened, this loved one would be convinced that this was proof — just as I thought that when my sister left the church twenty years ago, and then faced an apartment fire and the loss of all her belongings, this was the just judgment of God.

I’m willfully choosing to disobey the laws of God and showing an example to my children that teaches them to do the same. I’m allowing my children to face no consequences as a result of that. They don’t experience any judgment from me. They still get their college paid for, even though they’re attending a non-church university. I pay for and joyfully attend church weddings outside of the temple or even the church building. I will welcome grandchildren however they come to me. I’m “pretending” that good is evil and evil is good.

Furthermore, I said in the voice of my loved one, “In the after-life, when we sit in our mansions and you sit in the lower kingdoms, you will know that you aren’t bound to your children. You will feel then the sorrow that you should feel now and the empty chairs in your house, and I will be forced to partake in that sorrow as well.”

My loved one wants to be with us forever and he believes that this reward can only happen if we follow a certain set of rules. To give up those rules is to court disaster. Not just my own, either. I’m drawing him into the problem, taking away from him things that he thinks he has earned and that he deserves.

I try to sit with this, try to see this from his point of view. It feels wrong to me. It feels judgmental. It doesn’t feel like the God I know, who is all-loving. But the God he knows has rules and lays out the consequences for disobeying those rules. If I tried to talk about what I think the rules are — coming to understand ourselves and treating people with love — he would argue that I’m not doing enough, that God isn’t so easy on us.

And truly, the rules of Mormonism got me pretty far in life. I avoided a lot of problems and got a lot of things I wanted: a PhD, a national publishing career, a good family life.

But I also see that the rules made me judgmental and cut me off from relationships beyond Mormonism. I see that those rules made my children more anxious about being “good enough” all their lives. I wish I could undo that damage, but I don’t know that I ever will.

I realized in an instant that this conversation was going nowhere. I didn’t need to have it with my loved one in real life. There was no point. I was where I was. He was where he was.

Now my friend asked me the real question, “Can you still love him if he isn’t going to change? Since you’re also not going to change, is there any hope for this relationship?”

And I had no answer for her. I’m still thinking about this question. If I want him to love me as I am, without judgment, without a demand I become righteous based on his standards, am I willing to do the same? Do I practice what I preach about unconditional love?

I’m afraid the answer is — not yet. At least I see the problem. I’m trying to figure out how to do it. And at the same time, I’m trying to answer the question: do I care? Do I care enough about this relationship to work at it as hard as I think I will need to? And if I say no, then am I really so superior to my loved one?

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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