Unconditional Love

Jim Paredes
Humming in my Universe http://philstar.com

Many years ago, when as a young parent I cradled my babies in my arms, awful thoughts of danger would come, and it would immediately occur to me that in case of fire, or something just as horrible, there was nothing I would not do to save them. I would readily have my arm cut off, or even give up my life in exchange for their safety. I had no hesitation whatsoever. That to me was the unconditional love I had as a parent. I would still do it today.

I’m sure many parents feel the same way about their children. Unconditional love is exactly that: love without any conditions; the objects do not have to earn it. From the lover’s point of view, it is given freely, without stipulations, no ifs or buts. And it asks for nothing in return. It only wishes the best of everything for the loved ones.

Unconditional love is something we are always looking for. We all long to have a best friend or lover or a family or community we can go to and experience thorough and full acceptance of who we are. We want a place where we do not have to try and project an image to be wanted, respected, accepted and yes, loved! A safe place where we are completely welcome and completely at home just as we are.

We are not twisted, folded, bent, cut down or forced in any way to be anything else or to fit into anyone’s expectations. We are simply who we are. And THAT feels great!

In my opinion, persons who can allow or accept other people to be who they are have made great strides as human beings. They have surely come to an acceptance of themselves, embracing their strengths, good qualities and positive traits, but more importantly, also their weaknesses, imperfections and even neuroses. They have made peace with both the desirable and despicable aspects of their own personalities.

One can tell when people have not traveled deep into their journey of self-acceptance. They are usually a bit too judgmental and harsh with other people’s foibles and errors. I believe that what we find ugly and despicable in others may have to do with parts of ourselves that we cannot accept or forgive. By the same token, what we find attractive in others are projections of ourselves playing out and ‘affirming’ us.

It takes a truly great spiritual being to live a life that is free from judging the actions of others. Maybe some zen monks and priests, rabbis and other religious practitioners can do it. But most of us find ourselves often judging others, and we probably always will.

This brings me back to unconditional love. Why is it that when our kids grow up, we find the unconditional love we had for them when they were little replaced with expectations of responsibility, achievement and performance? Whatever happened to accepting them just as they are, no matter what happens? What’s happened to us, or what happened to them? Why the change?

I think about this often and I have some thoughts I wish to share. Love is not always a passive act of accepting people as they are. When we love, we wish the best of everything for our loved ones. And so we give them tools for living that will help them to be happy and functional in life. That means teaching them not just the warm and fuzzy things that are associated with love but also the hard stuff they need to learn like sacrifice, delaying gratification, controlling emotions and drives, etc.

This is tough love, that side of love that many people would rather turn away from, for fear that their loved ones will not understand and reject them. But tough love is useful and it is necessary to dish it out at some point.

What would our children be if all we give them is the love that makes them soft, comfortable and sweet, but unable to negotiate through the vicissitudes of life? The love we teach must be honest, and furthermore, complete. Love entails sacrifice and as much as we practice it on our kids, they must learn to pick it up and see its value. Love has to do what love has to do, and by that I mean, we must do the hard work it entails.

Love has a face that is easy to accept. It also has another face which demands that we all grow up and appreciate its harsher, less pleasant countenance. Otherwise, love would be mere compassion without wisdom, what the philosopher Ken Wilber calls ‘idiot compassion’. Duke Ellington described it graphically when he said, “Love is supreme and unconditional; like is nice and limited.”

Love is wonderful when we are rewarded for the love we give. But it gets difficult when our children turn out to be disappointments and let us down. When we wake up to the fact that our children have not turned out the way we wanted them to, the toughest part of unconditional love either steps up to the plate or recoils and withdraws and becomes cynical.

Our loved ones can disappoint us because we have expectations to begin with. Is it wrong to have expectations? I do not know. But yes, I do have expectations of my children and I know that many of them have not and will not be met. I also know that my parents had expectations of me that I did not achieve. I also had expectations of myself that I failed to do or become. I also continuously fail in many things in my everyday personal life.

The difference between how I feel about my disappointments in myself then and now, is that I can now let go of them much easily. I will not waste time living with regret. When I can let go, I know I am complete and do not have to cling to an ideal of perfection. I am simply ME. I am sure that, for everything I may have missed out on, there has been something gained. And as much as possible, I try to apply the same attitude when it comes to how I feel about my loved ones.

To complete these musings on unconditional love, I quote a snippet of dialogue from the movie ‘Unconditional Love’ that I picked up on the net.

Dirk Simpson: I don’t believe in unconditional love, I mean, what is it anyway? Cut off my ears, steal my money and I’ll love you anyway?
Grace Beasley: Yes, and more.
Dirk Simpson: More?
Grace Beasley: You don’t have to love me back.###

1) To my Singapore readers, I will be doing a one afternoon workshop there on April 28. It will be fun and we will learn a lot from each other. Call Earla Aquino at +65-82336595 for details. Reserve now. A few slots left.

2) Manila readers, I will have a Basic Photo Workshop on May 14 from 1 to 6 p.m. in QC, P3,920. Call 0916-8554303 and ask for Olie, or write me at jpfotojim@gmail.com for more details.

In praise of housework

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated April 15, 2012

Someone tweeted me the other day with the message, “I hope the housework has been kind to you…. LOL.”

She was referring to life here in Sydney where people have no household help and thus do all the work at home. Here, cleaning, washing dishes, wiping the tables, checking the mail, taking out the trash, doing the laundry, fixing the beds, cooking, mowing the lawn, and other mundane chores are all part of the daily routine.

Pinoys who live abroad often complain about having to do all these chores and not having time left for what they really want to. Although I agree with them and count myself among those who whine about housework, I do so with some reservation. Because, well, I admit, I often (okay, sometimes) enjoy housework.

This article is in praise of the unglamorous, repetitive, and often regarded as insignificant task that is housework.

I grew up in Manila and our family always had maids or kasambahay. They came to the family when they were very young and stayed on until they died or retired at an old age. The family treated them well. In fact, they became part of our family. When Inay, the oldest of my Mom’s house help died, my Mom gave up her own memorial plan to be used for Inay’s wake and burial.

At home in Manila, our Nita has been with us for 26 years. The other kasambahay and the driver have also stayed for almost that long. They are now getting old and we are looking after their medical needs.

When Lydia and I were married, we rented an apartment and decided we did not want household help. We wanted to be alone and do things for ourselves. But when we had our first child and moved to our own house, which was bigger and had a garden, we decided that we needed help.

But here in Sydney, we do everything mostly ourselves. Lydia, who has stayed here longer than I have and who has higher standards of cleanliness, functionality and aesthetics, does a lot of things herself. She knows every nook and cranny of the house and the things in it and is aware of what needs fixing, improving or changing. In the process, she has learned some rudimentary carpentry, and she can assemble and disassemble furniture, fix cabinets, align drawers, upholster chairs. She also sews, fixes curtains, paints the interiors of our house, mows the lawn, trims the hedge, etc.

Although I can also do a lot of those things (okay, maybe only some) I admit I play second fiddle to her. In other words, Lydia is the boss and I follow her instructions.

But I do feel some secret joy in sweeping the terrace, scrubbing the floor or mopping the living area. I feel good doing physical work. For one, it gets me off my butt and makes my body active. Housework can be compared to a workout except that one is not dressed for the gym and doing repetitive movements with machines. I also experience a thrill in seeing previously shabby, dirty areas looking spotless after I am done with them.

Aside from the pride I feel about a job well done, there is a spiritual dimension to housework. There is a Zen story where a student asked an old master what Zen was. The master answered by saying, “Get that stick and clean the shit over there.”

If you were expecting a deep answer, I hope you are not disappointed. Zen, in its simplicity, can sound anywhere from cheeky to perplexing with appropriate answers to someone looking for a special spiritual high or an esoteric experience. Zen is not about active seeking or attaining some spiritual peak but doing what needs to be done, and doing it with full attention and presence. And in the process, maybe a great transcendent realization may happen.

Washing the dishes in a quiet moment and being one with the experience is suggestive of a religious metaphor. It is like confession or baptism where one’s sins or imperfections are washed away clean and one is restored anew. It makes me feel good.

The Benedictines say, “Ora et Labora,” “To labor is to pray.” I agree. The sayings about earning one’s keep or singing for one’s supper may be old school but it is perennially true. Work is good for both the body and the soul. There is a good feeling that accompanies a body that is aching due to work when it rests at the end of the day. Something was earned and it was done in an honest way.

At the same time, however, I can understand the common resistance to doing physical work. It is hard, uncomfortable, it strains the body, and can give it pain. I do not seek it nor do I always volunteer to do it, but when I have to, I resign myself and do the best I can. When that moment of resignation is reached, I welcome the opportunity and immerse myself in the task, even enjoying the sweat my body produces from the physical activity.

“Sweat cleanses from the inside. It comes from places a shower will never reach,” wrote the late author-runner-philosopher George Sheehan. How true. A drink of water after working replenishes the body in such a basic way. Compare that to just sitting around aimlessly drinking a soda or sipping coffee while doing nothing.

There is something spiritual that underlies all the biological activity, if we care to listen to it. Every movement is best done purposefully, especially if it is hard to do. That is the way to make the job better and to feel better about doing it. You cannot enjoy it if all you want is to finish it as soon as possible.

Lastly, a word about laziness. I agree with the late psychiatrist and best-selling author M. Scott Peck, that laziness has to be the biggest sin of all. To only seek pleasure and shun all work, to not want to try at all is to turn away from life itself.

To cap, François Gaston, Duc de Lévis, who commanded the French forces in Canada in the 1700s, had this to say about work: “Boredom is a sickness the cure for which is work; pleasure is only a palliative.”

Now you’ll have to excuse me while I store some boxes in the garage.

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1) To my Singapore readers, I will be doing a one afternoon workshop there on April 28. It will be fun and we will learn a lot from each other. Call Earla Aquino at +65-82336595 for details. Reserve now. A few slots left.

2) Manila readers, I will have a Basic Photo Workshop on May 14 from 1 to 6 p.m. in QC, P3,920. Call 0916-8554303 and ask for Olie, or write me at jpfotojim@gmail.com for more details.

The truth about Easter

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated April 08, 2012 12:00 AM Comments

There are certain words that can strike fear into a person’s heart, words such as failure, loss, rejection, inadequacy, inability, to name a few. We may lose a job, a whole career, a loved one, a position, prestige, money, etc. Or we may fail at tasks that matter, or even at our life’s mission.

Experiences of rejection could happen in school, at work, in our social circles, the family. We could even judge and reject ourselves as not being good enough.

There are also experiences when we will feel we have bitten off more than we can chew and this makes us feel somewhat inadequate and humbled.

We will surely experience such situations in our lives, sometimes even repeatedly. And yes, the pain in such experiences cuts deep and can be so demoralizing that we could remain stuck and unable to recover our bearing or zest to move on.

We could fall in a spiral of depression and self-loathing. Some people suffer nervous breakdowns. In certain tragic instances, it could even be fatal. We have heard of people who have committed suicide after suffering a great personal setback.

Pain and suffering are part of the topography of life’s journey. It starts in paradise where all is rosy and cozy. But sooner or later, we get kicked out of it and lose our innocence, and that’s when real life begins. We wander through the alternating harshness and comforts of life’s seasons, its valleys and peaks, its deserts and lushness, its graces and curses. And the only relief from this roller coaster ride is to decide to live with whatever shows up until we can finally embrace it. Perhaps one of the greatest realizations ever uttered by man is the all-too-common expression, “That’s life.” It sums up the baffling unevenness, the cruelties and ironies of life, its joys and sadness, the triumphs and tribulations we are bound to encounter.

Our experience of life, as philosophers describe it, is dualistic. There is good and there is bad. We necessarily live on both sides of these opposite dichotomies. If we have never seen night, we would not be aware what day is like. If we do not know wet, how can we begin to describe what dry is, or even think of it as a unique state? We only know things because we have experienced their opposites. And often we adjust to this with great difficulty.

I have read about and observed how some religious practices handle this conundrum of duality. (I am writing this a few days before Easter, by the way.) In the Christian world, this is a time of the year when believers ponder the suffering and death of Jesus and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.

An intriguing observation about Easter is this: we desire and strive so hard to be powerful and, yes, God-like, while God had this great desire to be human like us. God was willing to trade his immortality to experience mortality — through his son. One of the many ironic and paradoxical messages here is, one must be willing to die so that one may really live, even through others. Here, the idea of handling duality is choosing one over the other. One must choose life over death, good over evil.

Visiting Kathmandu many years ago, I witnessed, with great fascination, a Hindu death ceremony. On a platform inside the Hindu temple, a corpse was set on a funeral pyre. While this was going on, by the Bhagmati River which runs through the temple, I saw a dead man being washed in preparation for the next cremation. And in the same river, I watched children swimming, a woman washing clothes, a man urinating, and peasants diving in the water for pieces of clothing that the relatives of the dead man on the cremation platform had been throwing prior to disposing of his ashes, also in the Bhagmati River, which merges with the great Ganges in India, the final resting place of Hindus.

I was amazed at the richness and diversity of the activities that were happening all in the same setting. My take on this is that in the Hindu faith, life and death are interconnected. There is no separating one from the other. In everything that was happening all was the “suchness” of being alive. In the Hindu religion, the sacred and profane, sadness and happiness, loss and gain, death and life are all valid forces playing out within one arena.

In Zen practice, there are koans given by the teacher to the students to deepen their understanding of Zen and life itself. Koans are deeply intriguing questions or stories that can immediately baffle a student and force him to get out of a rational, logical mode of thinking and approach the koan with full intuition and a beginner’s mind. One famous koan goes, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Anyone who hears this is immediately stumped and will, almost always, try to swing one hand to attempt what is literally being asked.

But that response can only bring the student further from the truth it is pointing at. My understanding of this koan is that it is a question aimed at duality itself. It asks what life and everything would be like without an opposite.

Sooner than later, the question will make one think, shake his head and ask why everyone seems to be stuck in the preposterous ideal of aiming for a perfect life. A clap is, after all, produced by two opposing forces coming head on. So all our frantic attempts at trying to escape duality by shunning, rejecting and eliminating all sadness, loss, rejection and other unpleasant stuff, and keeping only the so-called good experiences, will seem like madness. Surely, it is impossible to run away from these. But still we keep trying.

The only escape from such madness is to accept everything as part of the lock, stock and barrel of life and so it stops being dualistic. No more conditions. Everything and everyone are welcome and seen as bearing gifts (although we may balk at some gifts). Life comes in an entire set, with nothing excluded. All is one.

I have a rather nuanced appreciation of Easter that I wish to share. Easter is replete with themes of triumph, redemption, and yes, celebration. But Easter was only possible because there was suffering and death and resurrection that went with it. Life, whether it be Jesus’ or anyone else’s, would be meaningless without suffering.

And it takes “faith” for both the secular and religious to believe that life can and does get better, and that people have the spiritual capacity to rise over loss, rejection and failure.

That to me is the great truth about Easter that everyone from any religious persuasion can appreciate.

Happy Easter to every sentient being on earth.