I was married for seventeen years. The demise of my marriage had brought fear of trusting people with my feelings and thoughts—essentially, with myself. I found it difficult to have friends and confide in them. The idea of loving and trusting a man again, enough to remarry, seemed impossible to accept.
Throughout the following years I pondered love: the love I felt for my children, my siblings, my parents, my friends, and for people generally.
Because I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often inadvertently called the Mormon Church), I thought about God’s love for me and my love for Him. I read passages from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, words of latter-day prophets, and other inspired writings. One passage in the New Testament helped me contemplate the reciprocation of love:
Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son (1 John 4:7–10).
God loves us, whether or not we love Him in return.
Lesson from “Cast Away”
Fifteen years had lapsed since my divorce, and through study and prayer, I had learned much about love, and my heart and mind had been healed. I encouraged myself to trust, to attach, to feel. I even let myself begin to care for a certain man; the problem was, he did not return my affection.
While my unrequited love simmered on my mind, I went to my brother’s home to borrow a hand tool. Our conversation turned to relationships and love, and my brother reminded me of an illustration found in the movie “Cast Away.”
Tom Hanks’s starring character, Chuck Noland, is marooned alone on an island when his plane crashes in a remote area of the South Pacific. He lives on the island for over four years, isolated from any human connection. To cope, he turns a bloodstained handprint on a Wilson-brand volleyball, part of the detritus of his crash, into a face. He names the ball Wilson. As time passes, Wilson becomes real to him—a companion—and he talks to it.
Noland figures out a way off the island, and he takes Wilson with him. When a storm causes Wilson to wash overboard, Noland jumps into the water to save him, but Wilson has floated too far away. Noland’s torment is obvious as he watches Wilson float beyond reach.
My brother asked me a few questions about Noland’s relationship with Wilson:
• “Did Noland love Wilson?” Yes.
• “Did Wilson do anything to be loved?” No.
• “In any way was Noland dependent on Wilson to love him back?” No.
Thinking about my answers to his questions, I concluded that because I want to be like God, I choose to love. Sometimes the love I feel and show is reciprocated and my relationships are rich, full, and rewarding. Sometimes my love is not returned. Does that stop me from loving? Should it? Do I feel attachment or joy only when love is reciprocated?
Conditional means that there are stipulations, terms of an agreement. In marriage, the conditions reflect a covenant or promise between the man and woman and God.
Love that is given freely, expecting nothing in return, is described as unconditional. It is a gift to the giver and usually a gift to the receiver—they only need to accept it. Sometimes, however, unconditional love is not accepted.
Bruce C. Hafen, an emeritus member of the Quorums of the Seventy, a governing body in The Church of Jesus Christ, describes the unconditional and conditional love of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ was able to atone unconditionally for the original sin of Adam and Eve and for the physical death, and to atone conditionally for the personal sins of all mankind.
The unconditional parts of the Atonement, those that assure our resurrection from physical death and that pay for Adam’s transgression, require no further action on our part. They are the free gifts of unmerited divine grace. The conditional part, however, requires our repentance.1
As in the example of the atonement of Jesus Christ, both conditional love and unconditional love are part of our relationships. Each has a role in helping a relationship thrive. But what happens when love is not shared? Can we love when it is not reciprocated in kind, or not at all?
Lessons from a Quilt
For several years, a friend cared for my daughter while I worked. She and her husband did not accept payment for their kindness to my daughter and me. We were not close friends—we did not socialize—but I felt their love for me and I tried to reciprocate in other ways. When I prepared to move and her care for my daughter would soon end, I wanted to make her a quilt. But I was worried because I had watched her receive gifts from friends and although she was always genuinely thrilled for their gifts and the sentiments behind them, she did not always keep their gifts for very long. I felt confident that my gift would delight her. She would at least temporarily love it and know that I appreciated her service to my daughter and me. But could I accept that she would not love and keep the results of my hard work for long? Could I give her the quilt unconditionally?
As I pieced the quilt I reminded myself that I loved her kindness to me and that it would be OK if she gave the quilt away. I remembered her sweet personality and her generosity. I reminded myself that keeping or not keeping the quilt would not be a measurement of her affection for me—or mine for her—or the connection we felt for the moment in time when I was in need and she helped me.
In the end, I gave the quilt to her unconditionally, and she received it unconditionally. Always when I think of her—or the quilt I made—I think of Heavenly Father, and how much He showed His love for me through her kindness and service. Because she loved God, she served my daughter and me, expecting nothing in return.
Loving others unconditionally comes first. Being loved in return is wonderful—but not required.
1. Bruce C. Hafen, The Broken Heart (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 7; emphasis in the original.