The good news is that we have to know only one thing, so life is basically simple. The bad news is that one thing is love, and that seems impossible to get right.

Love is at the center of human life, for love fulfills our spiritual nature by uniting us to all that is.[1] We grow and develop interiorly by becoming better and better lovers; however, we may fail to become good lovers unless we understand that love has two distinct modes.

We can love something because it is part of us or because it meets certain standards of excellence. If we are good, then anything that is a part of us is good, and we will love that also. This mode of love is unconditional. For example, we prefer our own language and customs above others, not because they are demonstrably superior, but because they are ours. For the same reason, we are often reluctant to discard old clothes and books even when they have become useless. We love them not for any intrinsic excellence but simply because they have become part of our lives.

The other mode of love focuses on the excellence of the object regardless of any connection to the self. A poet may love Robert Frost’s work more than his own because Frost’s craftsmanship is superior to his. Unconditional love makes it difficult to judge our own work objectively. A poet may fall so in love with an image he struggled to find that he cannot cold-heartedly cut it from a work in progress, even though deep down he knows his beloved image mars the poem. Nevertheless, many craftspersons have the discipline to submit their work to the most rigorous standards of their craft.

The love of persons also has the same two modes. For example, I love my children unconditionally because the life we have shared together makes us parts of one another. Other persons with admirable characters or with special abilities they have developed I love, even if they are not close to me in any way.[2]

The two modes of love, unconditional and earned, correspond to two fundamental aspects of human growth and development. Every person is born into the world helpless and completely dependent upon others. The young child needs a love that is nurturing, forgiving, and enduring. Yet, at some point, the child must be introduced to standards of excellence that lie outside the family, and then the child needs a love that is guiding, demanding, and just. Both modes of love are found in good mothers and in good fathers, though in varying degrees; however, only women bear children, and thus nature places them in a position of unconditional love for their offspring. A father cannot say to his child “You are part of me” to the same degree that a mother can, so that a father’s love must take on a different character. Before we see why the roles of mother and father are not interchangeable but complementary, we must briefly point out a major cultural impediment to understanding unconditional and earned love.

A Cultural Obstacle

Each American family, obviously, has its own uniqueness; nevertheless, most families have a common understanding of maternal and paternal love derived from culture. In modern democracies, equality is an unquestioned value that is rigorously applied to all areas of life, with the result that difference is often reduced to sameness. Equality dictates that the traditional roles of the parents in a family must be culturally-given, and thus are interchangeable; otherwise, either the father or the mother would be superior. With this view, only one kind of love exists, and the father and the mother love the child in the same way. But our culture blinds us to the obvious—for nine months each human being is part of his or her mother. Only Siamese twins share biological life more fully than a mother and her unborn baby.

Premodern cultures live closer to nature than we do and have a common understanding that the mother gives biological life and the father cultural life. In archetypical form, the mother is home and earth; the father law and order. Chief Standing Bear, a Lakota Indian, reports life for him as a child was strung between the two poles of human existence, united by love—his mother’s love in the tipi and the path from the tipi into the world that his father lovingly guided him along. Standing Bear describes his early life with his mother: “When working in the tipi she often leaned my cradle against something, so I stood in an upright position. In this way, I could look around and, no doubt, I watched mother’s movements as she worked, listened to her as she talked or sang little songs to me.”[3] If mother was not with little Standing Bear, grandmother, auntie, sister, or cousin was. He was never left alone, for the Lakota believed that for a child to be separated from others is an extreme form of cruelty. His boyhood activities took Standing Bear away from the tipi and the exclusive care and influence of his mother and grandmother. His father directed him along the path that led from the tipi into the world of craft, governance, history, and religion. The road away from the warmth and certainty of the tipi was filled with adventure and risk.

Unconditional and Earned Love Complement Each Other

Most mothers I have seen are madly in love with their babies. They cannot stop kissing, hugging, and playing games with their babies. And the babies do not have to do anything to receive such love. A mother’s love for the newborn child has nothing to do with culture or sexism; it is rooted in biology and the nature of love. The mother loves her newborn infant because it is part of her, not because the baby meets some objective standards of lovability. Such unconditional love cannot be earned and cannot be lost.

The infant is born seeking its mother. Ethologist Robert Fantz developed, in 1961, a reliable technique for measuring the visual preferences of babies. Presenting a reclining infant with two visual stimuli, he measured the amount of time each object was reflected in the infant’s pupils. In this way, Fantz was able to infer the baby’s preference for one object over another. It is now known that newborn vision is at least 20/150, an acuity not exceeded by many adults. Fantz writes, “By demonstrating the existence of form perception in very young infants we . . . disproved the widely held belief that they are anatomically incapable of seeing anything but indistinct blobs of light and dark.”[4] Fantz and many subsequent exper­imenters found clear evidence that babies, even those less than twenty-four hours old, prefer to gaze at a human face more than any other object, whatever its color, shape, or pattern. Investigators have also found that “the human voice, especially the higher-pitched female voice, is the most preferred auditory stimulus in young infants.”[5] These preferences are clearly not learned: In one study, the youngest babies were ten minutes old. Fantz showed in other experiments that without learning or experience, a newly-hatched baby chick prefers to peck at three-dimension­al, round, small objects. Nature directs the chick to look for grain. Correspondingly, as soon as the human infant emerges from the womb, it looks for a human face and listens for a soprano voice. Nature directs the infant to seek its mother.

The very first experience in any baby’s life is connecting himself to another person. Within days, he can distinguish between his mother and others by her looks, voice, and smell. The mother, on her part, desires to cradle her infant, to soothe him when he cries, to keep him warm and protected. The infant shares an interior life with the mother. If she becomes startled or anxious, the baby becomes frightened and cries. If she coos, the infant coos back. A mother and her infant often play the cooing game, each taking pleasure in sharing emotion. Infants, clearly, from birth onwards are social beings.

If a mother showers the baby with unconditional love, the infant feels, “I am wonderful, just because I am.” The child learns to love itself the way the mother loves him or her. The young child then extends this self-love to a love of the world. The child feels, “It’s good to be alive; it’s good to be surrounded by such good things.”

Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar reports that “well up to the fifth year, if not longer, it is customary for Indian children to sleep by their mother’s side at night. During the day she carries the youngest, or the one most needing attention, astride her hip, the others within arm’s reach, as she goes about on visits to neighbors, to the market, to the fields, and on other errands. At home, if not suckling or nestling in his mother’s lap, the infant is playing on the floor or resting in a cot nearby. Constantly held, cuddled, crooned, and talked to . . . the young child has come to experience his core self as lovable: ‘I am lovable, for I am loved.’ Infancy has provided him with a secure base from which to explore his environment with confidence.”[6]

Unconditional love is the foundation that supports the further growth and development of the child. To the two-year-old child, everything pivots around the mother or continuous caregiver; she is the entire world. The little excursions the child makes beyond her are rooted in the confidence that she will always be there for protection and comfort. John Bowlby, a psychiatrist and the recognized authority on the emotional attachment of children to their caregivers, gives the example of “a healthy child whose mother is resting on a garden seat will make a series of excursions away from her, each time returning to her before making the next excursion.”[7] In this case, the mother’s love provides the child with a secure base to explore the world.

Earned love builds upon the foundation laid by unconditional love. The father tells the child, “I love you because you live up to these standards.” Such love must be earned and can be lost. Under the guidance of earned love, children learn to do certain activities well, and in this way love themselves as their fathers love them. And since the standards are outside the child, he or she learns that there are things good in themselves.

For example, when a ten-year-old girl builds a model airplane, she learns many things: The model must be put together in a certain way; to accomplish this end, she must develop perseverance, patience, and the necessary physical skills. When the girl makes an excellent model, she feels good about the model and about herself. Earned love, thus, simultaneously develops the child’s interior life and extends her love beyond herself.

Proper human development needs earned love to acquire standards beyond mere personal desires. Children naturally imitate, but to become an accomplished artist requires training and discipline, a submission to principles of the craft. Children naturally wonder about nature, but to become scientists they must acquire good habits of mind and submit themselves to the demands of the scientific method.

A Person Can Have More Than One Father

Earned love is not limited to biological fathers or even to men. Any one of either gender can inspire a young person to meet the challenge of accomplishing some end with excellence. Earned love instills in the apprentice habits of thought, discipline, and reverence for the subject. Composer Elliot Carter remembers his mentor Nadia Boulanger: “For us she made music a person — to be much loved, cherished, taken care of, devoting our greatest attentiveness and respect to, wanting to make ourselves worthy of this wonderful art.”[8]

Markand Thakar, in a tribute to his teacher, the legendary music conductor Sergui Celebidache, wrote that “Celebidache, genius of historical proportion, unyielding seeker and giver of truth, and unquenchable lover of humanity, is himself human. . . . His own activities serve me as an inspiration, as a guide, as a constant example of what is possible in human endeavor. Moreover, he gave me myself, my own way. He showed me that by honestly examining my experiences and demanding no less than the utmost of my capacity, I too, may eventually approach those possibilities. He changed my life — made every single day of it better and more rewarding. I am thankful that such a man has walked on this earth; I cherish my contact with him; and hope that my existence does justice to his efforts.”[9]

Sometimes one person forms an entire generation of outstanding scientists or great artists. In the 1920s, Niels Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen “quickly became the world center of quantum physics, and to paraphrase the old Romans, ‘all roads led to Blegdamsvej 17.’ The Institute buzzed with young theoretical physicists and new ideas about atoms, atomic nuclei, and the quantum theory in general. The popularity of the Institute was due both to the genius of its director and his kind, one might say fatherly, heart. Whereas another genius of that era, Albert Einstein, though a very kind man too, never formed what is known as a ‘school’ around him but worked usually with just a single assistant to talk to, Bohr fathered many scientific ‘children.’ Almost every country in the world has physicists who proudly say, ‘I used to work with Bohr.’”[10] In a similar way, Mademoiselle Boulanger, perhaps the greatest music teacher of the twentieth century, “fathered” Aaron Copeland, Virgil Thompson, Walter Piston, and dozens of other gifted musicians.

A Balanced Love

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm points out that a balance between unconditional and earned love is necessary for a child’s healthy development: “The mother’s and the father’s attitudes toward the child correspond to the child’s own needs. The infant needs mother’s unconditional love and care physiologically as well as psychically. The child, after six, begins to need father’s love, his authority and guidance. Mother has the function of making him secure in life, father has the function of teaching him, guiding him to cope with those problems with which the particular society the child has been born into confronts him.”[11] If the mother and father complement each other’s roles in the family properly, and if society does not interfere, the child develops a self-love balanced between the unconditional and earned elements. Such a balanced self-love is rare.

If a child is loved only unconditionally, he or she will not grow and develop properly. As an adult, such a person will be lazy, self-indulgent, and give up when faced with the slightest obstacle. He or she will be incapable of meeting the demands imposed by an external standard.

The domineering, possessive mother treats her child as if he or she would always remain a part of her and thus desires to control all aspects of her child’s life, even when he or she is an adult. The principal means of her control is guilt, effectively telling her offspring, “If you don’t do as I demand, then you do not love me.” Maternal love is, perhaps, the most difficult form of love; to love the child as part of oneself and then to release the child as an independent adult with desires and values of his or her own demands a deep love of what is good for the child.

Rarely does a newborn fail to receive maternal love. If a mother abandons her baby or hates it, we think something is wrong with the mother. Nature operates perfectly, but culture often interferes. The mother may be forced by economic necessity to work, or she may be led to believe that child rearing is not as important as her career advancement, or because of illness or drug abuse she may be incapable of loving her child.

Arguably the hardest life in America is that of the single mom, with two or three children, divorced from a deadbeat who pays no alimony or child support. Such a mom must work, arrange for childcare, and give her children both maternal and paternal love. Bowlby claims that “despite voices to the contrary, looking after babies and young children is no job for a single person.”[12]

The hardships of a single mom and their effect on her children are brilliantly rendered by Richard Linklaterin in his movie Boyhood. The movie follows the life of Mason from early childhood to his arrival at college and chronicles his relationship with his biological father as well as those with the two other marriage partners of his mother. When sixteen or seventeen, Mason tells his first girlfriend, who just told him that she likes his mom, “I like my mom, too. I just mean, basically, she’s still just as confused as I am.” With shifting blended families, no intelligent, abiding, guiding hand is present for Mason. His biological father is an eternal adolescent, his two other “fathers” by marriage soon drift out of his life, and his mother lacks the emotional strength to be a “father” to her son. Mason lives in a world of confusing human relations, where everyone is seeking love and repeatedly failing.

If young children lack unconditional love, then they fail to feel that they are good simply because they are, and for them the world is not such a good place. Such a child in later life will find it difficult to acquire the feeling that “I am good, because I am.” The lack of unconditional love is a major deficiency in a person’s life; for one of the deepest longings, not only of the child, but of every human being is unconditional love. Everyone wants to feel that I am loved just that way I am, that I am good, no matter what I do. Billy Joel expresses this universal longing for unconditional love in his hit song “Just the Way You Are.”

Psychologist René Spitz showed through the study of hospitalized children that a child’s very first bond with another person is the basis for the later development of human love and friendship. In extreme cases, when unconditional love is totally absent, or nearly so, a baby simply dies, or if it survives, its emotional life is permanently damaged.[13] As a result of the work of Spitz and others, some newborn intensive care units have adopted kangaroo care, where the diapered infant is placed between the mother’s bare breasts for at least one hour. A piece of cloth, either a receiving blanket or the mother’s shirt, covers the infant’s back, resulting in a pouch and thus the term “kangaroo care.” Such skin-to-skin care comforts the baby and reduces mortality, severe illness, infection, and length of hospital stay, besides lessening the mother’s anxiety.[14]

When a child experiences other persons as a source of both intense pain and comfort, all the child’s emotions are blurred, and its capacity for friendship is severely diminished. A child severely deficient in unconditional love is not interested in his or her toys and is prone to violence in later life. Spitz found that an empty, uninterested facial expression is a symptom of children lacking unconditional love.[15]

A child with a succession of single, loving caregivers repeatedly experiences the pain and rejection of the original loss of the mother, which leads to the feeling of being unloved and deserted. Such a child, Bowlby observes, “will become increasingly self-centered and, instead of directing his desires and feelings toward people, will become preoccupied with material things, such as sweets, toys, and food.”[16]

Many a child’s life has been saved from ruin by the sustained, unconditional love of a grandmother, an aunt, or a nanny. Children nurtured and protected by unconditional love can as adults suffer the most outrageous misfortunes and still believe they and the world are fundamentally good. Such children go forth in the world with confidence, with an openness to people and events; no misdeed, mistake, or failure can shake their underlying feeling that they are good. If success in life is measured by human relations and friendship, not wealth and career achievement, then the kind of love a child receives is a better predictor of his or her course in life than environment, IQ tests, or genes.

Unlike unconditional love, earned love can be acquired by performing good actions. Ideally, a father’s or a mentor’s love should be patient and tolerant, rather than threatening or authoritarian. For a person to gain competence in living or in a craft, a father or a mentor must give his protégés the freedom to fail. The fear of failure and the resulting loss of earned love causes anxiety in many children and students.

For most of us, the first place we experienced unconditional and earned love outside of our extended family was in grade school. Our first teachers were “moms,” embracing us with unconditional love, yet praising us for letters formed correctly and for pronouncing words off the page properly. Later through competitive sports, academic grading, and the constant vying for popularity with peers, school taught us that a student who does not succeed does not have much value. We saw only two categories of persons—winners and losers. Since each of us desired to be loved, we wanted to be a winner or associated with a winner. Under such circumstances, friendships could not last, if we exposed our weaknesses and defi­ciencies. Consequently, we learned to hide behind masks. To escape from the fear of failure and rejection, we never revealed our true selves to others and feigned indifference; to avoid appearing like a loser, we refused to admit our ignorance and became experts at “faking it.” Some of us by the sixth grade had already assigned ourselves the role loser, and whatever unconditional love those unhappy souls had experienced in early life was destroyed by earned love.

Children who experience primarily earned love will think themselves unworthy unless they prove their goodness again and again. We all know teenagers who immediately after winning a gold medal in gymnastics feel compelled to rush off to audition for the starring role in a high school play. Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist practicing in affluent Marin County, California, reports how devasting failure can be to upper-middle class children, whose helicopter parents hover overhead, protecting their children and keeping them on the narrow path to success. One academically ambitious girl, rejected by her college of choice, stayed in bed for days, and lamented, “I’m a complete failure.”[17] As adults, such teenagers will be unable to rest, no matter how much success they achieve and will never be at peace with themselves.

Seemingly, love can go wrong in an infinite number of ways. To give one more, surprising example. Bowlby tells of a mother, “who herself had a childhood deprived of love [and sought] from her own child the love she has hitherto lacked.” In doing this, she inverted the normal parent-child relationship, requiring the child to act as parent, while she became a child. Later in life, in conformity with his mother’s wishes, the child as an adult acknowledged “only feelings of love and gratitude towards [his mother] and [shut] away every feeling of anger he may have against her for expecting him to care for her and preventing him from making his own friends and living his own life.”[18]

The Father in a Democratic, Industrial Society

In pre-industrial America, the father mentored his sons to replace him in his occupation. On the farm, a son grew up working the land and tending animals, thinking that when an adult he will be a farmer like his father. Small-town life was essentially the same as farm life; the son of a carpenter or a shopkeeper grew into his father’s occupation, working daily with his mentor. With the rise of industrialism and urban life, the relationship between the father and his son became entirely different; the father worked in an office or factory, far from home sociologically, if not physically. The son did not experience his father’s work and had only a sketchy understanding of what his father did in the workplace. The son had no reason to assume that his vocation would bear any resemblance to his father’s. As a result, the father could not teach his son an occupation; at best, he could coach his son in soccer or little league baseball, maybe instilling in him sportsmanship and competition, mainly through verbal instruction.

The father is no longer a model for action emulated by the son. In addition, in our democratic society, the father is not the paterfamilias, “the instrument of tradition, the interpreter of custom, and the arbiter of mores.”[19] Alexis de Tocqueville points out that equality in America dictates that “the father is only a citizen older and richer than his sons,”[20] not more experienced or wiser. Industrialism and democracy diminished the role of the father to an older friend with his children, to a “fun dad,” as one of my sons-in-law puts it.

If a balance between unconditional and earned love is difficult to achieve in the family, a balance between self-love and the love of others is even more difficult. Indeed, many of us do not know what it means to love another person. I know for years I did not. But each day brings new opportunities for getting love right. No one has a perfect upbringing; no one can go back and change his or her childhood; no one can alter the culture that he or she happens to be born into. But each day is a new beginning, and life itself tries to wake us up. Sometimes life’s wakeup call is so dramatic that even a sleeping dolt like me is aroused from a slumber of ignorance. One of the most profound experiences of my life was witnessing my older daughter’s birth. Suddenly, from nowhere, and right before my eyes, appeared this perfectly formed human being—an absolute miracle. This miracle of life placed in my care forced me to learn how to love.

Not until my children were born did I see that love is not a strong emotion, not a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. I read to my children every night before the three of them went to bed. Some evenings I did not feel like reading, because I was tired or had work to do. Feelings come and go, but love endures, because it is an act of the will. I promised to take care of the three of them the best I could, so I read them stories aloud, even when every cell in my body screamed for rest. Love is a commitment to the smallest details of daily living.

Parents and children, obviously, are not equals. My children were to be loved, and I was to love them. In this love that held us together, they received, and I gave. For them love was passive; for me love was active.

What could I give to them? The money, the clothes, the food, and the other material things that I gave them were the minimal necessities of life, and of not much consequence, as far as I am concerned. So, what could I give to them? I had only one thing to give. My life. Not that I literally sacrificed my life for them. I hoped to give them everything that made me alive: My love of the mountains and the desert; my joy at the beach; my love of cooking and enjoying good food with others; my love of music; my passion for learning; my quest for wisdom; my striving to be charitable to others. I wanted every physical, intellectual, and spiritual good to become part of their lives. I desired the good for them for their sake. I am sure that my love failed them in many ways. I did not have enough to give, and I often failed to give what I had properly. The two solaces I can take are that all human love is flawed and that throughout life, a person’s capacity to love should constantly develop, although it is never perfected. I hope that I can love better now than I could ten or twenty years ago.

On the surface, it looks as if my children did all the receiving and gave back nothing. But the more I gave, the more I received. What did I get back? The three of them taught me about love. They gave me the opportunity to love, and without that I would be one of the most miserable persons who ever lived.

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[1] For a discussion of the spiritual nature of the human person, see George Stanciu, “Wonder and Love: How Scientists Neglect God and Man.”

[2] In Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, love is divided into four kinds, storgē, erōs, philía, and agápē. Each of these loves is a combination of unconditional and earned love. The original, narrow meaning of storgē is that of a parent for an offspring; even the extension of storgē to include the relationship between a pet and its owner includes unconditional and earned love. Erōs is the intense desire to be joined to a good outside of oneself, and thus includes the earned love of the other and the unconditional love of self. The highest form of philia is the friendship that joins two people together in their pursuit of a common good, say engaging in a sport, performing music, or furthering social justice. Such friends feel pleasure and pain from the same things and understand and judge the same things in the same way—in a sense, they are one soul. The fourth love, agápē, has no counterpart in the ancient world. Jesus introduced this new love, the unconditional love God has for each person, a love that cannot be earned and excludes no one. Jesus commanded us to love one another the way God does.

[3] Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 4.

[4] Robert Fantz, “The Origin of Form Perception,” Scientific American 204 (May 1961):69.

[5] Daniel G. Freedman, Human Infancy: An Evolutionary Perspec­tive (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1974), p. 30.

[6] Sudhir Kakar, The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India, rev. ed. (New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 80, 82.

[7] See John Bowlby, A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 61.

[8] Elliot Carter, Introduction to Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger, p. 13. Italics added.

[9] Markand Thakar, “Tribute to a Teacher,” (November 10, 1999). Italics in the original.

[10] George Gamow, Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of the Quantum Theory (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 51.

[11] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), p. 43.

[12] Bowlby, A Secure Base, p. 2.

[13] René Spitz, The First Year of Life: A Psychoanalytic Study of Normal and Deviant Development of Object Relations (New York: International Universities Press, 1965). See also Robertson, J., and J. Bowlby. “Responses of Young Children to Separation from Their Mothers.” Paris: Courr. Cent. Int. Enf, 1952.

[14] Cleveland Clinic, “Kangaroo Care.”

[15] Spitz, p. 270.

[16] John Bowlby, Attachment: Second Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 28.

[17] Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), p. 215.

[18] Bowlby, A Secure Base, p. 107.

[19] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1835, 1840]), p. 587.

[20] Ibid., p. 586.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Family Portrait” (1756) by François-Hubert Drouais (1727-1775), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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