The wide dispersion of this cliche in ordinary speech and on the printed page alarms me. It's usually possible, with divagation, to figure out what people mean by it; but what they mean is never anything resembling unconditional love. Small children might feel that or something very near it, until they're taught to discriminate what's worthy of love and what isn't. (You'd strip a great deal from the school curriculum if that lesson were removed, which would make for a lot of work; you'd have to replace it with things worth learning.) A Buddha perhaps or a figure of perfect enlightenment under under another name (for the sake of argument, let's say Louis Armstrong) might actually be so free and open to all experience as to love unconditionally. But please! "I love my children unconditionally."? Unless you're trying to set a record as a limbo dancer, that's setting the bar awfully low; 'my children' being itself a stated condition.
At a minimum you might speak of loving children unconditionally. To do that wouldn't necessarily make 'my children' an irrelevant distinction, but would certainly somewhat diminish its importance. And are children the only human creatures this teeming globe presents us with? Unconditional love would have to expand enough to include adults as well, and I know by considerable experience they're a far harder test. But where would the children we're to love unconditionally come from, if not the sweaty loins of adults?
And are people the only creatures with whom we share this ample earth? far from it I'd say. There are untold species of plant and animal life we haven't even discovered yet--a new breed of hummingbird was recently found in South America, and put on the endangered species list the same day. You've got to love a guy with a hard luck story like that. Not that there are any shortage of told species--you could probably google the number of distinct species we've catalogued and named, but trust me--the number is immense. The number we've put on endangered species lists is no small potato, nor the number that have grown extinct in the average baby boomer's lifetime. We'd be a lot more actively concerned about that if unconditional love were as thick on the ground as people are in the habit of claiming.
Personally I think we'd do well to act as if we loved all life on earth, even if we were faking it a bit, because all life exists within a complex web of interdependence and we're high on the list of the most dependent. A great many species might be extinguished if we continue or clear-cutting, gas-burning, air and water and land poisoning ways, but one of them will certainly be ours. Possibly as soon as our children's or grandchildren's generation reaches the age of majority. There's no way to love our children unconditionally if we don't love tree frogs, dolphins, fruit flies and house flies, rain forests and all the hyperabundant life that thrives in them. Tell that to the next person you hear boasting of unconditional love for anyone, and tell them I said so.
C 2007 Martin Heavisides