When I was just a few years younger than I am now, an active church member and one-half of a “high school sweetheart” couple, I was really into the idea of unconditional love. Giving people my all. Trying my damndest to treat others the way I want to be treated, not expecting or demanding anything in return. I’ve grown up since then, experienced at least two and a half solid heartbreaks, used people and been used by people, and adopted some heavy suspicions regarding the motives of any person who claims to be interested in spending time with me.   

But what still remains is my childlike yearning to love and be loved, whether it be a feeling between friends and family or between me and “my person,” should I ever find him. (This is a romantic idea I’ve been unable to shake despite my newfound cynicism toward dating and sharing my heart.)

Another holdover I have from those more innocent days is a spiritual belief that there’s something – be it a god or just some sort of shared human feeling – connecting all of us. And that the central existential purpose of that maker, our connecting current, is love. Whatever religion you subscribe to or not, I think most humans can agree on the idea that mutual self-interest betters us as a whole; that our shared cultural stories, rituals, and ways of supporting each other make us stronger as a group of creatures on this Earth together.

So why is it so hard to love without condition? I tell you that I have become a skeptic but really I have just become conflicted and insecure.  My core tells me to love people quickly and deeply, to share enthusiasm for their strengths and passions, and then hopefully, if they’re the right people and see me for who I am, they will return this fervent friendship. But my self-consciousness, my distrustfulness, my haunting memories of past failed forays in love keep me from expressing these eager emotions. Will I be too much for them? Will I pour myself out just to receive lies and dismissal in return? Have I wasted the love that I’ve given away in the past? There’s no way to get that back now. Anyway, the is answer no, you can never waste love or ever run out of it.

I’ve always thought that our culture is wrong to constantly frown upon the young and naïve. I still am young and naïve but I don’t think I’ll ever lose this idea. There is wisdom and grace in risking it all and loving wholly and being unafraid and sometimes a bit idealistic. Yes, adult practicality and caution and discipline are necessary, but why must they suddenly kill our childlike senses of awe and curiosity and connection with those around us? When was the moment that I lost what I used to consider such an important part of myself – the moment that I forgot how to love without wanting anything in return?

I have always been taught, and repeated this mantra many times, that in order to love others well, I have to love myself first. Not a narcissistic love, an accepting and caring love. When I take care of my body and mind and soul the way that I should, only then can I open myself up to give others the same full, unselfish love – all the while being fully aware that I may not receive that same type of love in return. So many of us are too busy, too hardened, too stuck in the details of work and social media and petty drama and self-criticism and self-obsession to step back and just accept. And love.

All anyone can really ask for out of life is to learn to be truly and honestly herself. And to love herself and others well. If I do this, I will know that someone who doesn’t return my affections or desires simply doesn’t see me and care for who I am, and that is not something I can keep in my life. It may not erase the longing to be seen and heard and loved by those that I see and hear and hold most dear, but sometimes it does help with the placement of my desires and acceptance of my losses. And the assurance that better things are yet to come. Because when I believe in and love myself and those around me, how can we lose?