I once read a story of a woman whose daughter was raped and murdered by someone. The perpetrator was captured, convicted, and imprisoned straight away. Many people in this woman’s situation would likely thirst for the perpetrator’s eternal suffering. They would want to look into his eyes and tell him to go to hell so that he may experience pain every remaining day of his life. If the perpetrator were convicted in a state that supported the death penalty, they would be in the front row of the audience as he received his lethal injection.
This woman did none of those things. She did visit him in prison to look him in the eye, but not to tell him to go to hell, nor to wish for him to feel pain.
She visited him in prison to become his friend.
Stories like this one often inspire incredulous, even outraged reactions in others. How could someone befriend the person who raped and killed her own child? How could she want anything other than the most severe, bloodthirsty form of vengeance? When someone does something that is hurtful to another, is it not best for them to be punished as much as the law will allow so that justice has been served?
The woman in the story sought out the practice of unconditional love. This is the act of feeling connected to every living being and experiencing a state of supreme joy as a result of that connection—regardless of their actions. We see them as a manifestation of the same spirit that created us, but while we may be living in relative balance they are diseased in the body and mind. They suffer. And when someone experiences so much pain that they can’t even cope, they seek out an outlet for that pain in the form of sharing their hurt. They commit rape. Or even murder.
As you might imagine, unconditional love is a difficult idea for many people to embrace. It is a subject that we often discuss on my Facebook page. When someone mentions how they feel slighted by someone in their life, they have a hard time warming up to the message that I invariably respond with: that they will serve themselves by allowing this other person to go forward in life without being punished or told off. They think that would be letting them off the hook, or that it would make them victims of being bullied or taken advantage of. One follower even admitted to thinking that I was “barking mad.”
But the purpose and practice of unconditional love is not for us to empower supposed wrongdoers to keep doing hurtful things, nor is it condoning the actions of those responsible for such behaviors. When someone does something hurtful to us, seeking punishment, retribution, or vengeance is placing focus on the feelings of hurt. It’s allowing the prejudices of our own mind to tell us that our happiness is worth less than our sense of justice.
Who, though, is to say what is truly just? If legality were so infallible, then every country’s laws would be the same. Justice feeds the mind an illusionary relief, which disappears very quickly and leaves the person with a feeling of loss forever.
In contrast, unconditional love comes from the heart—not the mind. Everyone heals and can move on with life, and in this way it isn’t limited to a transitory feeling. It is neither prejudiced nor exclusive, for it does not change with our thoughts. While experiencing such a profound feeling of love—of feeling connected to every living being in the world—may be elusive and difficult to attain, there is no dispute among those who reach this level of mental freedom. It is more powerful, more fulfilling, and more gratifying than the justice felt for the most graphic execution administered to the most hardened criminal of all time. With unconditional love, we no longer feel hurt.
When we live a life free of suffering—free of disease in the body and mind—we are able to love others regardless of what they do around us and even to us. We’re able to see their supposed wrongdoings as an indication that they, like we once did, suffer greatly. And if we draw upon this love and provide our compassion, then perhaps they won’t suffer any longer.
We can only imagine what it must have been like to be the girl who was raped and murdered by that man in prison. The mother who visited the man responsible for these acts suffered a great deal at the loss of her daughter, and a man who could commit such acts did what he did because he suffered greatly as well. But her repeated visits to the prison, her persistence, and her resolve broke down the barriers of this unlikely pairing and they did ultimately become friends. She did this as a result of simple math: With vengeance and blood thirst, three people would have suffered.
But as two of them became friends through her unconditional love, only one of them did.