On the Monday following the terrorist rampage in Orlando, a dozen Golden Retrievers showed up in the Disney city. They were part of the K-9 Comfort Dogs team, a ministry run by Lutheran Church Charities. The dogs had come to give the kind of love and comfort that come only from a furry friend.
There was a time when bringing in dogs to care for the emotional needs of the traumatized would have seemed odd. But now it’s common. K-9 Comfort Dogs came to the emotional rescue after the Boston Marathon bombing, after the Sandy Hook shootings. “We’ve had a lot of people here that start petting the dog, and they break out crying,” said Tim Hetzner, president of the charity. “Dogs show unconditional love.”
“Unconditional love” is a near-cliché. People use those words as if it happens rather naturally. Not long ago a young couple with their first baby told me how much they loved this girl. It was, they said, unconditional love. I told them how great that was and how much I hoped they could offer such pure love to their daughter. Because in actual practice that kind of love comes easily for God and Golden Retrievers, and very grudgingly for human beings. Our love comes with a lot of conditions, a lot of strings. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people, it just means we’re human. We know that mom or dad loves us, but they love us more when we visit more often, stay longer and discipline the kids a little more. Same with husbands and wives. There’s a baseline love, but more can be earned in all the ways we know.
Yet the one thing every soul seeks is simply that unconditional love, where there is nothing to be earned. So when I read stories about Golden Retrievers being flown in to offer stringless love to grieving humans, I can’t tell whether that’s a beautiful thing (how we’ve finally understood the emotional and spiritual capacity of our pets) or whether we have outsourced our love needs to animals because we can’t find a way to do it ourselves.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to recognize how hard it is to offer unconditional love. That way we can start working on our love life. Selfless love—agape, Jesus called it—doesn’t come naturally. It takes work, practice. We have to find some way to unplug the mind, which is a non-stop judging machine, and move deeper into the heart. All the caveats that cling to our loves come from the unchecked mind. The saints of all time and every tradition have committed themselves to some daily spiritual practice that moves a man or woman out of the hamster wheel in the head and into the depths of the heart. There I can see all the limits I put on my love, and there I can choose another way.
The only beings who naturally offer unconditional love are either God or dog. If you’re a human being the only way to get there is through a lot of inner work—and a flood of grace.