What do we mean when we say, “Love”? Certainly, love means different things to different people, but even for each individual the word love can have different meanings. Politicians and Priests speak often of “Brotherly Love”. The love of a parent for a child is well documented. And romantic love is something most people seem to want.
What then is love? I think we can safely say love is an emotion. Although scientists have tried to investigate the love emotion by experimenting with hormones and anatomical structures in the brain, no one has satisfactorily described a biochemical mechanism for the development of it. Love, then is an abstract concept which defies reductionist characterization.
Most people seem to mean something important when they speak of loving.
It seems to me that there are different types of love. Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary carries the following definitions of love:
1a: affection based on admiration or benevolence b: an assurance of love 2 a: warm attachment, enthusiasm or devotion (~of the sea) b: the object of such attachment or devotion 3a: unselfish concern that freely accepts another in loyalty and seeks his good (1) : the fatherly concern of God for man (2) brotherly concern for others b: man’s adoration of God 4 a: attraction based on sexual desire: the affection of tenderness felt by lovers b: a god or personification of love c: an amorous episode: LOVE AFFAIR d: sexual embrace: COPULATION d: a beloved person: DAR.LING 6: ascore of zero in tennis 7 cap, Christian Science: God.
It is interesting that romantic love is not discussed by Webster until the fourth meaning of the word. This placement of romantic love in the word’s definition suggests that love has a greater significance than simple romance.
Another interesting and, I think, important feature of this definition is the issue of God. Even if one does not believe in God, one has the understanding that the character of God is greater and stronger than all of us. Linking God with love suggests that love is also stronger and greater than any individual and still spiritual and even magical in nature.
Because love is an emotion it is often thought to be difficult to control. Mankind has tried to reign in its emotions since the first homo sapiens walked upright. Emotions are often considered to be uncontrollable. Love for many falls into this category. Individuals speak of loving something or someone despite its negative effects. “I love food,” is the lament of many overweight people. So then, can we control love?
Many people speak of falling in or out of romantic love with another person as though it were an involuntary reaction to some external stimulus. Scott Peck discusses falling in love in The Road Less Travelled:
Of all the misconceptions about love the most powerful and pervasive is the belief that :falling in love” is love or at least one of the manifestations of love. It is a potent misconception, because falling in love is subjectively experienced in a very powerful fashion as an experience of love. When a person falls in love what he or she certainly feels is “I love him” or “I love her”. But two problems are immediately apparent. The first is that the experience of falling in love is specifically a sex-linked erotic experience. We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply. …. We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsiously sexually motivated. The second problem is the experience of falling in love is invariably temporary. No matter whom we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. This is not to say that we invariably cease loving the person with whom we fell in love. But it is to say the feeling of ecstatic lovingness that characterizes the experience of falling in love always passes. The honeymoon always ends. The bloom of romance always fades.
Further, Peck defines love as, “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Finally, Peck states that, “Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” This assertion gives comfort to those of us who have, in the past, loved people or things unwisely. There is, then, hope for the future if one can make a good decision about love. Hopefully, the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.
Yet what of the overpowering nature of love? What about love makes us want to put another’s needs ahead of our own? What makes some people sacrifice their lives for those they love? It is this mystical and transcendent love I wonder about. Not just in the romantic sense but in the spiritual and universal sense. How do human beings arrive at the point where they know they love?
Erich Fromm states in The Art of Loving that, “The awareness of human separation, without reunion by love — is the source of shame.” He continues:
The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity, because the panic of complete isolation can be overcome only by a such a radical withdrawal from the world outside that the feeling of separation disappears – because the world outside, from which one is separated, has disappeared.
So, if we choose to love as Peck suggests and the alternative is insanity as Fromm suggests most of us choose love over insanity. We know we love when we know we are not alone in the world. This love is transformative since we have made the decision to love and have transcended our individual separateness. We grow through love.
The question that arises at this point is not whether or not to love but what or whom to love. According to Peck it is possible to channel our loving in constructive ways. It behooves us, as mature individuals, to select whom and what we love to nurture our emotional growth in a positive manner. Toward that end I would like to propose a set of guidelines for loving.
Ask how does the person or thing make me feel? Some of us are exhilarated by the outdoors or by the presence of another human being. Ask yourself, “Do I feel good?”
What are you willing to do to promote this entity’s welfare? If you love the outdoors do you recycle? If you love another human being what are you willing to do for them?
How will loving this person or thing promote your growth and development? If you love going to football games will the experience make you a better person in some way? If you love an animal does this love help you grow in some way. If you love another human being will loving him or her allow you to further yourself on your own journey through life.
Is loving the person, animal or thing that you want dangerous or detrimental to you in some way? If you love chocolate and you are overweight yet continue to eat it is this a healthy love? If you love your dog but it bites you when you get physically close to it, is this love wise? If you love another person but he or she is destructive to you, are you sure you want to continue making the choice to love them?
While these guidelines may or may not be useful they do not address the overpowering emotion many of us feel when we speak of love. Sometimes we love despite what reason tells us to do. If Romeo and Juliet had listened to reason they might not have gotten involved. So in spite of all the attempts by scholars and laymen to explain it the love emotion remains for many unexplained and uncontrolled. Kahil Gibran writes:
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate loves ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise
upon your lips.
For myself, I know that I have loved and do love now. I hope to love more and better in the future. I choose to do this while hopefully remaining cognizant of the risks involved. I can tell you from experience that the rewards of loving are magnificent and magical. The consequence of not loving is emotional death. I leave you with this description of love found in the Bible, which speaks to love’s divine and mystical nature. In those quiet moments when you are wondering what the point of life is you may think of love, the quality of the life you want, and the words that follow:
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; It does not rejoice in wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believe all things, hopes all thing, endures all things.