Updated: May 30, 2022
A series on what love is.
We like to think that we live in a world that cares for values. We stand up for ‘democracy’–whatever that means–and stand against “tyranny”–again, whatever that means. At the core of this two positions, standing up for ‘freedom’ and standing against “oppression”, the idea of love is often mentioned. It has become a commonplace value that everyone should have. “Everyone should be more loving,” is not an uncommon thought among our peers that feels, while perhaps not fundamentally erroneous, cheap and lackluster, mainly because we seem to have absolutely no clue of what that weird, unnatural, and seemingly magical thing we call love actually is.
How can something like this come to be? How can an ideal so often referenced exist without a widespread, fundamental understanding of what it is and what it entails? How did this modern misunderstanding came to be? There are many, many answers to these questions, all of which are probably right to some degree and wrong to some other. The solution to them is far from simple, to the point where I believe said solution might be unattainable for Man alone. While this conclusion may seem discouraging we must remember that it poses nothing but a small obstacle, for Man is not alone.
Do note, I don’t believe defining love is an easy task, but I also don’t believe it is something Man needs to do per se, for God has done it for us already. We must contemplate Him and look for the meaning there, for ‘God is love’ (as St. John says in the latter part of 1 Jn 4:8). Looking for the meaning of love in God will help us learn to truly, deeply love. This, in turn, will help us live with love and, thus, with God.
The "Exclusivity" of Love
Let us begin by analyzing some of the common notions by which love is often bound. There are many of these and it would be a gargantuan task to seek them all, bring them all, and analyze them all. Doesn’t we cannot try to see this paradigm of lack of meaning we face by analyzing some.
One of the first erroneous notions I would like to tackle is the idea that love is something that occurs only between spouses “partners” (the sexual “liberation” has made it so that love is no longer an important part of sexuality, which is yet another great perversion brought forth by this vile movement). I believe this flawed connection is made because the idea of loving something has been weirdly tied to the idea of “making love” to someone. There must be, of course, a unique kind of love between a man and a woman who decided to start a family together, which involves sex, but that does not mean that all love involves sexual activity.
This same error, which we could call the “exclusivity” of love, also occurs with some other relationships, non-sexual in nature. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to say you love your family, and only a tad weird to say you love your closest friends.
The notion that love must exist in this bonds is not erroneous. In fact, it is a rather great start! The problem arises when we start to believe love is (or must be) exclusive to these bonds. If true love does exists (and I believe it does) why should we stop its greatest from imbuing every single one of the bonds we make?
I believe this first erroneous notion is, by far, the simplest one to be done with (hence why I chose to begin with it). Also, it doesn’t occur as much as others, thanks be to God.
Love as an Action, Not a Feeling
The second erroneous notion I wish to get rid of is the idea that love is something we feel. There seems to be this tendency to try and water down love, trying to make it fit into the definition of being merely an emotion or feeling. This tendency can be illustrated by ideas like oxytocin being the ‘molecule of love’. This reductionist tendency in regards to defining love is nothing short of horrific. Yes, there are physical, biological, and chemical factors active during our lives that code for things like affection and attraction, but reducing love to nothing but that is not only sad, but incorrect. After all, many other species around the world also have these kind of interactions, though I don’t think a single one can truly love as Man can and, while not as often as desired, does. It is as idiotic as saying happiness (a concept deeply tied with love) is nothing but chemical interactions in the brain.
Love is not a feeling. It coexists with certain emotions and feelings, but it is not fundamentally a feeling. In fact, even many languages tend to capture this. Love is often regarded as an action, is it not? “I love you.” There’s no such thing as “I happy you,” or “I sad you.” The closest thing could be “I make you happy (or at least I try) or “x thing saddens you” (a.k.a. makes you sad), which are far from the same thing. Grammatically, love (unlike feelings and emotions) has a subject and an object; a “lover” (the one who loves) and a “beloved” (the one who is loved). This seems rather unique, to me at least, and indicative of a deeper meaning of love we often like to ignore. Thus, I believe love is an action, often accompanied by feelings and emotions (such as attraction, affection, joy, happiness, and so on), but fundamentally an action.
Since I’ve established love is an action, not a feeling or emotion, I believe we can establish it is an act of the will. What I mean is, you choose to love. This can seem counterintuitive considering what is fed to us on a daily basis. “You don’t choose who to love,” is a common motif in literature and film, for example. The idea of the “soulmate”, that someone everyone has who they ought to be with, is another common motif. Both, I believe, are fundamentally wrong, for they are based on a flawed conception of love that diminishes its importance.
Another difference between love and emotions is that love can endure the passing of time. When people speak of “love dying” they are merely speaking of the original feelings (joy, excitement, passion, and yada yada) they felt not being there anymore, which, as we have defined already, are not love at its core. Emotions can’t. Following this same line of thought, we can also see that love can endure the worst of contexts. Soldiers in the front sent letters to their beloveds, for example, despite being surrounded by dread and death. In the same manner, mothers stay next to the bed of their children when they have had a terrible nightmare, despite that being far from the most enjoyable activity in the world. These last couple examples touch on another fundamental characteristic, often unnamed: love is, often times, rather uncomfortable.
I’ve established a couple of examples where love survives the most challenging of conditions. There are many, many others. Are there not couples who have endured a rather awful lot? Personally, I’ve met a couple who has endured the trialing fight with cancer of one of their daughters, several jobless periods, and another fight with cancer to cap it off, this time from one of the spouses. I can imagine many families who have had it worse, but it is undeniable that this family in question has gone through a lot. What impresses me about them is that, despite all of this brokenness in the world, they’ve remained faithful and loving to each other. When I contemplate families like that, I can’t help but see almost biblical parallels.
So, when we see families like that, and many other countless relationships that thrive in spite of horrible circumstances: is it fair to believe love is something that purely exists when the context in which it is developed is enjoyable or beneficial (in material/earthly terms) to at least one of the parts? I think not. In fact, I believe it is horrendously unfair.
To summarize, I do not only wish to argue that love is, fundamentally, not a feeling but an action but also that love can thrive in spite of terrible circumstances, which does nothing but provide more evidence to my initial statement.
Love and Tolerance
A third characteristic often attributed to love is that love is unconditional. While this is not technically wrong, it is often interpreted as love being blind to the faults of the beloved, thus tolerating them. This, I believe, is one of the most fundamental misunderstandings we modern folk have about love. If a part of love is, say, caring for the good of the other, is turning a blind eye towards harmful choices a loving act? Really? I think not. If a part of love is wishing for the other to achieve true greatness, how is supporting choices that destroy the beloved love? This is idiotic!
We’ll properly define love later, but if we accept that part of it is actively looking for the good of the other then tolerating idiotic, harmful, or even evil acts committed by the one we love is plain out wrong. Maybe I’m a radical, but I wholeheartedly believe when someone we love is doing something wrong, kind correction is the correct course of action. Not only because it involves saying the truth, but because it is the loving thing to do. For example, sometimes the most loving thing you can do to someone who is being an idiot is to tell them, kindly and in a prudent matter, that they are being an idiot.
What Love Is
In the last thousand or so words I’ve basically gone on a long rant. I, however, believe I’ve made at least a few sensible points and I hope you, my dear reader, believe as well. This problem I’m trying to showcase is difficult to define because it is deeply rooted in the way our current society views humanity: humans seem to be nothing more than complex machines that have a set of complex needs that need to be fulfilled and there’s nothing more to it, really. And here lies the underlying issue, if you follow. Maybe, just maybe, the truest meaning of love cannot be seen within this frame of reference. Maybe you can’t fully fathom something that is not purely mechanical and material from a purely mechanical and material point of view. Maybe the truest of answers can only be found in the Greatest Story Ever Told: the story of Salvation.
It seems to be that, only through the lens of both Christ’s Resurrection and Crucifixion (which from now on I’ll dub “The Greatest Act of Love of All Time”) we can truly understand what true love is. But that’s a story for another time.