What is love?

What is love?  A good question for St. Valentine’s Day, but I am not sure the Roxbury Guys from Saturday Night Live would really be the right ones to ask.  The dictionary defines love as “an intense feeling or deep affection” or to “feel deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone.”  Wikipedia says, “Love is a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes that ranges from interpersonal affection to pleasure.  It can refer to an emotion of a strong attraction and personal attachment.”  While those definitions point to the intense high we can feel when beginning a romantic relationship, something seems missing when you think about the depth of what love is really all about.  On a day where men and woman are either searching for someone to love, trying to hold on to that feeling of love they once had, or wondering if they will never have that love that will last, it may not be bad idea to understand how we think of love.

Erich Fromm, psychoanalyst and social philosopher, wrote “The Art of Loving” and talks about love as an art we actively develop with purpose vs. something we passively feel or fall into.  Most people focus on how to be loved or how to be loveable as compared to their own capacity to love. We are often looking for the objective of love as opposed to our faculty for loving another. Because of the culture’s preoccupation on acquiring and consuming, we tend to look at love and others through that same lens – we look to make ourselves “lovable” by being rich, powerful, popular, attractive, sexually appealing, and then search for the best available object on the market to exchange value with.  With the focus on happiness coming from “having fun” and consuming, our preoccupation can be on what we are getting out of a relationship as opposed to how we give love to the other.  Fromm also writes about the human reality of loneliness and separateness, with love being the only solution.  When we meet someone that breaks down those walls of loneliness and gives us a feeling of intimacy and oneness with another human being, we feel incredibly exhilarated. We believe that this intensity of feeling (especially if we add in the chemistry of sex to the relationship at this early stage) is proof of the intensity of true love but, in reality, it may only prove how lonely or disconnected we were feeling just before the relationship.  As this excited couple becomes more acquainted and familiar, boredom, disappointment, and even antagonism can often begin to replace those intense feelings.  During the “falling in love” stage, no one could ever convince us that we would not always feel that way.  Why would we let go of that amazing feeling?

As great as those intense and exhilarating feelings can be, the true of the matter is that the real love is not about the feelings that feed our ego, or what we are getting out of the relationship.  Love is about the other, not what they do for us or how them make us feel, but our active concern for the good of their life and growth.  Thomas Aquinas defined love as “willing the good for the other, as other” and not in relationship to what we want from them or we want them to be for us.  It is easy to “love” someone that is meeting our expectations or making us feel loved, but unconditionally willing the good for another when they are not so lovable or good to us is a real act of actual love.  We are truly concerned and care for them regardless of the return for us. We take time to respond responsibly, to respect and desire their growth, and to take the time to know and understand them in a way that they feel safe enough to reveal and grow into their true selves, wherever that leads them.  While your love for your partner should never be conditional, the real beauty of love is when you can mutually do this for each other.  Just as we need discipline, concentration and patience to become good that the art of anything we want to do well, the art of loving often takes that active effort as well, but the art of loving itself can be so much more rewarding.

You may have heard St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 13) on love read at a wedding or two.  It may be the most beautiful writings on love and how we are nothing without it.  We can have all the powers, knowledge, good intentions and even the faith to move mountains, but none of it means anything without love. He also writes about what love is - “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” He also tells us that love itself is above all things, even faith and hope, and will never end.  In heaven, we no longer need faith or hope, but love will continue as God is love itself.  It may be odd for some to think of God when we think about loving that man or woman in our life, but Christ gives us the best example of the freedom to truly loving unconditionally through a sincere selfless gift of oneself to another.  He poured himself out to give himself completely to us in love, with only the desire for us to know God’s love and mercy for us.  In that act of trust and unconditional gift of self to another, we find the freedom to know our true selves, and the real joy we have been looking for all along.  If you are lucky enough to be dating or married to someone right now, honestly ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice yourself and truly will the good for the other with no conditions.  If you are, you may actually be practicing the art of love.