What Is Love?
What is love? Surely, a single word can’t capture it all. Yet, we ask love to describe a wide range of feelings. Everything from a pair of shoes to a lifelong companion falls under the same heading.
Let’s be honest, feelings for a new car are not the same as deep commitment with a life partner. Of course, on some level, we all know that.
So, what is the difference? What is love?
Truth is, the word is hard to define. Its meaning is lost somewhere between new shoes and a wedding chapel. Our deepest feelings hide in Eden’s shadows, buried beneath layers of misconception and misuse.
Mistakenly, we think love is only a noun. It’s a thing we seek and a place where we fall. It comes from without, not from within.
And, the word is a noun with considerable power. Love happens to us. It sweeps us off of our feet and carries us away. Without choice, we succumb to its power. After all, it’s fate and meant to be. We just have to be ready to receive it.
Yet somehow, just as we easily fall into love, we fall out. We wonder how it happened and where it went. But, only love knows. After all, it holds all the cards.
Other misconceptions of love exist. For instance, we think it is a state of mind built on pure emotion. It’s Joni Mitchell’s “dizzy dancing way you feel when every fairytale comes real.” Love tingles. It’s intoxicating. It feels good. We want more. We ache for more. Really, what we want is to enter its domain. We long to be in love.
Often, we mistake erotic attraction for the real thing. The attraction leads to romance. Romance requires we put forth an illusion of “our best selves.” An initial erotic spark becomes “love at first sight.” Passion grows. Intimacy follows. Intimacy and passion advance the dance forward.
Before we know it, we tell our friends, “This is the one.”
After time, though, romance falters. Emotion flattens. Passion goes missing. We lick our wounds. Eventually, we move on—sometimes literally, sometimes not. Whether in a relationship or not, we get lonely and a new search begins. Or, maybe, it’s a search for a new partner that begins. Quite possibly, real love never entered the equation that began with the initial erotic attraction.
Types of Love
Not only did Ancient Greece bestow the gift of Eros to the world, the Greeks also developed definitions for four kinds of love.
The first is Storge. The writer C.S. Lewis, describes storge as love’s most common and least ecstatic form. It’s the fabric of family and binds humans with their pets. Think of storge as a warm blanket coupled with favorite slippers as you rest next to a fireplace in your favorite chair.
The second is Philia. It is best described as ‘brotherly love.’ Typically, philia is the bond of friendship. Where it lacks the passion of other forms, still, Aristotle said philia is a necessary element of happiness and noble in and of itself. The essence of philia is genuine concern for another person exemplified by actions intended to care for their well-being.
Third, is Eros. Eros is romance. It is passionate, euphoric and the stuff of classic songs. While Eros brings great pleasure, it also brings great pain. It is conditional, transactional and often the result of a lifelong fairy tale dreams.
In other words, Eros is rose colored glasses. Still, eros is something to be savored. Enjoy every bit of the pleasure while it lasts.
Fourth and last is Agape, the highest form of love. In its original Greek form, agape means “wide open.” It is unconditional, not focused on any one object of desire, and comes from within. Most often, agape describes human adoration of a higher being.
Agape is also the deep, abiding connection of couples who find “true love.” It is a step beyond eros. Yet, eros is its sacred expression.
A Shared Definition
Author bell hooks says that the main problem many people have with love is, few know what it really is. From an early age, we acquire misguided notions of its meaning. It’s a feeling, an attraction, a dream come true that happens to us. It is not something we make.
Ms. hooks wonders how much easier it all would be if our society simply shared a common definition of the word. Maybe then, we could give Tina Turner the answer her iconic question deserves. What does love have to do with it?
Quoting psychiatrist, Ms. Scott Peck, bell hooks explains that love is a verb, not a noun. It is not Cupid’s arrow hitting its target. In contrast, “Love is an act of will, namely, both an intention and an action….We choose to love.”
Yes, it involves attraction, affection, romance, and intimacy. But, its truest expression is all those elements mixed together and much, much more.
She offers the following definition. Love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” In other words, it is choosing to commit to the on-going growth of yourself and another’s mind, body and spirit. And it means deciding to do so unconditionally.
Obstacles to Love
Before we can embrace love, we must get past attitudes and fears that keeps it distant.
It comes with risk. Risk gives rise to fear. Yet, risk is part of the package and comes in many forms.
One day, by chance, a husband discovers that his wife is having an affair with another man. His world crashes. Slowly, the full truth leaks out. She lived an entirely secret life he had no idea existed. An ugly divorce follows. Trust lies buried in the ruins.
Questions hound him for years. How did he not know? Did he ever really experience love? Will he ever find it in his lifetime?
A woman, happily married to her devoted husband for over 30 years, gets a phone call right before dinner. Her husband was hit head on by a drunk driver. He died instantly at the scene of the accident. They were the perfect couple. Their kids were all doing well. Another grandchild was on the way. How does she recover and move on?
Eventually, both people reach a peace with what happened it the past. Sometimes, they decide to live a lonely life. The chance of experiencing the pain of loss, once again, is too great to risk. It’s just easier to live without it.
Courage to Love
Fear stifles love. Courage nourishes it’s growth.
Love is and it does happen. Not only is it a conscious choice, the decision to love is a brave one. In order to find what we seek, we accept the risk that accompanies it. We understand that change is inevitable. The flip side of that recognition is that love, also, is transformative. If its essence is to nurture growth, then change lies at its heart.
In order to experience love we need to be clear about the nature of exactly what form we desire. If we are content with philia, so be it. If it’s eros we choose, then we need to embrace its pleasure and accept its limitations. When our goal is agape, we seek to understand the experience in a different way altogether.
Just as we are not captives of love, love is not captive of any one specific category. Philia can exist in combination with eros and both can find expression with agape. Similarly, two people who share a platonic relationship can discover an erotic connection. They choose to be a couple. Over time, their erotic connection grows deeper. They discover agape and decide to commit themselves to each other in a loving manner without condition.
Within the decision to love lies the joy and wonder of loving another.
To answer your question, Ms. Tina Turner, love has everything to do with it. Because, clichés aside, it makes all the difference.
When we choose to love, we experience it in life’s simples details and in our relationships.
As sex therapist, Tracey Gnojek writes, love is a dew drop sitting on wild iris petal. Glistening in the sun, it holds a world of nourishment in its tensile bubble. “It is a friend who sees your soul and, with no words uttered, knows what you need better than yourself.”
Love is also transformative on a larger scale. As bell hooks writes, if “men were socialized to desire love as much as they are taught do desire sex, we would see a cultural revolution.”
Imagine the joy of morning drew drop on that larger scale. Picture that same joy in the touch of your partner. Then, gather your courage and dream of a loving society. What might it feel like to live a world where everyone shared love “for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth?”
It’s possible. First, we have to envision it. Next, we have to choose it. Then we have to find the courage to share the love we choose, without condition.