What is the true definition of love? Is it something of substance and action, or is it romantic passion that magically appears in our lives through chance? How do you measure it? By emotional content? By sacrifice? By blind obedience or acquiescence to those that you “love”. Is it giving? Taking? Both or neither?
I believe I have observed and experienced love throughout my life in various relationships. None have been like the other. Each relationship unique and different. I have loved and not been loved in return. I also think I have been loved by some that I could not return in kind. Does that make love a mutual attraction, a dream …a choice?
Is there truly such a thing as “unconditional love”? You know, the kind that Bibles and other religious writings escalate to the highest realm as examples of true devotion, sacrifice and blind faith in another person? Or do we all in reality operate from very selfish motives when it comes to giving or submitting to love in any form?
Many questions…so few black and white answers. We can speculate, hypothesize, rationalize and make all the statements we want…but how do we define the true essence of what we feel for another person or decide whether we are willing to commit to them? And how do we know for sure the sincerity, motivation or feelings returned towards us? Are we dependent on “love”, or is love dependent on our choices of whom we share and open up to?
I tend to think most of us love very selfishly. We love those who love us. Very few go after someone they value higher than themselves. We usually end up in relationships with people who are attracted to us and controllable by us…which can mean physically, emotionally, personality or according to shared values. It’s easy to love someone who shares our values, but what is it about when so many relationships are not based on shared values, priorities or levels of competency? Why do good girls so often like bad boys…and vice versa?
It is also interesting to observe that love is no respecter of age, race or cultural differences. Some of us are attracted to blondes versus brunettes. Some are attracted to significantly older or younger counterparts. Are these attractions based on learned curiosities, genetically driven or even some unconscious drive supporting Darwinism? Some people believe strongly in purity of racial lines in mates while others of us totally support the open melting pot approach to culture and family building. I for one believe that racism and sexism in relationships are learned behaviors. Put a large group of toddlers together in a room and they will interact with each other equally or on base instinct of personalities…not learned behaviors of seeing external difference as a bad thing. They are not embarrassed or conscious of open nudity. They are innocent.
Of course, the standard of cultural relationships pertaining to love is…marriage…and usually marriage of one man to one woman. All other forms of relating are deemed questionable, sinful, debasing, disrespectable, etc etc. Yet, THOSE are the unusual relationships our societies love to observe and gossip about. It’s almost like “why should they get away with that unrestricted behavior if I can’t or won’t?”.
And how is it that many humans can find so much love and passion for…their pets? You know…the people of all ages who heap all their attention, love, devotion and inheritance on a dog or cat that is totally dependent on them for their subsistence and won’t run away from home as long as they are regularly fed and cared for? Is that love…or some hidden form of “bestiality”? With some people, I think the line is very fine. Yes, I understand that “Spot” the dog and “Spanky" the cat are cute, cuddly and usually consistent in showing their enthusiasm for attention or a handout…but how can a human mistake that for the “love” they need to fulfill their human experience? Again…to me a mystery. Possibly “transference” of affection?
I recently viewed the 2008 movie “Elegy” starring Ben Kingsley as an aging intellectual professor who falls hopelessly in love with his student (Penelope Cruz) 30 years his younger. It is based on a Philip Roth novel that I want to read now called “The Dying Animal” published in 2001. I do think the movie is excellent in cinematography…but more importantly, the actors to me represent real people and relationships that I feel I have known or observed in real life. Everyone around them treats this relationship as a farce and mostly with disdain…yet the thread between the two characters over many years of separation and non-acceptance of their love by all around them continues to remain true in both characters until the sad ending. The movie to me underlines the fine lines between physical desire, emotional security in another person, pure relating and companionship, and the experience that “no one else will fill the space” of that other they have known. You might call it the “soul mate” experience.
I think I have known a few true “soul mate” couples within my family and circle of friends…but I question the verity of that in most long term couples. Most relationships seem to meld into a codependent, best friend type of “settling” where neither partner wants to give up what they have for the new and different they might want. Many relationships grow into a mutual caring albeit without passion, while others turn into hard and cold appearances for tradition sake only…empty and subservient to society standards. You see this often in a restaurant or facility frequented by elderly couples. Many can sit through a whole meal in public without saying a word or looking directly at the other. In larger groups, many of those same people will talk to everyone about their partner as if that partner isn't in the room…often very critically or spiteful. It’s hard to see the “love” in that.
So, some would say love is a feeling while others sum it up as “commitment” that you just do no matter what you feel. I think life’s pursuit of love is very basic…everyone wants someone who “loves the socks off of them” and who they love back at the same level. Mutuality at all levels of life experience is the highest calling in relationship. Knowing how the other is feeling or thinking without exchanging words is one sign of such connection. Understanding without explanation. Automatically knowing when to give and when to take. Knowing when to leave the other alone or when to hold or cuddle them without invitation. It is this feeling of connection, belonging and longing that in my opinion, and occasional experience, gives us those “wow” moments when all the lights go on and everything is right with the world.
Unfortunately, I think a majority of people very rarely experience that “wow” moment…especially in their later years. If someone loses their long time love…often they do not seek to replace it. Whether right or wrong…they think that there was only one person for them, and when that person passed on or rejected them…there was just no more room for risking or wanting love again. These affairs of the heart are a very private matter…and you cannot force someone to seek or feel what they refuse to seek or feel.
To that end, I think love is a choice…a result of cause and effect. Many of us could have a lot more of it if we just simply opened up and expressed our interest or pursued the honesty of our feelings. Yet, most people are brought up to be fearful, insecure within themselves, guilt complexed or simply distrustful of others. These are defense mechanisms to keep us from getting hurt or emotionally scarred…again.
Some people will live the rest of their lives surviving on memories of great loves gained and lost. Others will grab whatever convenient warm body they can convince to join them so they don’t face themselves or their loneliness. A few will find a way to enjoy their solitude while staying open to the love of a person they have always defined or imagined for themselves. Many never find it…but I would suggest it is better to die trying than to die living in the past or lying to yourself.
The essence of love for me can perhaps be best summed up by Ayn Rand…
“To love is to value. Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love—because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.
To say ‘I love you’ one must know first how to say the ‘I.’”