Valentine’s Day is nearly here. For weeks now, there have been roses and chocolate or chocolate roses everywhere. Everything from donuts to dog treats are heart shaped. The commodity of love is in the air, and it’s for sale. The message is simple. The bigger the price tag, the greater the love. Love is as easy as sending a card, candy, or flowers, better yet all three. Throw in a piece of expensive jewelry and you’ve got it made. But therein lies the flaw in our reasoning – assuming simple means easy. Love is an excellent example of something seemingly simple being anything but easy.
Throughout history, this single four-letter word has inspired countless artists, philosophers, and scholars. Few themes, if any, have kindled more artistic and intellectual productivity than love. Yet, when asked what love is, no two people give exactly the same definition.
What I don’t know about love could fill volumes. Nevertheless, having spent most of my life noticing, reading about, studying, and practicing love in relationships, I have formed some general impressions. I have not officially conducted research or administered a questionnaire to collect data. Whether or not there is empirical evidence to support them, I don’t know. These conclusions are drawn based on nearly sixty years of observing and contemplating love.
Love comes from the head, not the heart. The brain is the source of all our thoughts and feelings. As human beings, we are in a perpetual state of thinking and feeling. Our emotions affect our thoughts and vice versa. And our thoughts and feelings affect the rest of our body, including our heart. They may make it beat faster or slower, but they do not originate there. While it may sound romantic to say we are speaking from the heart or we love with all our heart, that is not the case. When our thoughts and feelings are in alignment, the resulting actions reflect our authentic self. Even though it comes from the head, genuine love is vitalizing.
Knowing what love isn’t is just as important as knowing what love is. Mistakenly confusing love with physical attraction, sexual desire, emotional neediness, and material objects can have devastating consequences, especially for the young and inexperienced. While these may be precursors to love or expressions of love, they are not it’s equivalent. Providing our children with clear messages about appropriate expressions of love helps protect them against being exploited. Love does not intentionally inflict pain and suffering. Love does not practice or justify abusive or criminal behavior. Love is a shield, not a weapon.
Love is both personal and universal. We are all hardwired with the capacity to receive and give love. Our ability to actually recognize, accept, and demonstrate it is largely determined by our interpersonal experience. Thus, the ability to love is learned. Parents are the primary teachers and models for what children come to believe about love. While each of us has a unique perspective, love is something we all want. Love makes the difference between existing and living.
Love requires empathy. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place. When it comes to love, empathy presupposes personal experience or some level of familiarity with love, whether direct or vicarious. We cannot presume to love another effectively in the absence of any exposure to love. Taking the time to get to know, understand, and clarify expectations regarding love is necessary in any mutually satisfying relationship. To show love, we must first know love.
Ours is an impoverished language when it comes to love. Unlike the marketing industry, the Greeks understood that what you feel for a stick of gum, household appliance, or car is not the same as what you feel for another person. They had seven different words to describe the types of love people experience. Since we have only one word, it is vital that we reserve its use for the most important people in our lives. Overuse of the word love diminishes its significance.
Love is an action word. In the declarative sentence, “I love you,” love is the verb. A verb is an action word. It depicts or implies action. Verbally expressing love is beautiful. Failing to pair it with congruent action renders it meaningless. Love is most powerful when our words match our actions.
Love changes. Change is not the same as growth. Growth suggests something that can be measured, like height, or counted, like money. Love exists as a quality, not a quantity. We are not endowed with a finite amount of love that can be used up, leaving us empty handed. The capacity for love is immeasurable. Love evolves to meet the changing needs of those involved in the relationship. Love takes many forms and is transformative. Love changes everything.
Love is an act of courage. There are no guarantees when it comes to love. It takes tremendous courage to open ourselves to the possibility that our love may not be reciprocated – to accept that, either way, our life will be changed. Love is messy, complicated, and hard. Love may disappoint or even fail. But there is value in every encounter with love we have. We don’t lose from loving or being loved. We gain from it.
Love is an endless act of forgiveness. Love is strong enough to withstand disappointment, with ourselves and with others. Loving another means choosing not to punish them when they make a mistake. Love offers the transgressor an opportunity to redeem themself after exhibiting genuine remorse. However, love also recognizes when repeated offenses create a pattern and forgiveness becomes enabling. Enabling unacceptable behavior is not in the best interest of either party. Love makes amends, not excuses.
Love is a choice. Every day we participate in countless interactions that present us with the opportunity to demonstrate a loving response. Choosing love means choosing kindness, patience, and generosity. It means choosing not to be threatened by or resentful of another’s abilities and talents. Love delights in doing good and seeing others do good also. It offers honesty without cruelty and seeks the same. Love is safe, dependable, and hopeful. Love inspires us to become our best selves and to desire the same for others.
Since love is a choice, each of us is faced with the question, how will we love? I intend to love like the small grain of sand in an oyster that, over time, produces a pearl. This Valentine’s Day, my wish is for each of us to possess the wisdom to recognize love, the courage to accept and offer it, and the resolve to surround ourselves with people to love, who will love us in return. Of all the things I might one day be remembered for, let it be that I knew love and loved well.