What is love? Everyone’s searching for it. Sometimes we think we’ve found it. And sometimes we think we’ve lost it. We say that love heals all wounds. We also say that love hurts. And the word “love” is thrown around so loosely in our culture that I often wonder how many of us really understand it. Do we really know what it means to love? Is love even real or just a wishful fantasy? Or could we be confusing something else with love? What if our ideas about love are all wrong?
So let’s go into this question and see what we can find out.
We use the word “love” very casually in our culture, in regard to our favorite food or music and so on. And I wonder if we understand what that word means, or if we realize that we might be cheapening it by using it so casually.
There are few words that are thrown around so loosely and frivolously as the word “love”. I think the word has been so misused and misunderstood, so polluted and corrupted, that perhaps we may need a new word altogether.
We might say that love is deep sense of affection, but when we say “I love pizza” or “I love this song” or “I love arguing with people,” I don’t think what we’re expressing is that deep sense of affection.
What we are really trying to express is that we take pleasure in eating a certain type of food or listening to a certain song and so on. This means we like something because we experience pleasure when engaging with it. If we didn’t receive any pleasure, it probably wouldn’t interest us.
So we use this word “love” in regard to these pleasurable experiences, and then we turn around and use the same word in regard to family and friends, to lovers and even strangers. But are we expressing the same sentiment? Most would argue that we’re not. Most would say that in regard to other people, the word has a very different meaning than when we use it to describe our attachment to sensual gratifications. But I would encourage you to question this. When we say that we love someone are we really expressing something deeper, or are we still expressing that we take pleasure in that person?
We say that we love our boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, mother or father or child. But how much of that sentiment is based upon some sense of pleasure or security or what-have-you? If that person did not offer us any pleasure or security at all, would we still love them? Can we love someone who has absolutely nothing at all to offer us? Can we love someone even if they treat us poorly?
I think this is the real test of love, because we say that love is unconditional. But if I love you because you offer me some sense of pleasure or security, then this is a condition. And really, it’s the condition that I like. I say that I like you, but that’s only because you provide that condition. And if those conditions are removed, and I find that I no longer love you, then did I truly love you to begin with? Or was I merely dependent upon you to provide me with some sense of pleasure or security?
So I think, first of all, we have to make this distinction between love and pleasure. I think we have to question the authenticity of love whenever there is any kind of dependency involved. I think that in order to understand love we need to examine the way in which we use the word. We need to examine all of the feelings which we associate with this word and question whether some of them may be something altogether different.
Is love pleasure? Is love possession? Is love something we acquire from others, or is it something intrinsic to our very nature? Is love something which can be gained and lost? Is it something that fades over time? Can love transform into hatred? Can love hurt? And are the feelings that we often label as love, truly love, or are we mistaken?
If love is not merely the enjoyment of pleasure that we receive from sense gratification and social interactions, than what is it exactly? How, and from where, does it arise?
Personally, I believe that love is something so expansive that any attempt to define it merely places limitations upon it, and therefore any definition would be inadequate. For instance, Merriam Webster tries to define love as “a feeling of strong and constant affection.” But that doesn’t really say much. Then it goes on to suggest that love is “attraction based on sexual desire,” which pretty much narrows it down to a basic biological function. But that doesn’t explain the kind of love we display toward our family and friends, or even the kind of love we might display toward a total stranger.
We can certainly experience a feeling of strong affection for someone. And that affection can be based on sexual desire. But love transcends all of that. And I would venture to suggest that this sort of sexual affection isn’t love at all, but something altogether different.
When we have this strong affection, whether based on sexual desire or based on the agony of feeling lonely, or incomplete, we see the other person as a means to relieve our suffering. Whatever relationship we have with them, it’s primarily about taking pleasure in the other person. Maybe you do something nice for your partner now and then, but how much of this is done out of a sincere inspiration to give, and how much is done with the expectation of receiving something in return?
So we’ve gotten this idea that it’s the duty of our partner to serve us in some way, whether that’s through satisfying our physical needs and desires, or in making us feel whole and happy. But is that really what love is all about? Is it really someone else’s responsibility to make us feel happy? Isn’t love about giving rather than trying to get something?
When we talk about love are we really talking about love? Or, are we using this word in to describe attachment, infatuation, lust and gratification? We should look very closely at this. We should see if there’s any distinction.
We mistake these surface emotions for love because in the beginning they seem to mimic love, not only in how they feel but also in the way we behave under their initial influence. When we’re “in love” we tend to become more attentive, more affectionate, generous, considerate, empathetic and tolerant. And these seem to be the very attributes of love. But as the feeling subsides, our behavior can often shift, becoming neglectful, indifferent, impatient, irritable and even spiteful. We can begin to loathe the very person who we once thought we were so in love with. But is love something that fades and dies, or turns to hatred, or have we confused something else for love? What is the real motive behind these thoughts and behaviors?
The greatest distinction between these base emotions and authentic love is intention. The intention behind these emotions is to gain something, to take pleasure. But there is no ulterior motive behind love. Love is the motive. When we are genuinely motivated by love there is no expectation of reciprocation, reward or any outcome whatsoever. Love is its own reward.
Genuine love doesn’t seek anything but to give of itself. It isn’t something to get. But we are so conditioned to see everything as a compromise that we might even be suspicious of someone who gives freely from a place of genuine love. We wonder why they’re behaving so compassionately, so generously even with complete strangers. They must be up to something. What’s the game? What’s the trick? Because we have mistaken these base emotions for love, it’s difficult to distinguish whether someone is being kind for the sake of kindness or whether they’re trying to get something. We may even go so far as to think that love has a price, and we can buy it with kindness, with gifts, with gratifications.
But when we do anything for anyone, expecting anything in return, what we’re doing is business, not love, not kindness.
We have this idea that love is something scarce like a material resource. We try to acquire it from others, and when we think we’ve found it, we try to grasp onto it, to guard it, to possess it. And often what happens is that we wind up losing it. But that’s only because we never really acquired it in the first place. What we got from the other person might have been affection. It might have been servitude. It might have been sensual pleasure. But love isn’t something you can acquire from someone the way you would acquire a material commodity.
We all feel a deep intrinsic yearning for love, and we all feel a sense of incompleteness without it. But most of us are searching for it outwardly when we should be looking within. Oftentimes we go in search for someone to love us, and what we find is someone who is also looking to be loved. But if neither of us has any genuine love to give, then how will either of us acquire it from one another We’re like two hungry beggars begging each other for a gourmet meal.
This reminds me of a story about a beggar, who sat each and every day upon an old wooden box, collecting change from those passing by. It was never enough money to be of any great significance, but it was all he could do just to survive.
There was one passerby who was particularly friendly. Rather than simply dropping a coin into his cup and hurrying along, this person would always stop for a moment to say hello and ask how the beggar was doing. One day he said to the beggar, “You know, I’ve always wondered, what’s in the box?”
“What box?” the beggar asked.
“The box you’re always sitting on.” The passerby said.
“Oh, this old thing.. it’s just an old box. There’s nothing in it.”
“Well, have you ever looked?” The passerby asked.
“Look, I told you,” the beggar replied, “There’s no point in looking. There’s nothing in it.”
After some convincing, the passerby persuaded the beggar to take a look. The beggar took his pocket knife and pried at the seams. And once he was able to pull the top off just a little he stopped and stared in wonder.
“What is it?” asked the passerby.
“See for yourself.” Said the beggar, tearing the lid completely back, revealing a stash of countless one-hundred dollar bills.
So… if you’ve come across this article upon your own personal search for love, I would simply ask you this, “What’s in your heart?” Because maybe that thing you’ve been begging for all your life is has been right here all along.