After having a discussion with a friend I decided that I would write an article to explain my viewpoint in greater depth. The subject of our sharing, my favourite topic, was love.
There are few words used in the English language that exists within so many different meanings and contexts. On one hand someone might say, “Ohhh, I love that shirt!” This statement carries quite a different connotation than a gentle whisper from a husband’s lips to his wife’s ear, “I love you.”
Paradoxically we tend to overuse the word love for the mundane, but under use it in our relationships. We are more likely to exclaim that we love chocolate, then to remind a friend or family member that we love them. One need only look closely into the hearts of the people abounding in this city to see how many of them are longing just to hear the three simple words, with sincerity, “I love you.”
As my friend and I discussed the topic it became clear to me that our misunderstanding was increased by the fact that we defined the word differently. Secular varieties of the word love are most common in popular culture and movies. Lust is commonly labeled as love. Steamy romance novels are filled with one night stands that stem from “love at first sight” type scenarios. We are given an idea that love is summed up by passionate feelings or uncontrollable emotions. If this is true, then true love is something fleeting and short lived, something unattainable within a long-term marriage, and ultimately something completely out of our control. Such a shallow understanding of love fails to explain the example of those like Mother Teresa, and many other Saints. Though passionate emotions may play a part in love, relationships based on emotion last only as long as the emotions do.
Hollywood tells us that sex is love.
Sex is one of many expressions of a loving relationship, but in and of itself, it is not love. In terms of physical intimacy, sex is the most intimate and powerful gift that can be made between two people. Sex devoid of emotional intimacy, however, inevitably loses it’s “zing” and the participants start looking elsewhere for a new high. In this context sex can be used, or degraded, into momentary gratification and the use of a human person as an object, or as a means to our own end: an orgasm, asserting control, or something resembling, but falling short of, true intimacy.
If love isn’t being equated as sex or raw emotions, then we are bombarded with the thought that love is merely kindness, or continual affection.
Again, though affection may be an integral part of love, love is neither affection nor kindness. It includes these things, but it is greater, and has far more depth. If love is just physical intimacy then when one person in a relationship falls seriously ill and physical intimacy is no longer possible, is the love then dead? If love is just showers of affection and kindness, then how can we explain a mother disciplining her children? I would argue that any parent who does not use appropriate punishment, fails to properly love their children. As was the case with a friend of mine who had to rouse me from a self destructive path, at great risk to himself, love often involves doing the opposite of what the beloved wants, for their own good.
If love is neither sex, nor passionate feelings, nor affection, then what is it?
With so many sources supplying false ideas of real love, where can we find a more authentic and wholesome definition? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “to love is to will the good of another” (1766). Here in this short sentence is an essential piece of love: focus on the other. In a culture which says, “I’m not getting mine, so I’m out of here,” this is a very contrary way of thinking.
Here’s another direct quote: “The most fundamental passion is love, aroused by the attraction of the good. Love causes a desire for the absent good and the hope of obtaining it; this movement finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed” (1765).
Notice the usage of the words desire, passion, aroused, attraction, pleasure, and joy: they are words we use commonly in conjunction with sexual intimacy and pleasure, but here they are used within reference to the good of the other. The coincidence is not accidental; in this concept lies the real meaning of true love.
Our attention is drawn towards the other quintessential piece of love: action towards the beloved’s good. To love authentically, we search for, hunt out, and seek to obtain the greatest good for the other. We do not find completion, until this end is achieved. Thus, love is not an easy path to walk. It means pain, discomfort, and the need for bountiful amounts of patience. There is help for the journey, however.
The pinnacle of what of authentic love looks like was defined quite succinctly two thousand years ago by Saint Paul:
“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;
it is not arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends…” (1Cor.13)
As we continued to have our discussion, and as I tried to elucidate just how I defined and saw love, I got the impression that my friend did not think authentic love was possible. Truthfully, I can’t say that I completely disagree. To achieve such a depth of love takes years of trial and error, learning from others, and accepting and growing from painful mistakes. To climb such a mountain requires humility and patience, but it also requires faith. With my own self-knowledge, and knowledge of other human beings, I do not believe that achieving true love is possible by human strength alone.
At one time or another, most people are jealous, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, and do insist on their own way. I strive to rid myself of these uncharitable attributes, yet, if I look only a short distance into my recent past I find many failures to succeed in this goal. So, yes, I do agree it’s not easy, but with God’s grace and our cooperation it is possible. We honor those who climbed this mountain with real passion and sincerity; though they are not perfect, they are the ones whom we call Saints.
Which world would I rather live in?
Do I want to exist in, and participate with, a culture that sells me lust, self-gratification, and selfishness, because love is impossible? Even if authentic love is impossible, I’d rather live in delusion and seek every day of my life to become better at loving, then to accept such a culture. I’d rather strive to deny myself the gratification of this moment, so that the other could have it instead, then to believe that “me” is the most important part of a relationship.
The Catechism breathes life when it states that “the fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy”(1829). It is the season of these fruits, that I will await eagerly.