Opinion: What is Love–A Valentine’s Day message

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Opinion: What is Love–A Valentine’s Day message

by J. Scott Southworth 

 “Love is a word, what matters is the connection that word implies.”

— Rama Chandra, The Matrix Revolutions 

For something that is often considered just one of the many facets of life, it’s amazing how easily and frequently we become preoccupied with romantic love. Whether it’s in songs or in writing, in the places we go to spend time or who we spend time with, the presence of romantic attachment, the hope for it, or even a conscious defiance against the idea, love in many ways is a defining – or even the defining – aspect of many of our lives. But what is it, really? For something so fundamental, love remains easily one of the most poorly defined words in the English language. Is it an emotion, an idea, an action? Is it some metaphysical force, or merely a force of nature?

Even for a word that is poorly defined, it makes sense to start with the definition. The Cambridge Dictionary of American English defines the word ‘love’ as follows:

“to have a strong affection for (someone), which can be combined with a strong romantic and sexual attraction to them

Susan loved her brother dearly.

“I love you and want to marry you, Emily,” he said.”

This definition is fairly straightforward: Love is affection, and can be romantic affection. But I think most of you would be quick to agree that love goes a lot farther than mere affection. Let’s look at another, this time from Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary:

“a (1) : strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties <maternal>love for a child> (2) : attraction based on sexual desire : affection and tenderness felt by lovers (3) : affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests love for his old schoolmates> </maternal>”

Here, affection also plays a large role, as well as – in the case of romantic love – sexual attraction. However, Merriam-Webster’s definition also adds “admiration, benevolence, or common interests” to the phrasing. In particular, the word ‘benevolence’ is the first mention of love as a giving word rather than merely a caring one, and ‘common interests’ the first hinting that love is a two-way street. Interestingly enough, this definition separates the concepts of romantic love and benevolent love. let’s try one more:

  1. To have a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward (a person): We love our parents. I love my friends.
  2. To have a feeling of intense desire and attraction toward (a person).
  3. To have an intense emotional attachment to: loves his house.
  4. To like or desire enthusiastically: loves swimming.
  5. Theology To have charity for.
  6. To thrive on; need: The cactus loves hot, dry air.
    1. To embrace or caress.
    2. To have sexual intercourse with.

This definition is from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. I’d like to draw your attention to the first definition: “To have a deep, tender, ineffable feeling of affection and solicitude toward (a person).” Here, affection is still the key word, but the adjectives “deep,” “tender,” and “ineffable” have been added to the description. Also significant is the use of the word ‘solicitude,’ which defines as “a feeling of excessive concern” according to the Princeton Wordnet.

“A feeling of excessive concern.” Here, at last, we are starting to get to what most people think of when they hear the word ‘love.’ To most of the public consciousness, love is not merely affection, benevolence, and sexual acts. In fact, a person who showed all these three characteristics but lacked concern for their significant other might easily be accused of not ‘loving’ them at all. Yet you would hardly guess from reading this entry the extent to which an idea like love dominates so much of many people’s lives. A key may be found in the final numbered definition: “To thrive on; need.” Though a cactus is used in the example for this one, I would argue that this characteristic is not isolated to the realm of cacti. We feel we need the people we love, and in many ways, we feel we need love itself — whether to love, or to be loved. I do not need to describe too many of you the immense loneliness often felt by those who are too long single. So significant is this that many people go so far as to declare Anti-Valentine’s Day, or even Singles Awareness Day, in lieu of the usual Valentine’s celebration.

But surely dictionaries are not the only sources that have attempted to shine light on the subject of love and romance. I bring you next to this famous passage from the Bible, which though not intended solely to describe romantic love, is in my humble opinion significant nonetheless:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes in all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

Notice that the first statement in this phrase is “Love is patient.” I do not think this is a coincidence. Patience is so important to successful relationships that it’s amazing how many people seem to look down on it. We have developed a mentality in modern society where fights – even constant fights – are ok, so long as everyone makes up in the end. Patience does not require agreement in everything, but it does require consideration, understanding, and a willingness to give ground when necessary. That kindness is also listed in the first statement is also key in stating its importance, I believe. Who can say he loves who is not kind, and does not seek to do kindness to others?

“Love is not jealous.” This would seem to fly in the face of all modern understanding of the concept. I’m reminded of the line spoken by Robin Williams in ‘Bicentennial Man:’ “If I’m jealous, that means I’m in love.” Isn’t that the usual understanding? That love, if unrequited, must be jealous and greedy, or even spiteful? Continue farther down the phrase, and you’ll read that it also “is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests,” …does not seek its own interests? According to this phrasing love — even romantic love — is not just about getting the girl or the guy. It seems more about living in harmony. Farther down, though, one may still read that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And at the end, set aside for unmistakable emphasis: “Love never fails.”

This seems a curious combination, doesn’t it? Love that sets aside its own interests for the sake of harmony, believes and hopes everything, yet never fails? A love like this may very well seem a fool’s bargain. Does believing all things mean never questioning anything that they say? Does enduring all things mean putting up with a bad relationship? And if jealousy and seeking out what you want are against the rules, then what the hell does “Love never fails” mean?

I’m not going to take the time to attempt to answer all these things here, but I am reminded of another quote, from “The God Emperor of Dune:”

“My uncle Malky use to say that love was a bad bargain because you get no guarantees.”

“Your uncle Malky was a smart wise man.”

“He was stupid! Love needs no guarantees.” 

So, what do other contemporary works have to say on the subject? Ray Bradbury writes this in ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes:’

“We have common cause against the night… Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear the music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokecherry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow, and pain… We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.”

Bradbury seems to suggest that love is not merely affection and solicitude, but also attachment grown of time and experience. If we know someone long enough through common ground and shared experiences, will we eventually come to love them? I’ve heard it suggested that one of the reasons people marry is that they desire a witness to their lives. Is that what we desire — some companionship that is at the same time part of ourselves? Do we desire to look into another’s eyes and think: “I am you and you are me, yet here we are, together?” Do we need someone out there who knew us to feel that, in a sense, we ever really lived?

The concept that love is something intangible is as broad and widespread as the term itself. The idea of love as an abstract is perhaps best described in this quote by Helen Keller:

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but just felt in the heart.”

If you would permit me to be so bold, I would also like to contribute here a segment of personal writing exploring the intangible, and often contradictory, nature of love:

“Love grows in the mind false as a dream, real as a breeze against the skin, never finished, in turns living and dying without end. Fragile as the falling snow, enduring as time, as vital and powerful as memory: Love is. It cannot be explained or defined, cannot be boxed or imprisoned, cannot be faked. It is, and in those moments of its existence, it is the universe, all and nothing, a spark of the divine.”

I believe love is all these things, and yet for all this examining of facets, I still have not given any concrete description of what love is or why it exists. Can a physical universe, bound by concrete rules, truly hold in hospitality a concept so abstract? Clinical pathologist Enzo Emanuele doesn’t seem to think so, and he and his co-workers wrote this in a 2005 paper dealing with the subject of romantic love:

“Our current knowledge of the neurobiology of romantic love remains scanty. In view of the complexity of a sentiment like love, it would not be surprising that a diversity of biochemical mechanisms could be involved in the mood changes of the initial stage of a romance. In the present study, we have examined whether the early romantic phase of a loving relationship could be associated with alterations in circulating levels of neurotrophins (NTs). Plasma levels of NGF, BDNF, NT-3 and NT-4 were measured in a total of 58 subjects who had recently fallen in love and compared with those of two control groups, consisting of subjects who were either single or were already engaged in a long-lasting relationship. NGF level was significantly higher (p Taken together, these findings suggest that some behavioral and/or psychological features associated with falling in love could be related to raised NGF levels in the bloodstream.”

So is that it? Is romantic love simply a series of chemical reactions that govern psychological attachment, a scientifically expressible — and dissectible — natural occurrence without any truly intangible or abstract basis? I think that perhaps it is that, but I think it is also something far more. Love is a reason for living. It is a hope, a dream, a wonder. It is all our thoughts of heaven brought down and set to life here on earth. Perhaps some part of love is scientifically expressible, but does that mean that it must be mundane? Are the stars mundane? When you sit on a cold night before a campfire with those you care about all around you… is that place and that location mundane then? And whatever love may start as, be it chemical or psychological, it will only end with what we make of it — if it does end, and I’m not so sure it does. Oh, it may fade one day and rise another, or change and develop with time, but as François de La Rochefoucauld once said: “In the human heart there is a perpetual generation of passions, such that the ruin of one is almost always the foundation of another.”

I had hoped to close this Valentine’s Day Message with a short telling of the history behind the holiday, but for all my searching I can find no historical connection between St. Valentine and any romantic tale, nor can I find any myth that is consistent enough to be considered the ‘tale’ of the holiday. I will end with this, then: Let love be the stars that guide us, and the fire that keeps us warm. Let us congratulate those who have found it, and who have stayed faithful to it with patience, compassion, thoughtfulness, and solicitude. And for those of us who have not found it… well, it’s sure a hell of a thing to look forward too, isn’t it?

Happy Valentine’s Day!