Someone once said, “It is not good for man to be alone”.
I believe that to be true. We all need relationships with one another. And I believe that when we have felt the vanity of other pursuits, we eventually come down to the conclusion that essentially, basic human needs considered, “all you need is love”. But whilst Valentine Days have come and gone, the requisite flowers received, and expensive dinners / chocolates consumed, it has never been a particularly important day to mark in my calendar. I’m one of those conspiracy theorists who harbour an uneasy suspicion that Valentine’s Day was invented by Hallmark (it is the second largest card-sending holiday in the world). Oh, love is definitely on my agenda, but I think that there’s a recent overemphasis on romantic-bent love, and we miss, to our diminution, the celebration of other legitimate and beautiful relationships premised upon love.
And by the way, be careful about declaring love – the more sacred the meaning of the word to you, the less trifling you are likely to be about using it.
Well, having done the requisite honourable mention of Hallmark’s most successful racket for lovers, I’ll keep the discussion on love fairly high level / general, so that it remains applicable to all “forms”, whether it is amity, romantic, brotherly, paternal et al. I’d like to share some examples, because this phenomenon called love isn’t just a theoretical concept. Love, as properly understood, is itself neither frivolous nor fluffy (though it is wont to inspire us to some remarkable heights of imagination). And like any good lawyer, let me start with my basic definition of it, based on a classical / traditional understanding:
“Love is a passionate decision to care for another, regardless of reciprocity of feeling or actions by the subject. It is devotion unwavering in the face of external changes experienced whether separately or together with the other.”
I’ll add this rider for the avoidance of doubt: for me, love requires a sentient other. The term is not to be flippantly applied in relation to feelings of admiration for inanimate objects or “stuff”. Whilst love is enjoyable, the expression can never be seriously used when speaking of something that is solely to be consumed. Whilst incalculably influential, it should never reduce a subject into losing its own nature (so any toxic relationships that are damaging, that’s not love, folks. That’s just hormones, psychological masturbation, and all-round bad emo). For me the qualities of love can be summarised, in this extremely limited examination, through attempting a review of the basic qualities of love. What are the three major characteristics of love that we tend to see manifesting in happy relationships?
1. Love binds itself
Scrap airy-fairy vague arguments about love allowing for such preposterous notions such as upgrading as one goes along, discarding for newer models, or going with the fatuous flow of temporary fascinations with any given crush-of-the-moment. Yes, people change, but established ties need to be accommodated. We don’t throw away our parents when they grow old, the way we treat consumable objects. We keep caring when the price of caring goes up. I’m perplexed when some people claim that we are simply entitled to pick and choose whenever one is so inclined (in general, it just perplexes me whenever people are so hung up on their entitlements, rather than being concerned about their obligations).
When you’ve committed to love someone, you follow through. It’s about the willingness to go the distance, and say “for better or worse, in sickness and health, till death do us part”. Obviously then, I subscribe to concepts presently outmoded in a postmodern society – lost legendary matters such as loyalty, and altruistic affection, and selfless aspirations for the good of the beloved one. I’m not so quick to throw those out the window, in the 21st century. I find it difficult that people talk about love so loosely, like it is a coat you put on or off as the weather changes. Unfortunately, no.
Flexibility and adaptability mean that you are able to adjust yourself to your circumstances, it doesn’t mean demanding a different set of rules to apply when the game is going against you. I’ve personally seen it in action, when my father stayed by my mother despite and through the battle with cancer, including all sorts of painful, ugly, scar-for-life experiences that leave people changed forever. I’ve seen it in the way my grandfather nearly sold his house, already worth only a pittance, to save his brother from debtors and from prison. I’ve seen it in the way that my friends and I have taken care of each other, in desperate situations of uncertainty and danger. The love I’ve seen displayed appears quite indefatigable, it stands steadfast in the face of adversity. Even when wounded, it endures. Rather wonderfully, I think we discover that the love which bears up under the weightiness of life is the one that is true.
So that’s me, old-fashioned about love, convicted in the belief that reality is not as horrible as it sounds. Sure it gets hard. But then you’d better be sure. And then in certain situations there is no turning back once you’ve decided that you are going to love so-and-so. When you’ve made a baby. When you’ve exchanged vows of faithfulness, whether with a sworn blood brother or the wife of your youth. No returning goods to the store after you’ve worn that dress once and got it stained, or broken the arm off that plastic toy after a hundred fun-filled sessions. No save and reboot for an alternate ending. It’s all flesh and blood and damned gut-wrenching soul marrow when it comes to relating to human beings. Those are the rules of love.
Perhaps some may say that they will play differently. There is room for debate there. But I think exceptions to the general rule are exactly that – exceptions. The general population would agree that when you try to mess too far with these time-tested rules, a lot of chaos, unhappiness, and misery ensue in the end. I do feel that there should be an element of reverence in the way that we regard the expressions of love. It is not about limiting a boundless phenomenon, but knowing how to tread the waters (which requires a lot of humility, trust, and honest communication. Oh, and forgiveness, because we are bound to screw up royally now and again). Whilst treasuring the relationships we are privileged to be invited into by others, we must always respect the sanctity of what they in turn may share with yet others, quite possibly exclusive of us. There is an appropriate degree for every kind of intimacy. What we need to acquire is the wisdom to know how to do each of these, and to do them well.
2. Love is Liberating
Despite the constraining nature of being committed to loving someone, I think love is, in fact, overflowing with its offer of abundant freedom. It is so secure an anchor that it buoyantly releases us into the world with a kind of unbounded, irrational fearlessness. Its moorings give us the courage to keep at things, knowing that we will not go too far adrift. A number of people I know fear the “C” word: “Commitment”. I welcome it. I think it goes well, together with other words such as “Communion” and “Connection”. Good words, for though parts of us wander, other parts are searching for safe places to lay our heads. For we are sojourners, hungry for adventure as well as abiding sanctuary.
These love words, they are words of assurance, instilling comfort. Isn’t it baffling, the joy that accompanies the endearing, unreserved embrace of a small child at your weary legs when you come home from work? This, whilst knowing full well that tonight, and for many years to come, you will suffer from lack of sleep and expend resources having to take care of that dependent. What is that deep mystery of human relationship that at its best that makes us smile through the trying times, that gives us often, just a sliver of strength enough to go out there and do what we need to do? What is it in me that knows, even after a bad day, it is going to be okay? That vows, I will do it again – I can, because you are there with me. No indeed, it is not good for us to be alone.
So, I have tried, quite inadequately, I feel, to explain what love’s paradoxical nature is like. How it is tough yet tender, easygoing and engaged, real and deeply meaningful, yet seemingly, utterly, intangible. And that is actually how I have experienced these precious bonds, positively and purposefully. It is often unexpected but never random, and most always intentional. And like all things borne out of personal experiences rather than generic ingredients, it will taste a little different to all of us. But love is love, and the common elements are there.
On such graceful matters as this, I won’t appeal to research (which could and has produced statistics to support the general agreement about people’s encounters with love being e.g. universally helpful, beneficial to health, intangible, sweetly beautiful, potentially painful, virtually unfathomable, ad infinitum). Here I will only appeal to the reader’s firsthand sense of the ludicrous. For any of us who have ever experienced great love, either through being the giver or receiver of such favour (and usually, conceivably, both) will readily testify to the heady, thrilling, confounding condition that we know can launch a thousand ships, or better yet, inspire one to do Something Beautiful For God.
3. Love is Complete; or Love is not just…(that’s great but), it is also…(this too)
For you know, love is a many splendoured thing. It is not just one thing, done one way. Love is not just saying “I love you”, and mouthing sweet words, and blowing kisses. It is proved by being there when it is inconvenient, out of the way, and sometimes just plain frustrating. It is keeping my promises even when it hurts. It is keeping my promises even when you have broken yours.
Love is not just changing the children’s diapers, and being practical, and doing that which is necessary. It is watching “Elmo’s Song” half a dozen times a day, each day, because my 3-year old cousin says she’d like to, even though I have a hundred more pressing matters to attend to as a big important adult.
Love is not just keeping the peace when someone has done wrong, or behaved shamefully. It is saying “That’s not OK”, and “This is why”, so that they will learn. So that they will grow. It is us being able to show we’re sorry too, in all the ways we know how.
Love is being more concerned with the condition of the baby’s teeth when he bites into an iPhone left lying around, rather than with the state of the tooth-and-saliva-marked device. True love is always about people, despite what some folk carelessly say about loving money, or ice cream, or Apples whether organic or electronic (yes, those are amongst my favourite things. THINGS).
Final thoughts on finding love
It is not difficult to encounter love in the world, really, when we realise that much of its realm is not chanced upon in the illusory quest to “find” love, and bend it to our whims. The domain of love is established as soon as you get off the track of self-satisfaction and focus on generously supplying it, strings unattached. It begins when you dare what you will.
Love, fundamentally, is participation in the life of another being. Love never seeks to own the object of its affections, but desires the best for the one who is loved. We choose to belong to one another – a choice that is mostly in our hands and (though possibly elusive in this regard) lies also partially in the other’s. For love compels us, somehow. To do things beyond reason, and well beyond ordinary understanding.
Love, though in nature autonomous of the need for reciprocity, vulnerably permits itself to harbour the hope of being welcomed. That is the risk of reaching out. It is the reward to a summons that insisted not an answer. And yes, I believe in the value of reciprocity. For though it doesn’t require a response in order to function, Love finds its natural fulfillment in the return of love by the beloved to the lover. Only then, is Love’s confession well and truly complete; then, of course, it has finally come home.
Audrey Quay writes at the behest of June Rubis’ irresistible charm. She is on Twitter but gets nervous about being followed by strangers. It’s unlikely she’ll grant you permission unless you belong in her circle of love, for which you’ll first need to complete 3 highly improbable quests. Lord Bobo may grant you a free t-shirt if you can present us with a previously unpublished photograph of her actually looking at the camera.