I’m on a hunt. I want to find good ways to talk about what we mean when we talk about “love”. You might think that this is a pretty straightforward pursuit.
You would be wrong.
Love by another name
“Love” is a word we use to refer to a lot of different kinds of relationship. Is love an erotic, companionable, affectionate, or social phenomenon? Is it all of these? Is love by nature conditional or unconditional? Is it a need, a claim, a trade, or a gift? Does it sacrifice or build up?
One thing cannot be all of these at once and in the same way, and yet I seem to hear “love” used to describe all of these emotions and actions.
With most words, I don’t care about staking out ownership. I define my terms. If my definition conflicts with someone else’s, we find different words to use. After all, we disagree about concepts, not words.
But I do think with something as widely-used as “love”, there’s some value to having and resolving multiple concepts into one word. Why? Because “love” is a category which can have multiple sub-expressions and seemingly conflicting characteristics – while still having significant common expression. The key is identifying those differences and finding the ultimate master-concept of love we’re dealing with. That master-concept is the thing that can unify all seeming contradictions.
The ultimate love
Our master-concept of “ultimate love” has to be something that’s inherently healthy and life-giving if it’s something we’re going to give “ultimate” status to. “Love” cannot be a thing which saps the life from people and negates their personalities. To the extent that “love” describes a relationship between a lover and a beloved, it also has to follow rules of reciprocity: it can’t be a contest or a war for power.
Yet the war for dominance or the codependent personality-suppression system are two dominant ways we hear about love in our movies and our pop songs and our books.
Our final challenge is unifying all of the things we talk about when we talk about love. Ultimate love must somehow include or transcend or give birth to the different kinds of love we can experience: erotic love, friendship, affection, charity.
A new way of talking about ultimate love
I recently heard a definition which I think achieves that goal of forming the ultimate love idea. One of my favorite psychology lecturers gave the definition in a recent interview (I paraphrase):
To love someone is to want the best for that which wants the best for the other person.
This idea of love recognizes something important: we all have inner voices or consciences. Whatever you want to call them, these are the parts of ourselves which are incapable of lying or faking reality. We can choose not to listen to them, but we cannot make them bend. And in every case, if we listen and obey them, our lives do get better because – surprise, surprise – living in harmony with reality is what you need to do if you don’t wanna have a bad time.
Many people’s idea of love is a partnership in which each member “feeds” the weaknesses and faults of the other. So many relationships are like this – situations in which two or more people help each other avoid the “that which wants the best for them.” Not so with this concept of ultimate love. It’s genuinely compassionate in that it wants your flourishing. This also means that it does not tolerate your bullshit. It won’t listen to excuses about why you won’t tell the truth, take responsibility, and do your best.
In this way, this concept of ultimate love avoids the two major pitfalls of the “loves” of our pop songs and books and movies. It’s not about domination or ranking. It doesn’t negate compassion and self-giving. It’s also not about coddling or sacrificing or weakening. It both nurtures and empowers both parties through relationship, whether that relationship is sexual, platonic, familial, or professional.
Most importantly, this idea of love is humble. It does not presume to know what “the best” is for each person. If we imagine planning out the lives of others as a compassionate act, we’re mistaken about our own knowledge and mistaken about humans. We don’t know what’s best for other people, especially if we hardly know and can hardly do what’s best of ourselves. However, we can be pretty damn sure – by first-hand experience – that a person’s conscience will know what’s best for them. We can encourage that in love.
Ultimate love in action
So what does this ultimate love look like in action? Well, whatever kind of relationships we’re in, we can encourage the inner voice in the recipient of our love.
We do things that empower instead of disempower. We tell the truth and expect the truth. We trust. We reward and praise virtue. We take responsibility and model it. We protect when necessary. We challenge when necessary. We create and give space whenever possible.
We care less about credit or appearances than we care about good things getting done. We get our egos out of the other person’s way. We help the recipient of our love become a person, and we get closer to becoming people ourselves.
Well, if we’re going to go for the ULTIMATE CONCEPT OF LOVE, we shouldn’t be surprised if that concept is really damn hard to act out. After all, it’s rare enough that we actually want the best for what wants the best for ourselves.
We shut our inner voices up all the time. How much harder is it going to be for us to want the best for that which wants the best in others? But how much of a better world would we have if we tried it?
The hunt continues – a postscript…
I’m continually finding new dimensions to the idea of ultimate love.
I’ve only heard one other definition that I like as much as this one – and in most ways it’s a direct parallel. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis explores the idea of agape – the ultimate love which gives birth and orders all the other kinds, or the “love divine all loves excelling.”
Agape is the kind of love that is capable of giving without taking or controlling whatsoever. It’s not bitter giving or resigned giving or dutiful giving – it’s giving because what could be more obviously right than to give? Its generous nature and purpose flows from the self-sufficient and self-generative character of the giver:
“In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.”
You can have no use whatsoever for the idea of God and still get tremendous value from using that as your center for love.
Come join me on the hunt. If you have experiences with love or thoughts about ultimate love that you think could flesh out this idea more, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to see a great expression of the ultimate love concept we discussed here, read C.S. Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces. That book was one of the ones which piqued my curiosity about the complexity and beauty of love’s many faces.