Why Consider “Love”?
In the not too distant past, I spent a vast amount of time contemplating love, bordering on the brink of ridiculous. It had become a project. I didn’t just consider the idea of romantic love, but also parental love, the love found in solid friendships, and the love I have for grilled oysters loaded with garlic and parmesan cheese. But most of all, I considered the unconditional love we should strive to express towards all human beings.
Hopefully, my understanding of love has progressed through the years, and I’ve matured a bit since the hopeless romantic stages of my younger years. But, then again, some experiences may have just made me more cynical. I imagine that my contemplation of this word has come because I have struggled to grasp the reasons why some people fail to connect with the feelings that typically come between two people who share positive life experiences. Or, why people are cruel to, or abandon, those they claim to love. Why do some people absolutely refuse to even say the word? And, why… in the name of all this is holy… why aren’t we tripping all over ourselves, telling everyone we come in contact with, that we love them?
I would have to say that I have become more confused by the word “love” since my divorce. Although my ex didn’t struggle to say the words, “I love you”, in the end it became clear we had a difference of opinion on what those words really meant. It appears there are some people who think a pledge of love (i.e. a marriage vow) no longer applies when they are facing an identity crisis. One person doesn’t think he should have to put up with the mood swings when his wife is going through menopause. Another decides she was meant for “something bigger” than being a homemaker and mom. Yet another person decides his wife just doesn’t appreciate him as much as this new woman in his life. As for me, when my spouse drove away in a U-Haul on Thanksgiving Day, when he had once vowed to love me through good times and bad, poverty and wealth, sickness and health, for the rest of my days, it would be putting it mildly to say that I wandered beneath a cloud of bewilderment for awhile. I was shocked.
I also know I am not the only person to have experienced a relationship with someone who refused to verbally declare their love, and stated that you should just “be able to tell from my actions.” On a personal note, if you have someone in your life using this defense as to why they are reserving or minimizing the use of the words “I love you”, BREAK IT OFF! They do not know how to love the person that is you! Especially if they know that this verbal expression is of value to you, and is reassuring to you to hear those specific words. The withholding of those words on purpose is either a mind game, or they do not, in their very core, know how to love. Or both.
This denier of love is the kind who likes to pontificate the many definitions of the word love, as if it is his or her duty, as a conveyor of truth and wisdom, to not use a word that someone else may assign a different meaning, or to question whether the words “I love you” are even adequate to describe the full meaning of what’s in someone’s heart. And if this is so, one should find an alternative way of expressing it, rather than verbalizing. My argument would be, In absence of a more divine, sufficient word, don’t you at least think “I love you” would be a good start?
If I had to be logical about it…
Indeed, verbal discourse only accounts for 7% of any human being’s effective means of communication. While we depend on words to communicate, they can just as easily be used to manipulate and deceive as they can be used to encourage and validate. They are often an inaccurate means of gaining information from which to determine true, honest emotions. However, it does seem that many people still tend to rely on what another says as a way to measure the value of their relationship.
Alas, every tool that we have to explain the mystery and fullness of love will be inadequate. Moreso, every tool we have to communicate our own personal experience of love will fall short. Everyone has a different definition. Every culture has a different interpretation. Every age and generation has a different experience. The definition of love is a moving target. And if this is the case, and the understanding of love evolves over time, and it cannot be understood or communicated as a mathematical or scientific fact, why do we keep talking about it? Why do we insist on using words that can never accurately convey their true meaning and seem to be so insufficient at explaining the depth or complexity of our feelings.
There are many languages that do not even have a direct translation for the English word “love”. Or, even if they do, the word is not used as Westerners would use it. For example, there is not even a word for love in the language of Ilocano, a Philippine language spoken by ethnic Filipinos. The closest word would be “ayat”, which means “like”. Even if used, it is not common for those families to use that word when talking about their feelings for one another. This is certainly not the only language or culture where this is the case, even if there is a direct translation for the word.
Love, in Context
In the United States, it is so much more complex. With regard to the way the word is used in relationships, “love” can be used in different contexts based on whether someone is a family member, an acquaintance, or a love interest. You may be telling a story about your new co-worker, Nancy, and say that you absolutely love her. But, you may not have even spent more than 8 hours in her company. When describing your feelings for her, you would just be conveying that you admire her daring spirit of adventure.
Love to My Children
Beyond that, let’s apply the phrase “I love you” to a more significant relationship. If I say those words to one of my children, they are extraordinarily insufficient for how I feel. When I look at one of my children, what I want to say is, “Through you I have witnessed the miracle of creation and continuous evolution. I have watched the flesh of my flesh consciously grow up before me. I feel a bond with you that I have not felt with any other person in existence, and if you die before I do, something deep inside my very being will rip apart in a tragic way.”
Certainly, at some point, it is my duty as a parent to describe the fullness of my love for my children in this very grandiose way. But if I did that all the time, it might make them want to throw up in their mouth a little. So, the majority of the time, I reduce the fullness of my emotion to three simple words. I love you.
I cannot comprehend saying, “Well, kids… because you’re too young to understand the definition of love the same way that I do, and the words “I love you” are insufficient to explain the intensity of my emotion, I probably just should not ever tell you at all.”
Love in Friendship
When it comes to those with whom I have shared a friendship or romantic relationship, there are times “you” may have shared with me some of the most intimate, and sometimes shameful, secrets of your life. And still, I don’t turn away. I choose to have a relationship with you. And why? Because the good outweighs the bad. What would the words “I love you” mean if I said them to you under these circumstances.
“I see you. I recognize those pieces of you because I also see them in myself. I connect with you. I hurt for the injured child that you have deeply buried and spend so much energy trying to hide. You have allowed me to see your mess, your struggle. You have invited me and trusted me to witness this miracle that is you. There has never been and never will be another person on this earth that has ever been exactly like you, and I honor your uniqueness. I appreciate the totality of your being, the darkness of it, the beautiful complexity of you. You, my dear friend, are a reflection of all humanity, in the sincerity of your compassion and in your suffering, and I feel honored that you have opened yourself to let me be a witness to it all. We are walking through life together and though our paths may look different and have different obstacles, at the end of the day, they meet up and we can share our journeys as we have experienced them.”
Love in Romance
In relationships, the use of the words “I love you” change over time. When first entering into a romantic relationship, you may accidentally let the words slip when having your first moment of connection. But, what you really mean is, “Gosh, I sure am enjoying this moment with you.” A year later, those very same words may mean, “I feel amazing when I am with you. The connection we have is so strong it scares me. I feel buoyant on this journey we are taking together, and I hope it continues.” Two years down the line, it may become less about you, and more about the other person. You may say I love you when they are going through a rough time and you want to let them know you are there for them. You say I love you to reassure them about the future you are planning. As you grow together, you encounter new situations, where the definition evolves over time. As your connection grows, so does the meaning behind the phrase. You can be crying when you say it, laughing or whispering. But one thing is constant, there is always SOME type of love present. And, just because the words don’t mean the same for you as they do for me, it doesn’t mean we should stop sharing our feelings.
Love Cannot be Measured. So What?
I am amazed at people who are stingy with words of affection. I once had a relationship with someone who purposely refused to say he loved me for almost a year. There were many conversations about it. He wore it like a badge of honor that he somehow earned as a result of his wise etymological analysis and self-proclaimed emotional maturity in not assigning a word to a sentiment that could never be accurately measured. “It’s just a word. It doesn’t have the meaning you want it to.” What he really meant is that I personally didn’t mean enough for him to sacrifice his superiority for a few measly morsels of loving kindness. I can think of a hundred things that I have done for people, that I didn’t feel like doing, because I cared about them. Saying the words “I love you” would rank amongst the easiest labors.
Who knows? I may be too generous with my declarations of love. I love everything. I love the sound of the wind in the trees, I love the happy expression on a dog’s panting, smiling face. I just flat out love the uniqueness of all human beings. If I feel tenderness or empathy for someone, I say “I love you”. I may laugh at an embarrassing story someone tells about themselves and exclaim “I love you” because I feel so endeared to them in that moment. When I hug someone goodbye, I say “I love you” because I know that I will miss spending time with them, or perhaps it could be the last time I see them. When I have had an especially deep conversation with someone, I tell them I love them because they have shared an uncomfortable vulnerability and I feel honored to have been trusted with that experience. Some might argue that my constant exclamation of love “waters it down” and makes it less meaningful. But does it? That’s not for me to determine.
Here’s what I do know. I have never hurt anyone’s feelings or made someone feel bad about themselves by assuring them of my heart-warmed affection. I can only hope the result has been encouraging and life affirming. As such, I will not withhold those words if I ever feel the compulsion to say them. Perhaps, in the long run, actions do speak louder than words, but in my opinion words are an excellent start.
By the way…
I love you.