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Defining ‘love’

| Monday, February 16, 2015

Why is it that love, a rather expansive term in English used to describe robust concern, romantic attraction and sacrificial devotion, is so often reduced to mean love of the sappy Valentine’s variety?

It’s a pity that the English language possesses a woefully inadequate supply of words to differentiate between varieties of love that we feel. Within the wide network of feelings that this English term “love” attempts to define, it impoverishes itself, being neither specific enough nor broad enough to define any idea well.

When the word “love” appears in popular songs or movies, it almost always connotes the typical Valentine’s Day trappings of floating pink heart emoticons, grand gestures of romantic affection and occasionally activities far less innocent. Be wary whenever the word “love” and “tonight” appear in proximity to one another in song lyrics. When Adam Levine sings about loving you tonight, he doesn’t intend to just buy you flowers and express robust concern for your well-being.

Since the usage of love so frequently shrinks to the level of sexualized romance, the old platitude is worth repeating: there is more to romantic love than hand-holding and sweet-talking, and there is certainly more to love than romance.

The three Greek terms for “love” give one a chance to move beyond the narrow but normal romantic usage. “Eros” describes a passionate response to beauty, which for Socrates was not merely sexual, while “philia” describes a friendly appreciation or camaraderie. “Agape,” though, exists in an entirely different category, describing an unconditional love such as God’s love for humanity. Its Latin analogue “caritas” captures a similar transcendence: God’s love for humanity reflected from one human to another through charitable actions unmotivated by potential rewards. It’s altruism, in short — spontaneous and selfless action, not warm feelings alone.

Mel Livatino portrays this kind of love excellently in his recent Notre Dame Magazine article titled “How Do We love?” In the article, Livatino offers several definitions of love, including Erich Fromm’s formulation: “Love is sharing yourself with another person to the deepest level possible.” For Livatino and Fromm, those depths are not physical intimacy but emotional and spiritual development. Such a definition comes closer to defining love at its core, rather than categorizing kinds of love like the Greeks do. Love, essentially, involves an escape from the self, a bond between one and another in which concerns and qualities are shared. French theologian Teilhard de Chardin summarizes the concept well: “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.”

This is all rather abstract, but Livatino reifies the essence of love as he describes the friends, romantic interests and family members whom he loved in this self-giving way, that is, in the only way one can love. His understanding of love, he writes, only achieved clarity when his wife’s debilitating struggle with advanced dementia forced him to consider what allows love to endure and redeem lives. Giving of one’s self — that is how to enrich lives; that is how we love.

The words of a priest in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” powerfully convey the self-gift of love while correcting the narrow, eroticized usage of the word by Mr. Henry, who has just recounted his visits with Italy’s finest harlots: “What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.”

Of course, you’ve heard this all before: love is about sacrifice. Love is about valuing someone’s well-being more than your own. Why is it, then, that love seems more commonly associated with the “warm fuzzies” and romantic relationships? This isn’t to say that people don’t talk about their love for their parents or their love of literature. But, why the predominance of romantic love? If one hears two people say “I love you” to one another, what’s the likelihood that one will assume they are romantically involved?

Perhaps this returns to Fromm’s idea of sharing yourself fully with another person. Romantic relationships, with their obligations and deepened trust, accommodate such self-giving more frequently and immediately than other relationships. Again, this isn’t to say that other relationships cannot achieve the same level of sacrifice and commitment. Indeed, the love that exists between friends and family members deserves more attention and mention through the actual word “love.” Reminding oneself that love is something more than romantic could silence the complaints of those who claim “never to be able to love again” after heartbreak or breakups, since love goes far beyond being in love.

Self-gift is self-gift. Love is love. Call it what it is. We might only have one word in English, but the one word will suffice.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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