When I turned 18 years old, I swore off dating for a time.
Not because I’d been burned by an ex, but because there are only so many modern love songs, movies, novels, and anecdotes you can be exposed to before strongly suspecting that something is seriously screwed with the way you, and society, look at love.
We all need love. We crave it, chase after it, sometimes deride it while secretly desiring it. But many of us don’t seem to have a good understanding of what love really IS.
Look up the definition of “love,” and you will get a variety of answers, from the serious (love is an intense feeling of deep affection) to the silly (love is a deep-fried jelly donut with a side of root beer float).
Obviously, neither of those answers really hits the spot.
Trying to figure out what love IS may be a near-impossible task, so let’s approach this from a different angle, starting with what love is NOT:
Love is not a feeling
Rather, love is more than a feeling.
Whether it’s fondness, familiarity, happiness, or even lust — no feeling is equivalent to love.
For example, no doubt you’ve been angry at someone you’ve loved before: your parents, spouse, friends, siblings, or kids. But even in the heat of anger or coldness of disappointment, there is something in you that still loves that person.
After all, if they were starving, would you still feed them?
If they were to keel over in the midst of your argument or cold war, would you try to get help?
If their lives were in danger, would you still help them?
On the other hand, if you say that you love someone yet are not willing to lift a finger to do anything for them, then what you are experiencing is not love.
Love is not romance
Contrary to millions of pop songs, pop novels, and pop media, the love we all crave cannot always (or even usually) be found in the arms of the hero or heroine of our dreams.
Romance is a temporary, pleasant insanity that besets certain people at certain times.
But romance is not a good thing at all times and in all circumstances, while love is.
Romance is simply a tool, albeit a powerful one, that brings people together and paves the way for true love to blossom.
But just as a chainsaw can clear debris or destroy rainforests, so can romantic love both elevate and destroy.
Romance can inspire a person to pick up, leave his comfortable life, and make a courageous cross-country journey to be with the one he loves — leading to a new family and a new life.
But romance can also compel a person to pick up, abandon her family and marriage vows, and shack up with a new flame — leading to destruction and pain in the hearts and lives of those betrayed.
It all depends on the context.
Love is not sex
Sex is a physical act. Love is sometimes, but not always, involved in sexuality (ask any victim of rape, sexual abuse, or adultery).
You can have sex without love, and you can have love without sex. Therefore, they cannot possibly be the same thing.
In fact, most kinds of love do not involve sex.
Love between parents and children, brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunts have (or should have) no sexual connotations whatsoever.
In such cases, taking sex out of the equation actually allows love to grow strong, while putting sex into the relationship would ruin the relationship and drive love far, far away.
Sex is a hot topic today, and we must be very, very careful to get our terms straight.
If too many people believe that love is equal to sex, and act accordingly, we’d have a very, very messed up society. (Or no society at all)
Sex is sex, love is love, and politics is politics.
The three do impact each other, but they are not synonymous. Mixing the terms can create confusion and a faulty paradigm that will injure individuals and societies.
Love is not approval
Loving someone does not mean that you always agree with everything he or she does or says.
Unconditional love is not the same thing as unconditional approval.
This truth is most often demonstrated in parent-child relationships.
When children are young, they may want to have or do things that will hurt them: from candy to drugs to bad relationships.
Loving parents will brave their children’s wrath and refuse their desires, punishing them when they go wrong, in order to save their children from a more painful fate.
But parents who indulge their children’s every whim in order to “earn” their favor are not demonstrating true love — not when such indulgence will lead to pain and suffering in the end.
Sometimes love hurts those who receive it. But it’s the good kind of pain — the kind that helps you grow strong and healthy and better than before.
So, what IS love?
Love means wanting the best for the person you love.
Love is goal-oriented, and the goal is the loved one’s well-being, no matter the cost to yourself.
Love is often most visible in heroic demonstrations: firefighters who run into burning buildings, soldiers who jump on grenades, survivors who forgive those who hurt them.
But love is also in the mundane: parents who deal gently with a bratty child, lovers forsaking all others to wait for their beloved, friends who bear with each other’s faults and foibles.
In every example, the one who loves forgets himself in order to promote the well-being of the one he loves.
Love involves self-sacrifice, even pain.
Those who love are willing to risk their comfort, their lives, even the approval of the one they love, in order to do what is best for that person.
We all need love
It’s not optional.
It’s been shown that infants who do not receive loving touch actually die.
Adults (or anyone able to read this article) are probably not going to die if they aren’t hugged regularly, but lack of love really will kill you, or at least make you feel like dying.
We all want and need love so badly, sometimes we are willing to settle for a “cheap knock-off” rather than the real thing.
We’ll take whatever we can get — sensuality, admiration, even a transactional sort of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours-love.” But none of this is love. Love is giving, self-sacrificing, honest, longsuffering, long lasting. None of those other things are.
Moreover, sometimes love gets polluted. Lust, indulgence, and selfishness creep in, tainting, twisting, and killing real love. And we as humans get confused and troubled, defining love in ways that are completely antithetical to its true essence.
As a result, there are some who rant and rail against love, not knowing that what they have been hurt by was not really love at all, but a clever counterfeit, like fool’s gold in a miner’s pan.
We have to be careful not to confuse love for romantic feelings, sex, or approval. That would be as dangerous as our bodies confusing carbon monoxide for oxygen (which is what happens when people die from carbon monoxide poisoning).
How to find true love
First, don’t be distracted by the lies, counterfeits, and substitutes for love that the world tries to sell.
Don’t fall into a relationship based only on fuzzy feelings, or buy into the lies of illicit sex.
Don’t hide yourself in a fictional world of addictions, romance novels, or worse, pornography.
Second, offer real love to your family, friends, and the people around you.
Look out for their welfare, give generously without thinking about taking.
People give love out of the love they receive. When you truly love others, the love you want and need will come back to you.
In the end, true love is not easy to find, give, and sometimes even receive, but it is worth it. Don’t give up. Don’t settle for less. Seek true love. Give true love.
We all sorely need you to.
Thank you for reading
If you enjoyed this, please share and comment — I would love to know what you think, and discuss these ideas further with you!