The word love is bandied around today so much that it can lose its meaning, writes Wendy Grace
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, many of us have love on our mind. But do we often misunderstand what love really means?
For most of us, if really asked to ponder on the meaning of life, we would conclude the most important part of our lives and our legacy, is the love we gave and the love that we received. Love is one of the most talked about, written about and sung about things in our world. For most of us no subject is more important than the deep desire we have to want to truly love and to be truly loved in return.
Pope Francis said that love is always “concrete”, that love consists “more in actions than words, more in giving than receiving”. Is modern love motivated by what we can get rather than what we can give? The love we speak of is not a ‘Hollywood love’; the love that Pope Francis speaks of is based on two kinds of love. The first with deeds – words can be here today and gone tomorrow, but what do our actions say? The one who loves seeks to give and gives of themselves. On the other hand, the person who does not love seeks to receive.
At a marriage talk that I recently attended I was so struck by one of the ideas that perhaps is not looked upon by people considering getting married. Thequestion was asked: “Can you suffer
with this person?” It’s not quite the stuff of a Hollywood rom-com, is it? Do we genuinely reflect on this, asking ourselves what marriage vows really mean – “for better or worse” – the worse can be a pretty tall order. Is our love based on something concrete or something that is changeable? Sure I’m attracted to my husband, but his looks will change, maybe now our finances are okay, but that can also change. It is a decision that we make knowing that a lifetime will be filled with ups and downs, with many storms to weather together.
Place to start
A good place to start is finding out how love is described in the Bible. One type of love is called “phileo love” – the US city of Philadelphia was named after this type of love, as it means brotherly love. It is associated with a deep, abiding friendship.
Another type is “agape love”, which is considered the most self-sacrificing love that there is. This is the type of love that Jesus had for us, the type of love that God has for us and wants us to imitate. Really it is the type of love most of us would aspire to, where we are willing to lay down our life for another.
Agape is the Greek word meaning ultimate. Agape love is the ultimate type of love we should be aiming for. Interestingly, in Greek-speaking societies, it was rarely used yet in the New Testament it is used 320 times. Really, agape love is the kind of love that is not of human origin, it requires a supernatural grace, where we go against our human nature which is often selfish to one that is selfless, where we ourselves are a selfless gift that we give, without seeking any reward.
Jesus was a real manifestation of this type of love, he totally sacrificed himself out of love for us. His cross was not an accident, it was a decision that he made.
St Paul tells us that love is the greatest of all the theological virtues. Without qualification, without any ifs, ands or buts, we are told, in the Bible that “love is the greatest thing there is” (1 Cor 13:13).
Whilst we can agree that love is the most important subject in our lives, we could also argue that no subject is more misunderstood. Nowadays, love is entangled with sexual love or a feeling of affection or attachment to another person. Of course, these things are part of love, but are they love in themselves? Love is more than a feeling which, needless to say, can change daily. When we decide to love, that decision lasts, even when our feelings change, we decide that in good times and bad we will cultivate, protect and work on our love.
Some people merely characterise love as a feeling, an attraction or sexual chemistry. Of course, love can manifest itself in all these ways, but true love means you always want the best for the other, putting them first. Sometimes that involves a word that isn’t very popular nowadays, sacrifice. Sometimes it is sacrificing time, or sacrificing your own happiness, putting that other person ahead of your own needs. It really is through this type of love that we find genuine fulfilment and true happiness.
Of course, we need to remind ourselves that love isn’t easy. Sometimes we use love as an excuse for self-indulgence, we have perverted and eroticised the concept of love so much that occasionally we forget its true meaning and lose the chance to love freely and completely, being railroaded by our desires, which provide fleeting pleasures or happiness, but ultimately fade away.
There seems to be so many different kinds of ‘love’ and the word is bandied around today so much that it can lose its meaning. We say we ‘love’ chocolate or we ‘love’ our favourite band. That is not the same ‘love’ we have for our children or our family. This is the type of love that means ‘I love what this thing does for me’, not that ‘I actually love the chocolate’. We like the taste; the object of our love is ‘self-love’. Self-love becomes a problem when we make people the object of that love, when we love what he or she does for us. Chocolate exists for our use, but people do not. Persons must be loved, not used and things must be used, not loved.
Many parents will say that they love their children to an extent that they didn’t think humanly possible. When we say we love someone, does that mean we always like them? No, love is more than a feeling. Feelings, of course, are an enormous part of it, but the decision to love and the commitment to love are necessary to the roller coaster ride of loving another person over an entire lifetime. If you made your decisions on your marriage, purely based on your emotions, your marriage would not survive.
It is interesting in itself that many people find it hard to express what love is, as if it is a mystery, something we can experience but never really define. I would say that love is something that we can define, that helps to distinguish between genuine love and its imposter. We confuse love with the experience of ‘falling in love’ a feeling that is invariably temporary. We inevitably fall out of love, this feeling of ecstatic lovingness or the ‘honeymoon phase’ fades. But this is not bad news. The end of this phase can mark the real beginning.
Love is not a feeling, but it is freely given, it is an act of our will. Even though it may be accompanied by an emotion it is not an emotion. The work of laying the foundation for a marriage that will last forever is hard work. The foundation is not the beautiful experience of ‘being in love’, it is the much more difficult process of loving your spouse as you love yourself.
It is not an easy feat but it is one that has the opportunity to provide more fulfilment and lasting joy than any fake idea of love that a Hollywood blockbuster could muster.