Monday, April 24, 2006

The Meaning of Love

Yesterday was a dear friend’s birthday. At least she used to be a dear friend. I used to love her with all my heart, and I went through the proverbial tortures of the damned when she didn’t love me back. I would like to think that we’re still friends, some 27 years after we first met. But I don’t love her anymore. Did I ever really? What IS love? At times I wonder. Is it just a feeling that one recognizes when one feels it and that can come and go like the wind? I used to say that I feel what I feel and won’t try to label it, since labels are static, artificial, and simplistic constructs into which we try to shoehorn dynamic and infinitely complex and vast processes that can’t be so contained and for which we suffer when we try to do it anyway. I was very much influenced by sages like Alan Watts when I took this stand.

But when I felt certain things for certain people, I wanted to honor that special feeling by giving it a special name called “love.” I want to honor the feeling I have for my wife now by calling it love. When she asks me if I love her, I don’t want to reply by saying: “Well, my dear, all I can truly say is that I feel what I feel for you, and I won’t presume to give it a label that can’t possibly do justice to the impossibly vast and complex reality of it.” No, I tell her I love her, and I do.

But what is this mysterious thing called love? And if I once felt it so profoundly for my friend for so many years but feel it no longer for her, will I always feel it for my wife no matter how many years pass and how many difficulties may beset us? Yes, I believe that I will, because I believe that the kind of love I’m talking about is not merely a feeling that one falls into and can fall out of but is also a CHOICE of feeling and conduct. I haven’t stopped loving my old friend because I fell out of love with her so much as because I CHOSE not to continue loving her, and I can go on loving my wife because I CHOOSE to do so with my heart and actions. I don’t have to be able to formally define love with words to do this. I can let my life serve as an ostensive definition of not only the kind of love I feel for my wife, but of all the higher forms of love of which I’m capable.

As Mother Teresa said in my favorite of all quotes:
“In this life, we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love.”


Tom said...


I would have to do some cruel experimenting to truly test your theory for myself. But what I am sure of is that what you say is not true for all people.

Sociopaths can't be given any clue what love it. And they are condemned to a life without it. 4% of the US population are sociopaths, many of whom are quite successful. Most of them think they know what love is, by observation of others, but they have no access to the feeling, no sense of shame or guilt or connection with others.

Who you were 27 years ago is likely to have had a different worldview or way of thinking than who you are now -- but you don't know that. When your worldview flips over, you reinterpret your past in your new worldview.

What love is for a young man can be different for an older one. A young man's love can be invested with adventure and status and more closely tied to his sexual needs. An older man's love can be more of a psychic connection -- supportive and less self-conscious. It is all love, truly an in-synchness with another, but it is different because you are different.

I posit the idea that you may be too far gone in your relationship with your wife to fall out of love with her now, by choice or by any other means. The situation with your dear friend can have been different -- because you were different. As a younger person, choice may have more easily played a part in who you love.

Nagarjuna said...

Tom, I agree that what I say is probably not true for all people. For the record, I don't think I initially chose to love my friend. I think I "fell" into it. But I think there came a point where I made a kind of semi-conscious choice not to keep that love alive, because I decided that it was not worthwhile to me or to her. I think I could probably choose to love her again, but not the same way I loved her before, which would be inappropriate as well as painful. But I see no compelling reason to make that choice.

As for loving my wife, I think I could choose, under certain circumstances, to stop loving her. At least consciously and maybe unconsciously as well. But I don't anticipate that those circumstances will ever arise.

I really feel out of my element talking about love here or anywhere, and I suspect that much of what I'm saying about it borders on sheer, inarticulate nonsense. But part of the reason I have this blog is to try to eff what is, for me, ineffable.

Thanks for your comments, Tom.