LOVE IS THE VERY ESSENCE OF LIFE
The answer to the title question requires knowing and understanding what love is. You certainly have thought about love and have had loving relationships. But have you considered what it is? Perhaps with greater understanding, we can enhance our lives.
It’s great to be in love. What a feeling! You are on top of the world in a high state of well-being. The thrill, elation and exhilaration are incomparable.
Many people have said that love is very important in our lives. That is probably one of the greatest understatements ever made. The more accurate observation is that love is the very essence of life. Thomas Merton expressed it this way: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone—we find it with another.” Love and Living at p. 27 (1965).
We are all searching for love, whether we are conscious of it or not. Sometimes it appears that we are striving for wealth, power, status, recognition, and/or sex, but in final analysis we are seeking love.
The appreciation of love as the essence of life should be considered in the context of the limited amount of time that life affords us. When we are young, we often think of life as lasting for eternity. Americans are often accused of believing that death is an option that we can elect to decline. As we grow older we begin to realize that life is limited and time is precious. Each day that we live, we have 86,400 seconds as a gift of life that may not be renewed the next day, and therefore should be used wisely.
In this context we begin to realize that since love is the essence of life, we need to be about establishing true loving relationships and sharing our limited resources, that is, our time, talent and treasure with others.
If we understand what love is, we are better equipped in our search for love. As the statement attributed to baseball star Yogi Berra admonishes: If you don’t know where you’re going, you may never get there.NEXT
WHAT IS LOVE?
Perhaps two of the simplest and yet most profound questions you will ever ask are: “Will you love me tomorrow?” and “Will I love you tomorrow?”
The first step in the determinative process is to ask: “What is love? If we have insight into what love is, we may be able to make more informed decisions.
First, we recognize that love is a relationship between each of us and other people. It is a state of being.
We know from our own experiences that love is multifaceted and multidimensional encompassing the love between a parent and child, a husband and wife, between siblings, between friends and neighbors. As the different loving relationships suggest, there are different types of love. Love can be an erotic love that is passionate, intensely physical and emotional, and/or it can be a more caring and substantive love that is conditioned on reciprocity and mutuality, called phileo love, or it can be unconditional love, called agape love. Unconditional love is boundless and does not require reciprocity or mutuality. It exists regardless of whether the love is reciprocal or mutual. It is not dependent on anything else. Perhaps the best example is the love between a mother and her child.NEXT PREVIOUS
SENSUAL EROTIC LOVE
We need to appreciate the characteristics or qualities of erotic, phileo and agape love. Many artistic works focus on the sensuous quality of love, that is, passion, the intense physical attraction and emotional relationship. The physical attraction does not occur as a result of directed behavior. Rather, it is the brain’s response to a fabulous face; a certain smile; the sound of a voice; the touch of a hand; and/or a fragrance. It is a physiological sensorial response causing our endorphins, especially dopamine, to be activated resulting in a natural euphoria. The stimulating effect of sensual erotic love is readily apparent and recognized. The passion motivates you to want to be with, see, hear and touch the person. Your thinking focuses on the person both in your conscious state and in your dreams. The thrill you feel exceeds sexual desire and transcends into a high state of well-being.
Sensual erotic love cannot be fabricated; its formation is beyond the control of the conscious brain. This is particularly troubling in some societies where arranged marriages occur; the sensual erotic love may be completely lacking in such arrangements. When a person believes that she or he will learn to love someone, they should not believe that the love will include the learning of sensual erotic love. That is not to say that sensual erotic love cannot occur as a relationship based on phileo love matures. But bear in mind that sensual erotic love is spontaneous, while phileo love, is a conscious and deliberative process. Phileo love takes time to evolve and is in many respects like a garden. It requires cultivation, nurturing and germination to blossom into a productive relationship. While the significance of sensual erotic love cannot be overstated, if this type of love does not transcend into and intertwine with phileo and/or agape love, it is ephemeral and will not endure. Why? Because a desensitization process occurs that diminishes the sensorial response over time. Just as the brain spontaneously creates the passion of erotic love, the brain diminishes the passion. What causes it to diminish is not clear. Perhaps we become satiated and the sensuality is dissipated. You may have heard the saying: “Love….Flames for a year, ashes for thirty.” The Leopard, p. 88, (1957) by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa. Because sensual love dissipates over time, it is not, by itself, sufficient to sustain a relationship. Unless sensual erotic love is combined with phileo and/or agape love it is likely to disintegrate like a meteor, or simply fade away like a ship on the horizon at sunset.NEXT PREVIOUS
THE ENDORPHIN EFFECT
A potential issue with sensual erotic love is that it can influence our mind so significantly that it obscures our ability to think rationally. We can call this the endorphin effect. The phrase, all who love are blind, is a keen observation of this effect. Our thinking becomes so impaired that we do not see the whole person, and we are also impaired by selective memory. We fail to discern limitations and deficiencies that may negatively impact the relationship as the sensorial response dissipates. The endorphin effect supports the suggestion that we should allow time for the relationship to mature before making decisions that have a long term impact. It is the experiences that are shared that frequently reveal whether the sensual erotic love will transcend into the more lasting phileo or agape love. How frequently have we said to ourselves or to our friends at a later time: What did I ever see in that person that attracted me? Our friends might respond: If only you would have asked, we could have told you so.
Consider the young man who meets a woman and falls head over heels for her, that is, sensual erotic love. He is so taken by her that in several months of knowing her he plans to marry her and start a family. He tells a friend what has happened and of his intent to marry in a brief period of time. The friend cautions against it and urges him to wait to share more experiences with her before making a long-term commitment. He is advised to wait and share successes and failures, happy times and sad stressful events such as the loss of a job, family issues, money concerns, illness, death of family members, and jealously. These are experiences that uncover our inner self and that of our mate. He would hear none of it and responded that he already knew a lot and that the friend did not know what she was talking about. The relationship did not transcend into phileo or agape love. It took only a few more weeks for the woman to be unfaithful and to steal his property and for the relationship to crash. Fortunately, the damage was minimized because the young man had not married her. Although the young man was hurt he was much the wiser for the experience.NEXT PREVIOUS
PHILEO AND AGAPE LOVE
We observed that sensual erotic love is critical to an intimate relationship. We next need to identify other qualities of phileo and agape love and their meaning. Three interrelated significant qualities are: respect, honesty and loyalty. Respect for the person includes respecting the person’s ideas, feelings, space, body and property and encompasses honesty and loyalty. Sir Walter Scott described loyalty this way: “I like a Highland friend who will stand by me, not only when I am in the right, but also when I am a little in the wrong.”
When the relationship includes respect, honesty and loyalty, it has the substance to overcome destructive temptations. As noted above, sensual erotic love is an uncontrollable response by the brain; however, the reaction to the passion is controllable. Consider the situation where a woman and a man are co-workers who are attracted to each other. One day, after working together for some time, the woman approaches the man with a gentle touch and says to him, “If I wasn’t married you would have to put on your running shoes because I would be chasing you.” The man is flattered and responds, “Why don’t you chase me and see what happens?” The woman ponders the suggestion and is tempted, but then says, “I could not do that to my husband.” The woman controlled her reaction to the passion. Her action demonstrates the respect and loyalty, or phileo love that the woman has for her husband.
In the absence of the foregoing qualities it is unlikely that a loving relationship will survive unless it is unconditional love. Also of great importance to enduring love are selflessness, commitment, the sharing of time, talent and treasure as well as affection, understanding and communication. A worthwhile treatment of communication and affection is set forth in The Five Love Languages (2004) by Gary D. Chapman. The book discusses five different methods of communicating in a loving relationship: Words of Affirmation; Quality Time; Receiving Gifts; Acts of Service; and Physical Touch. The book notes that each method can be effective depending upon a person’s emotional needs.
What is not effective personal communication is the current and prevalent electronic communications via cell phone texting and e-mail. While such forms of communication are great sources of immediate exchanges by written word and a way to begin a relationship, they are limited because electronic communications do not allow for the use of important sensory receptors, that is, sight, hearing, olfactory, and touch, essential to the formation and development of a meaningful substantive and honest relationship. Electronic communications do not allow for the opportunity to evaluate the communicator by the sound of his/her voice or his/her body language, by eye contact, facial expression, or olfactory impact. For example, have you ever been in close proximity to someone and smelled a fragrance that was either stimulating or repulsive? You cannot have such an experience, whether positive or negative, by electronic communication. Bear in mind that perfume and cologne manufacturers expend millions of dollars on research, development and marketing of aphrodisiac ingredients. Furthermore, pheromones, that is, secreted or excreted chemicals that trigger a social response, may play a role in human behavior, albeit, the behavioral role of pheromones in humans is still somewhat controversial.
The sensory receptors can be extremely valuable tools for evaluating the communicator’s sincerity and honesty and culling out deceit and duplicity. Electronic communications are no substitute of personal contact. In the absence of personal interaction, it is very difficult, if not impossible to evaluate the compatibility of personalities, character, values and interests, all of which are components of phileo love.
The qualities of forgiveness, generosity, commitment, dedication, joy, compassion, patience, kindness, sharing and selflessness are also components of an enduring love. Do all of the foregoing qualities need to be present and manifest themselves at all times to achieve a lasting love? No. In fact if that is true, you have achieved unconditional or agape love that is undying. However, it should be clear that the critical components need to be present and the more qualities that are present, the greater the success of the relationship. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed: “It is not lack of love but lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” He may have been distinguishing between sensual erotic love and the qualities of phileo love.
The friendship component of a relationship, that is, phileo love, should not be minimized. The best way to have a friend is to be a friend, (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: Friendship, First Series, 1841), that is, to demonstrate the qualities of phileo love: respect, honesty and loyalty, and to share time, talent and treasure. The sharing of time in doing things together, in discussing any and all topics, and in respecting each other’s ideas and feelings are significant to sustaining a relationship. The sharing of time, talent and treasure is the bonding process. The sharing cultivates relationships which can range in depth from a social acquaintance to enduring love. Human bonding can be considered as a process in and of itself or it can be viewed in a broader perspective as a component of the metamorphosis of a relationship from superficial to substantive. It can be transcendental, that is, the development of an acquaintanceship into a friendship and possibly into an enduring loving relationship. In this respect, bonding, that is, the sharing of time, talent and treasure is one of a number of factors that coalesce in the formation of a relationship. If there are no compatible interests to share, the relationship is severely limited. Effective communication, understanding and affection are also critical components of friendship.
Consider the relationship between a businessman and his counselor. Their relationship begins in a business environment. However, as they work together, mutual admiration sets in. The businessman is recognized for his incisive business acumen, hardworking discipline and for his acceptance of everyone without judging them, whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, powerful or weak. He greets people with a big smile and a bear hug. He generously shares his time, talent and treasure with many others. His philosophy is: any person in need whom he can help is a friend. It is in giving and helping others that he receives a feeling of well-being. The businessman and the counselor develop a friendship not only among themselves but with their respective spouses, children and mutual friends. Then one day the relationship comes to an unfortunate end, the businessman has a sudden massive heart attack and dies. Notwithstanding the death, the relationship continues in the memory of the counselor who frequently thinks about his friend. Then one night, weeks after the death of the businessman, the counselor goes to sleep and as he is sleeping, he begins to dream that he is standing alone and crying because his friend died. Suddenly, the businessman appears with a smile on his face. He slowly saunters to his friend, puts his arms around him, gives him a big hug, and says to him very simply: It’s ok. The whole experience is quite real. The friend awakens and attempts to understand what transpired. It was a dream, was it not? Or was it?NEXT PREVIOUS
The life of Mother Teresa is a great example of unconditional love as evidenced by the sharing of her time, talent and treasure with the impoverished in Calcutta. She expected nothing in return from the people of Calcutta for her commitment and devotion. She apparently understood that by helping others she experienced an emotional state of well-being. Mother Teresa’s wise advice is that: We can do no great things, only small things with great love.
Sometimes love requires difficult decisions. Consider an old tale about a king who was smitten with sensual erotic love for a beautiful young lady he saw in a village in his kingdom. He directed his servants to bring the lady to his castle where he told her he loved her and wanted her to stay with him. The young lady did not love the king and did not want to stay. As she was confined to the castle, she became ill and was wasting away. The king asked his physician to find out what was wrong with her and to heal her. The physician examined the young lady and reported back to the king. The physician informed the king that he diagnosed the problem and that he had the remedy. He also informed the king that he would not like the solution. The physician told the king that the young lady was in love with a man in her village and that unless she was reunited with him she would likely die in a short time. The king needed to decide whether to allow her to be with the person she loved. The king loved the lady and made the difficult decision to give her up. In setting her free, the king demonstrated selflessness, a critical component of phileo and agape love.
The bond is found in nature. Consider the firefighter who near the end of a forest fire came upon a bird who was killed by the heat and smoke of the fire and was sitting upright on the ground like a statue. As the firefighter wondered why the bird had not flown from harm’s way, the bird’s wing moved and a chick emerged from under the wing. The chick was too young to fly, so the mother, rather than fly away, remained to shield the chick from the heat and smoke and in doing so sacrificed her own life.NEXT PREVIOUS
IS IT LASTING LOVE OR A PASSING FANCY?
Notwithstanding the power of love, many times we experience love for a while and then it ends. We read and hear about sensual and passionate love that entertainers experience. But then after a short while the thrill is gone and the relationship breaks apart, sometimes with a great deal of rancor and pain. What happens to cause the relationship to collapse?
The disappointment that many of us experience is illustrated in an interview with Taylor Swift, the beautiful and very popular young entertainer, published in the November 25, 2012 edition of Parade magazine. She acknowledges that her love interests develop very quickly. She feels the awesome initial exhilaration of love and doesn’t think twice about leaping into the relationship. And then after a short time she laments “We used to be flying. Now we’re falling. What’s happening?” She is disappointed that the love does not last for more than six months. It is followed by her painful conclusion: “I don’t get over people fast.” She looks back to reevaluate her relationship, as we all should.
She and we not only hope that love will continue indefinitely, but too often we make long-term commitments on a love that turns out to be short-term. When it does not last, we are devastated. As noted by the entertainer, the pain may last for a long while, particularly if you have made a long-term commitment to a short-term relationship.
Many relationships are passing fancies. Perhaps it would be wise to evaluate the relationship as it is progressing. If we want to know if our love will last, we need to determine if it is limited to a sensual erotic love or whether it transcends the bounds of sensual love and has the more sustainable qualities of phileo or agape love. A beautiful story of the transition of erotic love into phileo love is told in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. It is not unusual for a relationship to begin with the passion of erotic love, that is, our brain’s response to the stimuli that our senses discern about a person. As noted above, that is an uncontrolled response. If we can overcome the endorphin effect of erotic love we need to ask ourselves: “What are the qualities of love?” and “What do each of the qualities mean? Are they present in my loving relationship?” If we want to determine the extent of a loving relationship, we can scrutinize the relationship to determine whether or not the qualities are present. We should ask: In addition to the passion of erotic love, does the relationship have mutual respect, honesty, loyalty, communication, sharing, consideration, understanding and selflessness? When many of the foregoing qualities of phileo and agape love are not present, it is not possible to have a healthy long-term loving relationship. Take the comedian Woody Allen’s self-acknowledgement of limited respect for his spouse with the quip: “It was partially my fault we got divorced. I had a tendency to place my wife under a pedestal.”
If you find that all the qualities of love are present in your relationship then you have achieved agape, or unconditional love. That is not to say, that every moment of the relationship will be blissful. Disagreements and disputes will occur even in a healthy relationship. However, if the qualities of love are present, the essential ingredients exist to resolve the conflicts in a mutually respectful, honest and forthright manner through effective communication. As an old proverb notes: Where the heart is willing it will find a thousand ways, but where it is unwilling it will find a thousand excuses.
If a loving relationship does not contain the qualities of love on a mutual and reciprocal basis, it would be wise to take a close hard look at the relationship before making a long-term commitment. If the qualities are not present, it is not fair to yourself or to the object of your love to proceed with a long-term commitment. By doing so, you may be depriving yourself of the opportunity of a true loving relationship with someone else and you may also deprive your mate of the same. If the qualities are not present you are not doing any one a favor by attempting to create a lasting loving relationship when it does not exist.
Sometimes we know from the onset that a relationship is not faring well. Consider the exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor: She said to Churchill: “If you were my husband I’d give you poison.” Churchill retorted: “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.” That relationship did not go very far.
Perhaps more significantly, when your thoughts about him or her become more negative than positive, and when your dreams about him or her become nightmares, more likely than not, the relationship has reached its terminal point.
LIVE YOUR LIFE WITH ALL THE LOVE YOU CAN MUSTER
While the experience of a failed love can be devastating to us and everyone else involved, love is so essential that we must do our best to develop loving relationships. Indeed, the absence of loving relationships at some level results in misery and a lack of well-being. In the paraphrased words of Lord Alfred Tennyson: It is better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all. Notwithstanding the risk of pain caused by a failed love, it is by living our lives with all the love we can muster that we enrich ourselves and everyone around us.
In spite of the difficulties we encounter in our relationships, hope springs eternal and love is so essential that we are compelled to be persistent in our search for loving relationships. However, it is imperative to determine the depth of the love before making decisions having a long-term impact. We should avoid trying to create a permanent relationship when the qualities required for such a relationship do not exist. So we should continue to develop loving relationships but also recognize that it takes a very special love to last forever.
In evaluating your relationship, what qualities do you observe in yourself, and in the other person to the relationship, and in the relationship itself? Is it a relationship characterized by erotic, phileo and/or agape love? Also, you may want to ask whether you are able to observe limitations or deficiencies in the other person pertaining to: personality, character, emotional stability, physical condition, intelligence, judgment, management of time, money, business and employment? Your assessment of the foregoing could tell you much about the relationship and you will likely know the answer to the question: How will I know if love will last?
You may also want to complete the Relationship Self-Evaluation Questionnaire on this website and compare your result with the Score Sheet Table also on the website. Your answers may give you insight that may help you determine whether your relationship is enduring.
~Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved.
THOMAS MERTON, LOVE AND LIVING (1965).
GARY CHAPMAN, PhD, THE FIVE LOVE LANGUAGES (2004).
RICK WARREN, THE PURPOSE DRIVEN LIFE (2002).
RICHARD B. FRATIANNE, M.D., FROM CINDERS TO BUTTERFLIES (2003).
BENEDICT, GOD IS LOVE (2006).
JOHN PAUL II, THE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY (1997).
STEPHEN POST, PhD, & JILL NEIMARK, WHY GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE (2007).
ABIGAIL THOMAS, A THREE DOG LIFE (2006).
DANTE, DIVINE COMEDY (c. 1308-1321).
HELEN FISHER, PhD, WHY WE LOVE-THE NATURE AND CHEMISTRY OF ROMANTIC LOVE (2004).
WINNIFRED B. CUTLER, PhD, LOVE CYCLES: THE SCIENCE OF INTIMACY (1991).
SONG OF SONGS.
1 KINGS 3:9-12.
1 CORINTHIANS 13:1-13.
EPHESIANS 4:32, 5:2, 21-32.
JOHN 13:34-35, 15:9-17, 21:15-17.
1 JOHN 4:16-20.
LUKE 6:27-28, 10:25-37.
MATTHEW 22:34-40, 25:35-40.