Choosing to Choose in Love

Now that I’ve gotten some of my disparate ideas out of the way, I want to write a series of posts on a particular theme. Although I have several in mind, I’ve decided to start with a theme that I feel less qualified to write on than others: love. In many respects, I’m as qualified as any other. I have a number of family members and friends that I love. I’ve been married for a number of years, so have had some experience in the ups and downs of love in marriage. I have a number of things that I would say I love in casual conversation (coffee, for one). I even have things I love to do (like drinking coffee at a coffee shop while writing). I have not, however, studied love to any great extent. Death and violence are more my game. I have enjoyed many a discussion of the topic over the last few years, however, and it is this basis and my own experience that I want to address love in a few posts.

A brief definition of love is in order. I’ll admit that I usually think of love in a fairly abstract sense; nearly all definitions express it as a feeling, based on the emotions, manifesting in the body. In analysis, though, I feel somewhat detached from my emotions, and when I reflect on them, it is typically in the sense of analyzing another individual and not myself. I would define love as a complex of feelings by which we become aware of a strong preference for some individuals or things over others. These feelings seek out and are strengthened by affirmation from others. In the case of love of another being, this affirmation is some manner of reciprocation, love returned. In the case of a non-being, this affirmation is confirmation by other beings of the worth of the object. A couple things are worth noting here. First, although love is most commonly expressed in a paired relationship (I love you, you love me), it occurs within a matrix of possibilities, other potential beings to be loved. In other words, it does not exist in a vacuum. Second, this cognized feeling of preference might be explained as the emotional manifestation of a biological response, perhaps indicating the possibility of procreation and perpetuation or a substance that will bring me a healthier existence. A biological grounding can be both scientifically true and practically insufficient for my exploration, because its legitimacy does not extend beyond the boundaries of scientific exploration. It cannot plumb the depths of our emotions and self-reflection on the topic.

With this definition in mind, it may be easier to admit that although love in the abstract conjures up associations of pleasure, in experience it is as often pain, longing, or remorse. The most acute sense of love I have felt was when I was physically the farthest away from the objects of my love. Love expressed itself in absence, not presence, and the reintroduction of the objects of my love has never been quite as acute as their absence.

This functioning definition is relatively new for me. As in other areas, for most of my life my definition of love was given to me by religion. I have already noted that the premier version of love for me was an all-encompassing one, evidenced by the death of Christ. If, after all, I believed that that death was for all of humanity, both all that has come since and all that came before, it constitutes a level of love quite foreign and impossible to match. Yet as a Christian my mandate was to emulate that love.

I want to question the purpose and value of that religious definition, especially in the modern Western religious framework. More specifically, I would like to suggest that the actual purpose and value of emulating love in an all-expansive sense runs contrary to its rhetorical aims. There are many senses in which I think this definition of love is problematic. First, only in a theological sense can it be said to be true of Jesus. In a historical and practical sense it is clear he did not love all people equally and without condition. We can pass by that without saying more for now, knowing that for Christians, Jesus is the stated basis for the unconditional love we are given and are supposed to reciprocate to God and others.

What impact does this have? We know from experience that we do not love without reservation and exception.  All of us in our day-to-day lives, prefer some people to others and some things to others. We justify this in different ways. A Christian might say this is because Jesus’ love is an ideal to which we strive but always fail, or this is because of sin, etc. So if we consistently fail to live up to this standard of love, why is it maintained? Because it lessens the pain of existence, the pain and uncertainty that accompanies unfettered love.

To put it another way, it is because this type of love is neither accessible nor exercisable in any practical sense that it can be maintained as the ultimate form of love. In this manner, the individual can be told (in more liberal Christian circles) that she is loved by a divine being regardless of her actions. This serves as a salve for the acute feelings of the moment because it is untouchable by particular circumstance (which is also the same reason it can be unsatisfying unless socially reinforced). It is also comforting for us to think that other individuals in seemingly “unloved” circumstances actually are loved by God, despite all evidence to the contrary. This encourages us to “love” them in the same way, that is, by doing nothing to change their circumstances. Insofar as we are moved to step in and help another individual, our actions cease to be a universal love and become a specific and located action of care.

In short, the ways that we often think we love are not love in any evidential sense. Love becomes love by the act of preference, the very act that we are told relegates it to a lesser form. There is a whole unnecessary complex of guilt and shame that comes from this contradictory dogma. Rather than speak more about love on an abstract level, in the next few days I will instead approach the subject in its relationship with more specific topics such as marriage, self-interest and death. Meanwhile, if you’ve thought about a definition of love or aspects of universal love, I’d like to hear it.