Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What is Love?

Several years ago my aging father made a shocking announcement. He said that when he was dating my mother, and for several years after they were married, he did not love her.  I was so upset by this that I was unable to respond, and my brother and sisters were likewise very uncomfortably surprised. Dad had always been devoted to Mom. Yes, they had challenges in their marriage but it was obvious that they loved each other a great deal. And this love has continued and endures.

How, then, could my father admit to such a thing? I wondered about it a lot. It bothered me for quite some time. Obviously he was physically attracted to Mom from the start. He also enjoyed the love letters he got from her while they were dating – the ones signed Love, Elsa. I was certain that he loved her all those years ago. Was Dad losing his mind?

He did admit that he felt a great sense of duty to take care of Mom. And he asked me years later if this duty might not be a form of love. We both came to suspect that the current fashion of emotional romanticism was a bit provincial – not a bad thing, but not a historically complete one either.

If you look in the dictionary under love, you soon notice that there are a handful of definitions for this very common word. It can refer to an affectionate concern for another person or to God, it can be an enthusiasm for something, it can also be a sexual attraction – or the act itself. Love is a zero score in tennis, a material worn in mourning and a game of chance.

A love apple is a tomato, a love handle is a layer of fat, a lovelock is a bit of hair, a lovebird is a kind of parrot, a love bush is a kind of dodder, a love potion is a kind of charm. And so it goes. Clearly, love is a lot of different things.

Here, then, was a possible way out of my confusion. Dad, who has always been more given to cerebration than to sentimentality, may not have recognized a keen emotional response to Mom at first. But love her he certainly did. My oldest sister is proof of that.

But Dad’s admission implied something more. Something happened after living with Mom, starting a family, and struggling together as a couple with the challenges of life. He learned of Mom’s astonishing compassion for everyone. He learned of her devotion to him, and of her enduring faith that would become tested almost beyond belief. Dad learned that Mom was truly amazing.

I have come to realize that for many people the deep connection that binds us to others is not manifestly emotional. In fact, most of the time we create connections with others that we may not even be aware of. Of course, our experience with romantic love can be emotionally profound. But there are many very important connections that simply don’t fit the category.

Little children, for example, rarely feel emotionally attached to their family the same way that adults do. They still have to learn what their developing emotions mean. But this should not imply that they do not form bonds with their family or that they do not love their family. To a child its connection to its mother is the most profound experience of its life.

In fact, I believe that the connection between an unborn child and its mother – direct from the womb, through the placenta and into the lifeblood of the infant – continues throughout life. Yes the physical tissue is sundered shortly after birth, but there remains an unseen umbilicus that no amount of circumstance can render.

I saw this firsthand a number of years ago while serving in a small church group to help a young man overcome some of his challenges. He had become estranged from his mother emotionally and in a number of other ways. She was very traditional and could not tolerate much of his behavior – some of which was quite improper. For his part, he could not tolerate the guilty feelings that she seemed to always impose on him.
And yet in spite of this very real impasse, the young man could not be helped until he was able to overcome the breached relationship with his mother. Through the years of estrangement, the unseen umbilicus was still there.

In my own life, I have recently come to recognize that this connection doesn’t even go away when a mother passes away. Truly it is a universal umbilicus. It is a bond that never dies. And if I might expand somewhat on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s famous essay – it is a most significant proof that “love abides”.

The Apostle Paul understood very well that love is not always a primrose path or a romantic fantasy. In his unsurpassed description of love (found in the 13th chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians) he compares our experience with love as seeing “through a glass, darkly.”

And recently, Pope Francis has emphasized that love is more importantly tied to truth than to passing emotional experiences.

“Love,” he wrote, “cannot be reduced to an ephemeral emotion. True, it engages our affectivity, but in order to open it to the beloved and thus to blaze a trail leading away from self-centeredness and toward another person, in order to build a lasting relationship, love aims at union with the beloved. Here we begin to see how love requires truth. Only to the extent that love is grounded in truth can it endure over time, can it transcend the passing moment and be sufficiently solid to sustain a shared journey. If love is not tied to truth, it falls prey to fickle emotions and cannot stand the test of time. True love, on the other hand, unifies all the elements of our person and becomes a new light pointing the way to a great and fulfilled life. Without truth, love is incapable of establishing a firm bond; it cannot liberate our isolated ego or redeem it from the fleeting moment in order to create life and bear fruit.”

I believe that love is the value and importance we place on the very significant connections in our life. These connections can be quite different depending on the persons, the cultures and the circumstances involved. In our time, the emotional part of love has taken center stage. This may be fine, as far as it goes. But there is also a danger in this.

When we confuse love with positive emotions only, we can make the mistake (as many people often do) of thinking that we no longer love someone who has let us down. “I don’t love you anymore,” are heart-wrenching words that, sadly, are spoken much too often. And then, paradoxically, after the words are spoken, the confession is followed by the aching of the soul. Clearly the connection was not lost.

The truth of these tragic situations is that emotions between estranged lovers can become predominantly negative, even though connections remain. And it is because the connections remain that estrangements like separation and divorce are always so painful, despite the fact that this so-called emotional love has long since dissolved.

It is this modern confusion that makes Kierkegaard’s insistence that love abides so counterintuitive.  After all, people fall into and out of love all the time – or so we believe. If, however, we were to ask ourselves if connections between people were to commonly disappear, we might be less certain.

There is only one way for the true connections of love to be broken, and that is through selfishness. In fact selfishness, in this sense, is the refusal to form or to recognize the importance of connections at all. To be this selfish is to live in a cloistered sensual existence.

Many years ago, I fell in love with Kathy Vernon. We had dated off-and-on for many months before she agreed to accept my second proposal and marry me. We made our formal vows in the Salt Lake (Mormon) Temple in the spring, when the Utah foothills are covered with fresh grass, when new oak leaves are still glossy green, and when sego lilies are young and unblemished.

We knew so little about life and had to learn many basics of human relationships. We inevitably used each other as Guinea pigs as we struggled together, in the laboratory of life, to learn how to make a marriage work. We had to figure out money matters, marital roles and how to stay strong for each other when our first child lingered for months on the brink of death. Sometimes we managed OK. At other times we didn’t.
We learned that Kathy was used to a staid and practical masculinity. She had to adapt to a new husband who was neither of these. We learned that I was used to open and sentimental femininity. And I had to adapt to a new wife that kept things to herself and wasn’t comfortable looking into the deep emotional lives of others.

Often she felt overwhelmed and I felt misunderstood. But through all of the challenges we discovered something early on. We discovered that we needed each other very much. And we discovered this during those times when the connection between us was strained. Sometimes it was strained because of misunderstandings. Sometimes it was strained because school and work took me away from home for a while. In either case, the estrangement hurt each of us a lot. I came to realize – for the second time in my life – that these connections are very real.

The first time I realized this was while Kathy and I were dating at BYU. On one particular day we had been together for much of the afternoon (doing something that I no longer remember). I do remember, however, saying goodbye to her at the outer door of her apartment complex.

I said goodbye to Kathy and proceeded to the parking lot. I no sooner had opened the door of my car when I realized that Kathy was inside the complex standing by her front door locked-out of her apartment. How, exactly, I knew this is beyond me. I could neither see her nor hear her. But somehow I knew anyway.
I decided to act on this unusual insight and proceeded back into the complex. And, just as I expected, Kathy was standing outside her door – locked-out – wondering what to do next. She was surprised to see me. I decided not to go into details right then. I was still trying to figure out what my little mystical experience meant.

I have since come to understand what was unclear to me then: my connection to Kathy goes far beyond the visible and audible. It is a deeper thread that is forever unbreakable.

You may find this admission a bit over-stated.  After all, no one can be sure that love will last forever? Please notice, however, what I actually said. I said that the connection between us would never break. I do believe with all my heart that I will always value this connection greatly – in other words, that I will always love Kathy.

But even if the unthinkable happened and we were separated, for any number of reasons, the connection we have with each other would still exist. We have shared too much of our lives and our hearts. Dissolving this bond is no longer possible.

I do not think that every connection we have with others implies a loving relationship. But I do believe that everyone we love involves a connection. And we would do well to remember that the straining of these connections only ends up hurting everybody, ourselves included.

Which brings me to my final point; which is, that the loving connections of our lives are gifts from God. And as such, they are not ours to create or destroy on our own account.

“God is love,” declares the Apostle John (1 John 4:8). And as the Prophet Mormon indicated, this special kind of love – the love called charity that is defined as God’s love – is a gift that must be bestowed on us from above (Moroni 7:48).

We have not been entrusted with the disposition of loving connections. This is a privilege retained by a greater power than our own. And this should be obvious to anyone paying much attention to the world we live in. We are not just animals that interact with others of our own species purely by instinct, and then proceed on our merry way. Neither are our interactions with others the mere unconscious calculations so favored by evolutionary psychologists.

We interact with others, and in so doing, we form lasting bonds. And if we follow the direction of Heaven and lose ourselves in the service of others, we cannot help but form a vast network of relationships that will bind us to others forever. And like a grove of giant redwoods that withstand the storms of centuries because of their interlocking roots, we can bind each other together in divine ligands that were made for the eternities.

Maybe you feel that you cannot love or be loved. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you were born unattractive or are not the romantic type. If you have ever thought this way, you had best think again. Whether or not you love or are capable of being loved is not your decision.

The Hollywood and dime novel version of love is not the whole story – or even the most important one. Most love is very different. A good neighbor loves. So does a thoughtful employer, or neighbor, or friend. A parent loves and so does a teacher. You are loved in more ways than you know. And surprisingly, you love more people than you realize.

It no longer bothers me that Dad didn’t have deep romantic feelings for Mom. He spent most of his life devoted to her. For many years, when Mom was often sick and confined to her bed, he cared for her and never complained. Dad and Mom have been profoundly connected from the start. And they always will be. God has promised that they will. He has promised that Love Abides. 


For a good overview of how love has been understood in the great books, see Chapter 50: Love, in Mortimer J. Adler and William Gorman (eds.) The Great Ideas, A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. My copy of Love Abides is in Jaroslav Pelikan’s (ed.) The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. Published by Little, Brown and Company, 1990. The paragraph written by Pope Francis is found on page 48 of The Light of Faith, Lumen Fidei, published this year (2013) by Ignatius Press.

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