Defining Love

I love you.  So far today, I’ve said that to two people, one cat, and (in my head) my cup of coffee.  Over the past few days, I’ve mentioned loving brownies, coffee (again), Pad Thai, the New York Times, time to write, time to read, time with my One Good Friend, my One Good Friend himself, my parents, my BBF, silence, and functioning indoor plumbing.  In contrast, my younger son hasn’t told anyone that he’s loved them in at least a year.  Okay, he slips with the cats but usually catches himself and corrects the statement of one to of “like”.  He admits he’s a bit foggy on what love is, and just from a quick survey of my recent use of the word, I can see why he’s cautious and confused.  Poor kid.

Enter Valentine’s Day, a day for expressing love from the lusty to the maternal largely via the commercial.  I’ve never been a big VD fan, although I can’t think of a year from the age of 5 onward where I ignored it all together.  As an elementary aged child, Valentine’s Day meant painstakingly making (my mom insisted, at least until 2nd grade) valentines for the 30-odd people in my class.  After that point, she realized the pain of pushing me through that task probably negated the positive feelings the effort was designed to engender.  I’m not sure which task was more odious:  cutting and pasting for hours or carefully selecting appropriate messages for each of my classmates out of a box of Peanuts cards that inevitably had too many potentially loaded wishes and far too few benign wishes of just a greeting for the day.

While dating and then married, I acknowledged the day by exchanging cards and small gifts with my partner, a practice extended to my kids once they came around.  As my mother had done, I insisted on homemade cards for their classmates, complete with the requisite whining from them.  Fortunately, homeschooling brought an end to that family tradition, and our responsibilities for this day of (somewhat forced) expressions of caring decreased.  Still, we celebrated, mostly with chocolate and cards for the boys, cards for parents made by boys (I could never resist the continued torture), and small tokens between my then-husband and me.  The day was a family affair rather than a romantic one, as we celebrated our love for each other.  Hallmark made a bit of money, since my then-husband and I didn’t extend the card-making ritual to ourselves, instead purchasing cards for our children and parents.

This year, I ignored Valentine’s Day at home.  I mailed a cards out to my parents, enjoying writing messages of love and appreciation to them, but the kids and I skipped the day at home.  I’m not sure why I’ve adopted domestic apathy about the day, since I’ve always held that it was more about stimulating the economy than celebrating love.  The boys don’t seem to mind the omission, so I can’t see us starting that habit up again.  Even my One Good Friend and I ignored the day; indeed, we never even spoke about the holiday as it pertained to the two of us.  He’s not a fan of obligatory gift giving (or receiving) instead favoring giving something to another when the opportunity arises naturally, and I’m fine with that.

I really understand Marion's attraction to this Robin Hood. Thank you, BBC.

But back to love.  According on Merriam Webster Online, love as a transitive verb is defined as follows:

1. to hold dear :cherish
2. a to feel a lover’s passion, devotion, or tenderness for
b (1):caress(2): to fondle amorously(3): to copulate with
3 to like or desire actively : take pleasure in <loved to play the violin>
4 to thrive in <the rose loves sunlight>
Yikes.  No wonder my Aspie son is confused.  Even the dictionary makes use of the word a potential for great misunderstanding.  To say one loves Lord of the Rings (he does, per definition 3), loves mom (I like to say he does, per definition 1), and loves our current foster cat (probably definition 1 as well) is a conundrum as it is.  While he has little (if any) understanding of the feeling behind the second definition, he certainly knows that he feels nothing for me or the cat-like what Robin Hood feels for Maid Marion, and Robin says he loves Marion.  What to do?  His answer:  stop using that dangerous word.  Who knows what others might understand you to mean?
It’s confusing for the rest of us as well.  Even when we limit the verb to human relationships, it’s a minefield.  I’ve said, “I love you,” and meant, “I need you.”  I’ve whispered it, not declaring my deepest compassion and care for a person, but really saying,”But do this my way.”  I’ve said it pleadingly, in desperation, full of fear of being alone.  I’ve said it as an excuse for causing suffering, rather than an apology.  All of those times I cared.  All of those times, I thought I was speaking out of love.  I don’t doubt my sincerity, even now, just my understanding.
However, over the years, especially the recent few, my understanding of love has broadened greatly.  When I was Christian, the love of an omnipotent God gave me comfort and served as a model for how to love others.  At my Catholic wedding, one of the readings from Corinthians 13:4:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:4
That’s pretty standard fare at most Christian weddings, and it holds truth reaching far beyond that belief system.
As I’ve reached more toward Eastern religions and philosophy, I’ve found Buddhist thoughts on love a deepening my understanding of that Christian teaching.  Buddhism speaks of the Four Immeasurables:  the  qualities of true love that are without measure because, if practiced,  they continue to grow, eventually reaching the whole world.”  These four are love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.  Love, according to Thich Nhat Hahn in Teachings on Love, it “the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness.”  It requires understanding of the other, understanding of “the needs, aspirations, and suffering” of the beloved.  That’s harder than it seems, and that, according to Buddhism, is just the first step to true love.  Compassion (intending to decrease sorrow), joy (rejoicing in the peace and contentment of all), and equanimity (that’s the detachment one — think no clinging or discrimination) are also required.
So it seems love isn’t any easier to live than to define.  I can cut myself some slack (compassion) for missing the love boat so many times over the past 41 years.  I’m still not sure how to explain love to my younger son, but perhaps his reluctance to use the word without a clear understanding of it shows wisdom beyond his years.  I’m all for working toward the love described in Corinthians and in Buddhist teachings, no matter how hard the course.  Unlike my younger, I’ll not give up saying “I love you” while I work to figure out exactly what true love looks like in real life, but I will try to reduce my casual use of the word, at least when it comes to coffee and indoor plumbing.  And as for my One Good Friend, my kids, my parents, and the rest?  I love you.  And I’m working on living that.

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