Throughout the ages, many definitions of love have been offered up. Poets, theologians, philosophers, writers and, more recently, psychologists step to the plate and swing for the fences, trying to define love. Here are some of my favorites:
"Love is a wish for someone's happiness." (Richard Bach)
Simple. Direct. I know I love you if my abiding desire is for your happiness. That there is hardly a better day than when I hear or know or you tell me that you are truly happy. I know I love you if I feel like I'm sitting on the front row, a lucky guest invited to witness your unabashed joy. Parents might particularly understand this definition: When our children smile, giggle, thrive, celebrate, feel the rush of pride in a life well lived or a job well done it's a very good day indeed!
Oh, Mr. Bach, I might tinker ever so slightly with your definition. I might say, "Love is a wish for someone's happiness and the willingness to sacrifice in service to that happiness," just so the definition is a little less ethereal and a little more actively responsible. But, I like it.
"Perfect love casts out fear." (First Epistle of John)
Agreed, this is not a definition of love. At least not as such. This is more a promise of what love, when perfected, can be expected to yield. The definition is inferential: "Love is that marriage of trust and surrender that makes fear irrelevant."
You see glimpses of this in the innocent abandon of toddlers, but it's not the same thing. Toddlers are fearless precisely because they are innocent. And because they are innocent, they are naive. They don't fear death, because they don't yet know they will someday die.
No, perfect love is a goal reached for on the other side of lost innocence. Of course life contains capricious hardships and injustice and pathos and tragedy. Of course people die. Of course everyone suffers. But, when love is perfected, there is simply nothing to be afraid of. In fact, spiritual masters from a variety of religious backgrounds tend to agree that conscious suffering is the fundamental work of perfecting love. It's the core of how we get there.
"Love is a decision to act." (Steven Kalas)
Sorry. Had to quote myself. I think I defined love this way to protect myself from my penchant for sentimentalism. If I'm not careful, I'm the kind of type/temperament who can be lulled into emotional reductionism. That is, my feelings - pleasant or unpleasant - become the unfortunate measure of people, things and events. This is a grossly immature and limited way of seeing the world. So, while I have felt profound love feelings in my life - pleasant and unpleasant - my feelings are an incomplete, insufficient and too often inaccurate measure of what things mean, let alone a serious way to assemble a hierarchy of values.
So, love is a decision to act. Meaning, I can act in service to love regardless of how I'm feeling about anyone, including myself. I could despise myself, and still act in the best interest of my spiritual well-being. I could despise you, and still act in the best interest of your spiritual well-being. Defined thusly, I could (and have!) received love that felt unpleasant to receive. I could love you in a way that made you, initially at least, disagree with me. When you call for the police to do a welfare check, for example, at the home of your friend who has just threatened suicide, your friend might feel betrayed - unloved. But your friend will be wrong. Just, in this case, not dead wrong. Thankfully, alive wrong.
"Love is paying attention." (M. Scott Peck)
Perhaps my all-time favorite. Yes. True every time. If I say I love you, but don't regularly pay attention to you, your next question should be: "So, Steven, what exactly does it mean for you to love me? Because that and a dollar-eighty-nine will buy me a grande at Starbucks."
Love is paying attention. Love is knowing that no one can always remember to pay attention. So love is paying attention to when your beloved has stopped paying attention, where then you give your beloved the metaphorical elbow to the ribs and say: "Hey, you've stopped paying attention. Pay attention."
And love is giving thanks for the elbow in your ribs. You're absolutely right. I stopped paying attention. Thank you. You can expect immediate remediation of my oblivion. Because I love you.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.