What is love?: A few thoughts for Valentine’s Day

What is love? Considering that we spend our entire lives yearning for it and considering that it is a foundational concept in all the world’s religions, it’s safe to say that it’s an important question. The word is ubiquitous in our lives; we hear it in songs on the radio, in political campaigns, in everyday conversations, and in interactions with those we care most deeply about.

I don’t primarily refer to love in the romantic sense that we celebrate on Valentine’s Day. Authentic love is, of course, fundamental to exclusive romantic relationships, but it is also a fundamental component of families, friendships, and even interactions between strangers. Love is not just fundamental to interpersonal relationships – it is the defining aspect. This idea of “love” is so essential and so omnipresent, but do we really have a clear idea of what it is? Once again, what is love?

Here’s one possible answer: love is a feeling. As humans, we experience a rush of emotion and an intoxicating butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation when we’re in love. And we experience powerful feelings of affection for our family members; feelings so strong that they assure us of who are the most important people in our lives. We experience feelings of closeness to our best friends.

Can love be defined, then, as a pleasant feeling that we experience for another person? No. Feelings are more or less involuntary. They come and go. We can choose to respond to feelings – to feed them or resist them – but they are largely out of our control. Feelings are self-centered. In other words, a feeling may be directed toward another person, but it is something that I, the individual, experience. For this reason, any relationship built entirely on feelings stands on a shaky foundation. Such a relationship is not based on the other person, but rather on the feelings that the other person provides. The other person becomes an object to be used, whether emotionally, sexually, or in some other way. We all have, to some degree, both used and been used in our lives. It’s clear that a relationship of use is not a relationship of love.

Though not bad in themselves, this is the danger of Hollywood and Valentine’s Day: they tempt us to equate love with the feelings associated with love. This is not to condemn the feelings of love, either. On the contrary, they are good! Feelings are not to be confused with authentic love itself, but they do accompany authentic love and they do inspire us to authentic love. After all, the feelings of sexual attraction between a man and a woman are what inspire them to, through marriage, to make a lifelong commitment of devotion to one another and the new family that flows forth from their relationship. But if “I love you” means nothing more than “I am experiencing an involuntary psychological chemical reaction that draws me to you,” then the whole idea of love is pretty pathetic. We know intuitively that that is not all we mean by “I love you.” There’s something more to it. But what?

Love is, first and foremost, a choice. Defined succinctly, it is this: to will the good of the other. To love is not merely to feel. To love is to decide and to act. To love is to desire what is best for the other person even if what is best for the other person is something we don’t like. Authentic love persists even when feelings don’t. A loving father loves his baby even when it is crying at 4 a.m. A wife loves her husband even when he frustrates her. A loving person loves another person not because of what that person provides, but simply for being that person. A father may initially be inspired to love his baby by the instinctual feelings of compassion that parents feel for their children, but that is not why he loves his baby. A wife may have been inspired to love her husband by the positive qualities she noticed in him, but that is not why she loves him. The reason for love is the beloved themselves.

Consider the example of a pet. When a boy loses a dog that was very special to him, his parents may try to comfort him by assuring him that they’ll go to the pet store soon and get a new one. This doesn’t work, of course, because the boy didn’t care about the dog for what it gave him, but rather because it was itself. In fact, toward the end of the dog’s life, it may have been sick, blind, and lame, but that wouldn’t change the boy’s care for it. An object like a laptop or a toothbrush is replaceable, but someone that is loved unconditionally is irreplaceable.

Love is not proven through attempting to satisfy one’s own feelings. That just proves that one is a normal human being with desires. Love is proven through sacrifice. Love is proven through choosing what is good for the other person even when it is difficult. It shows a care for the other person’s wellbeing that supersedes one’s own feelings and desires. If a person is only able to love when it is easy, then that person is not really able to love at all. Love, ultimately, is a gift of one’s self.

Feelings can be good, but our guide and foundation in life must be our intellect. Using the intellect, we can determine how to react to our feelings rightly, and using our will, we can act. Unfortunately, we live in a society that seems to prioritize feelings above the intellect. The self-centered motto of our times is “do what feels good.” This idea is opposed to love. The motto of love is “do what is good.”

All people deserve to be loved. We, on an individual level, should love all people – we should choose to desire the good of all people and act on that choice. But we don’t have to love all people in the same way. We don’t have to love a stranger in the same way we must love, say, a spouse. Loving a stranger may simply consist of a small act of kindness, like holding a door open. Loving a spouse, on the other hand, means a total dedication of one’s life. The degree of responsibility we have for another person dictates the amount of love that we owe that person.

Another important point is that living in authentic love does not mean that we must turn a blind eye when we are being unjustly hurt or treated unfairly. In such a situation, desiring the good of the other means standing up for one’s self so that the other person is not able to act wrongly. That is ultimately what is best for both involved in the situation.

I don’t say all of this because I’ve perfectly mastered it. In fact, there’s probably not a person walking the Earth today who has. But I do believe that I have stumbled across some pieces of wisdom which I believe are worth striving to live by.

In fact, I can’t even claim most of these thoughts as my own. I must give credit to the inspiration I’ve received from my Catholic faith. I must give credit to the inspiration I’ve received from thinkers and writers such as Marcus Guevara, Jason and Crystalina Evert, Bishop Robert Barron, Pope Saint John Paul II, and Dr. Edward Sri (especially through his book “Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love”). And I must give credit to the inspiration I’ve received from people I know personally.

Does this vision of love set a high standard? Yes. Is this vision of love true and is it the type of love we ultimately long for? Yes, again. Who wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally? Who wouldn’t want to be loved simply for being who they are rather than for what they provide? And who wouldn’t want to love in this way? Whether a person has ever heard love described this way or not, we know it all along on some level. If a person is truly convicted of this vision of love, it will help them navigate their familial, platonic, and romantic relationships and even their interactions with acquaintances and strangers. It will inspire them to be the most loving person they can be in every aspect of their life.

“What is love?” is one of the most important questions that can be asked. And the answer to it is one of the most important things we can act on.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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