What Is Love?

This has been the question of the ages. In the English language, this word has been so misused, watered down, and misconstrued that it is no wonder most of us no longer believe in love as anything more than an overly romanticized ideal. To embrace something, we must be able to connect with and understand it to some degree. I believe there is a powerful and effective definition of love. One that can help us both find love and guide us down a healing path. As put forth in The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck, MD, brilliantly defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”*

We defined spirituality and spiritual growth here. Love is the driving force of spiritual evolution. Thus love does not just happen. On the contrary, love requires effort and sacrifice.

“We are incapable of loving another unless we love ourselves, just as we are incapable of teaching our children self-discipline unless we ourselves are self-disciplined. It is actually impossible to forsake our own spiritual development in favor of someone else’s.”*

So what about the myth of romantic love? The idea that there is someone meant for us. I believe this is a lie, a terrible one, perpetrated with good intent, but that leads us astray and fails to instill the clarity of what love requires and leads us to the state of disarray and failed relationships.

Think about it. The idea that we simply fall for someone is nothing more than a conscious or unconscious feeling, sexually motivated. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes a lot of sense for the procreation of the species. But this is not love. It is not an act of will. But loving someone is. To love someone requires work, it requires choice, and it requires discipline. As strange as it sounds, to love is to love. Thus, we cannot truly love someone until we first love ourselves unconditionally.

Love doesn’t just happen. Love is a choice. Usually, it begins when we have fallen for someone after the emotional feelings have subsided. That is the time we can decide to love someone truly. We can also choose to love our children when they are born. This will make more sense as we dive further in.

That said, we often dream of someone saving us, a “Prince Charming,” or finding someone who will be our life partner. But when we enter into a relationship where we depend on another person, whether it is for emotional stability, strength, or support, we are not in love. We are dependent upon them, and that is parasitism. When you need another person to survive, you are a parasite on them. Think about that. Two people can only be in love when they can live without each other but choose to live with each other.

Now it is perfectly healthy and natural to desire someone to be there for us and take care of us, but we just cannot let the desire rule us or mislead us into thinking that it is love.

So then, how do we find true love? The only way is first to do the spiritual work to build yourself into a disciplined person worthy of love. In other words, you must first find unconditional love for yourself. In this process, you will develop the self-discipline to delay gratification, accept responsibility for your lives and choices, dedicate yourself to the truth, and find and maintain a balance throughout the process. Thus love and discipline go hand in hand.

“Love is not simply giving; it is judicious giving and judicious withholding as well. It is judicious praising and judicious criticizing. It is judicious arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing, and pulling in addition to comforting. It is leadership. The word “judicious” means requiring judgment, and judgment requires more than instinct; it requires thoughtful and often painful decision making.”*

Everything we do is because we choose to do it. And we make the choices that satisfy us the most. Without being mindful and without overcoming the desire to conserve energy or be lazy, we cannot love.

Laziness, interestingly enough, is the opposite of love. Love entails work, sacrifice, and giving without expecting anything in return.  To love is one of the hardest but most rewarding and fulfilling things we can do.  And while love takes effort, it is something we all need and crave. It is part of what makes us human. And as anyone who genuinely loves knows, there is an innate pleasure in truly loving another. We love because we want to love. We need to love. The best part? Genuine love is self-replenishing. It enlarges the self. Even though it takes energy, it actually refills us with more energy rather than depletes us. That is why love is both selfish and unselfish at the same time.  It is one of the truest and most healing ways of giving to others and ourselves simultaneously.

It is important to point out that we can only truly love another human being. When we love someone, we cathect or engage in the process of making something important to us. We can cathect anything, sports, animals, a car. But under this definition, only a human can spiritually grow; thus we can only truly love another human.

Moreover, simply making something important to us alone is not love. This is because genuine love transcends the matter of cathecting. When we love, it is without a guarantee or control of the outcome and is not conditioned upon feelings. It is a choice. The choice to listen, to hear. To be there for someone without condition, only with the desire to empower your or their spiritual growth. Even though love is unconditional, it is a unique process by which the giver and the receiver both receive.

“True listening, total concentration on the other, is always a manifestation of love. An essential part of true listening is the discipline of bracketing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside, stepping inside his or her shoes. This unification of speaker and listener is actually an extension and enlargement of ourself, and new knowledge is always gained from this. Moreover, since true listening involves bracketing, a setting aside of the self, it also temporarily involves a total acceptance of the other.”*

The reason we must understand this point is that “romantic love” alone is effortless, it just happens. By understanding that when the emotions fade away, is when the work of love can begin. Because of this challenge, the shifting from effortless to work, couples are often reluctant and unwilling to take on the effort and discipline necessary for genuine love and listening. Thus love always requires courage and involves risks.

We can only love someone that is important to us. But with all cathexis, there is always the risk of loss of rejection. Thus the price of cathexis is pain. So if you chose to embrace a full life, do it knowing that it will be full of pain, which in my opinion beats the alternative, which is not to live a full life or not even to live at all.

Life itself represents a risk, and the more lovingly we live, the more chances we take. While we can hide from the risks and forsake our freedom, there is a powerful truth. And the truth is that the only real security in life lies in relishing life’s insecurity. Thus the highest forms of love are inevitably free choices and not acts of conformity.

How do we empower and support another’s growth to make a loving relationship work? We do this through a commitment to the love of that person. It takes courage, vulnerability, and the careful exercise of power with humility. Often to support someone’s growth, we must discuss challenging topics. So we must first think deeply before acting.

“The dilemma can be resolved only by painstaking self-scrutiny, in which the lover examines stringently the worth of his or her “wisdom” and the motives behind this need to assume leadership. “Do I really see things clearly or am I operating on murky assumptions? Do I really understand my beloved? Could it not be that the path my beloved is taking is wise and that my perception of it as unwise is the result of limited vision on my part? Am I being self-serving in believing that my beloved needs redirection?” These are questions that those who truly love must continually ask themselves. This self-scrutiny, as objective as possible, is the essence of humility or meekness. In the words of an anonymous fourteenth-century British monk and spiritual teacher, “Meekness in itself is nothing else than a true knowing and feeling of a man’s self as he is. Any man who truly sees and feels himself as he is must surely be meek indeed.”*

The genuine love that I believe we all seek and need is discipline, and it involves great work, courage, and vulnerability. Love is a uniquely reciprocal gift beyond measure and worth all the effort. Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss. And it all starts by first learning to love yourself unconditionally.

I hope you find some clarity through this, and if you want to dive deeper, I highly recommend you read Dr. Peck’s book *here.

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