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The Tricky Truth About Love

What’s the difference between life and love? Two letters.

If you were one of the first readers of last week’s post, you know that I misquoted Forrest Gump’s mother. Instead of “Life is like a box of chocolates,” I wrote, “Love is like a box of chocolates.” Thanks to Heather and Lynn and others who pointed out the mistake. As I corrected it, I began to consider life and love and the two-letter tweak that morphed one into the other. Life and love are so closely related – or should be – that the misquote rings as true as the original: “Love is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna’ get.” (Apologies to author Winston Groom.)

The tricky truth about love is that:

Love is very simple

and amazingly complicated.

Love is easy,

and it’s the hardest thing we’ll ever do.

Love is an uplifting joy

and a crushing sorrow.

Love makes us strong

but extremely vulnerable.

Love threads through our highest aspirations

and our deepest regrets.

On my first day as a student in high school French class, the teacher told us that she was drawn to the language, because everything spoken in French sounds like, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Ah, oui, I love French too – there’s that slippery word love, this time used in a light, almost throwaway sense. I love French. I love the color blue. I love homemade bread. I love irises. It’s not quite the same thing as “I love you.”

The feeling of love is so rich and powerful that it’s our go-to description for several emotional states. In a recent Tumblr post, a young woman commented on a movie gif, “He just met her a moment ago and he’s already so in love!” Really? Is that even possible? One writer/critic called this “insta-love.” The love of French or blue or chocolate, and the swoon-type “insta-love” are forms of love-lite. This type of love seems to mean, “I feel so good I want more of this thing or that person.” Love-lite is actually a simple form of appreciation for something that brings us pleasure.

Of course, we also use love to describe some of our deepest commitments. Why do we paint love with such a broad brush? Maybe because love expresses our hearts, our longings, our delights, and our hopes, which are sometimes shallow and sometimes deep. So every heart-warming emotion that falls between shallow and deep gets labeled love. Still, applying love to so many different feelings can make the word seem flippant. We toss it out, and there it lies like a dropped penny in spite of the fact that love is one of the great wonders of the world.

Maybe the Greeks were wise to clarify exactly what type of love they were writing and talking about. I don’t know what they would have called love-lite, but for family love, they used the word storge. Friendship was philia, erotic/romantic love was eros, and selfless community-love was agape. All of which, in English, we lump into the one term love.

But each of those four types of love – family, friendship, romantic, and community – can show up as love thought, or love felt, or love acted, or various combinations of those three, which makes the concept of love even more slippery. We can think loving thoughts and do loving acts but not feel loving. Or we can think and feel love but not put it into action. And we can perform loving acts without thinking or feeling loving. One of the difficulties with trying to decide whether or not to label an act or feeling as love is the fact that it’s possible to perform purposeful, intentional acts of love without feeling the emotion of love. In fact, it’s possible to feel the exact opposite.

I grew up believing that to please God and go to Heaven, I had to love everyone in thought, word, and deed. It’s a wonderful and lofty goal. I never entertained the possibility that I couldn’t or wouldn’t love everyone. So I loved – in the sense of draping a warm, fuzzy blanket of love-thought over the whole world and everyone in it. Love, kindness, and compassion for all represent the ideal, and I hope for that even now. It describes the person I wish to be. But it’s also way too general, turning love into a drifting, amorphous, vague sense of goodwill and best wishes.

It’s easy to sit in a pew and claim to love everyone in the world. It’s easy to kneel at my bedside and feel warm-hearted toward all people everywhere. It’s an entirely different matter to love a friend who claims authorship of something I wrote. Or to love the guy who flips me the finger as he cuts me off in traffic. Or to love the renters next door who wake me with raucous laughter at two in the morning and leave their front lawn trashed with beer cans. Somehow I can’t blanket those events with love unless I’m intentionally blind to my own feelings.

Still, I can choose to respond in a loving way. So will the act of loving lead to the feeling? That’s one common piece of advice: act your way into the feeling. In other words, fake it ’til you make it; treat people as if you love them, and you’ll end up actually feeling the love. It’s a good idea, but in my experience, it doesn’t work. At least not with love. I have to admit that I’ve heard people say it worked for them. Maybe so – but in every case? All the time? Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some people I simply do not love. Unless I stretch that blanket definition really thin.

Yes, I’m all for treating people as I would have them treat me – with respect, kindness, and encouragement – but even when I do, it doesn’t mean I respect or trust them. Some people are not respectable or trustworthy. That’s simply the way it is. I don’t hate them or wish them harm, but pearls before swine, you know? (Matthew 7:6)

But then, that’s not the last word on love. More in next week’s post: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

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Text and photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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