What is love?
In today’s world, the constant emotional dissonance provided by separation through technology, consumerism, and the isolation that results from people living in a late-stage capitalist reality separates us from our families and our communities. These factors encourage us to be on our own, to prove our worth and value, by “making ourselves shine” — often at the expense of our own fulfillment and even our connection to others. When the manner in which we prioritize our success, fulfillment, and growth is so far removed from connection to Self and interdependence (i.e. healthy collaborative reliance on others within our community) how do we as individuals grasp and embody what it means to love?
It has been almost one year since my divorce was finalized. As a woman, a mother, a lover, and a friend, this past year has been filled with inordinate amounts of reflection on the myriad types and ways in which love reveals itself to each of us, and perhaps more interesting to me, what we do/ how we react and respond to these revelations.
Perhaps more importantly, I have wondered repeatedly over the past year as relationships have germinated, died, blossomed, died, changed, and died, where does my personal understanding of love come from and why does it sometimes, needlessly seem to fall short?
How have my history and ancestral legacy, my upbringing, and my personal experiences dictated, for better or for worse, the different possibilities available to me as someone who wants to engage with herself and others from a place of love?
Do I even know what love is?
I mean, really?
I look at what I was taught, which, to be honest, was an idolized Disney-informed understanding of romantic love (the flip-side of that was the psychologically and verbally abusive chaos modeled by my folks, which taught me to understand that to love someone truly meant to invite chaos into your life and ostensibly treat them like crap, because they were a “safe” container for all of your insecurities, fears, resentments, etc… )
Not the best foundation.
The subsequent result of that meant that my childhood nervous system took on a hypervigilant, oftentimes dysregulated approach to experiencing other forms of love: fawning/ people-pleasing, lent itself over time to having porous interpersonal boundaries, and the inevitable drama that comes from that: the dissolution of relationships, growing apart, implosions, you know the drill.
On the flip side of this people-pleasing trauma response, lay my very strong personal need to stand up and fight against moral injustice, so more often than naught, because of the injustice I created through my people-pleasing reaction (child response to stay safe), I fought, argued, and made a racket, in the name of the injustice that I allowed into my life, mind you.
Funny, how we create our own personal soap-operas to teach us.
So now that you know a bit more about my neurotic dysfunction, let’s zoom out and assume we all carry some limiting understanding about love. Let’s face it, if even a small crew of us were born fully formed from the lotus blossom with a whole an unblemished understanding an application of love, our planet would not be in the state it is in right now.
So, the premise: what love is or is not is misunderstood in some way. How are we as a species falling short, when it comes to accessing, interpreting, and applying love in our everyday interactions?
What we could be doing better?
Where is our focus misguided?
Okay, Amy, okay. You have rambled enough. Are you going to make your point?
I sure hope so…
Let’s define love, then, because otherwise the bunch of smoke I just blew up my own a$# in the preceding paragraphs serves no purpose, and you might as well stop reading if you haven’t already.
I like to think of myself as a pretty loving person. After all, my name, “Amy” literally has roots in the word “to love.” I would like to think that I love most of the people I interact with, in some way, shape, or form. Do I though if I don’t even know what love means?
- Scott Peck writes, Love is […] ‘the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth […] Love is as love does. Love is an act of will– namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” This definition is appealing to me for a few reasons.
First, it denotes love as being a choice, “the will to extend…”
Because it is a choice, it requires intention behind it. Why do you love? We get to choose who and what we love. We also get to determine and discern why we love.
Do not be mistaken! To choose to love someone is different from the process most of us experience when we are suddenly swept up in emotion and increased desire to care for someone. The experience of cathecting to another, whereby we find ourselves feeling increased emotion for someone, whether it is motivated by physical attraction, obligation, or the person is suddenly important to us is not love. To cathect, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to invest with mental or emotional energy.”
Most of us mistake this for love. I know I sure have.
So let’s examine the first part of Peck’s definition: to love is a choice. It is neither something that we fall into, nor something that happens to us. We are not a victim of love. We may, however, be victims of cathecting, which is, perhaps another article for another time.
Second, Peck states that to love is “to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” If your intention for loving is in service and for the purpose of nurturing your or another’s spiritual growth, how do your thoughts, actions, and expression of those actions in relation to your child, yourself, your lover, your friend, your coworker, a stranger– change from how you view and embody and enact love now?
Upon reflection on that definition, the list of people I love shrinks exponentially. Suddenly, I realize I am a lot more selfish than I like to admit.
Sure, there are times when I hold a larger container for the spiritual evolution of many people. When I teach, when I am with my son, but the reality is that in my day-to-day experience, I am less concerned with the stranger in the grocery line’s spiritual evolution than I care to admit. And the bare-bones truth is most people are not considering everyone’s evolution as they go about their day. Heck, most people aren’t even prioritizing their own.
Bell Hooks in her book “All About Love,” responds to Peck’s definition, “When we understand love as the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth, it becomes clear that we cannot claim to love if we are hurtful and abusive. Love and abuse cannot coexist.”
Uh-oh. She got me. My guess is she got most of us. I cannot tell you how often I abuse myself with my thoughts, my feelings, my judgments, and my shame. I have been so guilty of not loving myself. Have you?
Let’s go micro in scope for a second. Forget everyone else. Let’s talk about self-love for a second.
How many times a day do you negate your value? How often do you criticize your body? How easy is it for you to allow your focus to slip into the comparison of your “lack” relative to someone else’s success? How many thoughts or experiences over the course of your day feed the narrative that you are unlovable?
So much of our society’s idea of success operates on the idea that we are not enough and that we must make something of ourselves to prove our worth. As I mentioned earlier, this requires isolation, separation, and disconnection. We spend a lot of our waking time, inundated with media, thoughts, and feelings that reinforce the idea that it is impossible to love ourselves based on Peck’s definition.
Our misunderstandings of love are deeply ingrained across many of the institutions of which humanity is a part. We have been conditioned to believe that love of another — and love of self — by definition, must come with conditions.
Our upbringing, our shame, our isolation, guilt, and personal, spiritual, emotional, and professional obligations, all contribute to the burden of our misinterpretation of love as something with conditions. Unfortunately, we hardly have the time to pause and reflect on what love actually is, before we must scroll onto the next idea, the next attention-getter, the next experience that drives a deeper wedge in our own ability to connect with ourselves and give pause to question,
“Is this experience, feeling, or reaction originating from an action rooted in love?” How often do you actually reflect on that throughout the day? I wish I did it more.
Right now, our society has very little “time” for a disciplined daily commitment to self-evolution. Additionally, the culture of kindness, community, and collaboration that enables love to flourish more fluently and easefully between people has been replaced with individualistic, and often ego-based self-serving actions that flaunt themselves “in the name of Love,” in language only, but the practice of this is lacking in our day-to-day lives.
The unraveling of the linguistic and emotional implications of the misunderstanding of how one can give and receive love may take practice, depending on your background, cultural or religious history, educational experiences, and soul development.
Sheesh. Is there any hope?
Lastly, Peck’s defines love as an action:
“To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility (Hooks 13).”
I just love this. I have been through the emotional roller-coaster here writing this article, and this last bit fills me with hope.
Let’s recap. To love is something you choose.
It is a commitment to nurturing your spiritual growth, which holds no space for abuse of any kind.
Finally, it is something you do. An invitation to be and act in service of Self and others’ spiritual growth and evolution.
As an educator this just rings true to me in so many ways; how else can you instruct, guide, and teach another if you are not committed to their evolution of spirit through action? I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I just sat there with my mouth shut and did nothing all day.
As a parent, this defines my role in relation to my child; I exist as a mother exclusively to love, nurture, and provide opportunities — all by choice and through action — for him to cultivate his spiritual essence and evolve it, so that he may grow and be the best version of himself.
As a friend, this definition delineates clear boundaries and expectations of what my position is in every single exchange; honor my evolution and yours. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less.
As a daughter, my role is clear. I am a progeny, an animal, and therefore, my job as the legacy of my parents is to evolve. When Love is invited into that equation, it becomes increasingly interesting, because it is not just about evolving genetic physical traits, but the action of uprooting, repositioning, and inviting in new opportunities interpersonally that perhaps my ancestral lineage has never had access to until I came into being.
In romantic relationships, (I feel like a broken record here) the choice to nurture spiritual evolution is an action of love over possessiveness, insecurities, and personal trauma narratives, whilst continuing to maintain the priority of my personal spiritual growth is an act of balance.
So what, Amy? Thanks for the insight. Now what do I do with this?
I think there is a lot we could do; let’s start here.
Here is my invitation to you:
- Take an inventory of all your relationships. All of them.
- Identify the following:
- Are you choosing these relationships?
- Are you nurturing yours AND their spiritual evolution?
- Is the presence — however insidious — of abuse lying somewhere in the rushes of this relationship
- How are you negotiating responsibility and accountability in the relationship?
- Practice — for one day to start —with a commitment to choosing to nurture through action your love of Self. If that is easy for you, extend this commitment to another important relationship in your life.
What do you notice changes about the way you show up in your connections with yourself, and with others?
I’m curious to find out for myself.
Copyright Amy Hellman 2023