Musings On Love: What Is It?

Love TankWhat is Love? What is good for? How do we get it and why do we need it? This is the story that spawned my recent project concerning the Love Poem.

How and why I started thinking about this was quite accidental. I was watching a TED Talk about how environmentalists need to change the way they talk about saving the planet. Most of the time they are trying to scare people into polluting less so that our future isn’t so bleak.

It got me thinking about the stories we tell about the future. These stories usually depict some post-apocalyptic scenario of survival or maybe a seemingly utopian environment that comes at the great loss of liberty and expression due to an overreaching authority. Or killer robots. The reason for this may simply be that all good stories need a source of conflict and if I story takes place in the future, that setting is likely pivotal to the conflict. But what about the actual future? What does it have in store for us?

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the future. There are television screens in gas station pumps and your phone can take pictures and tell you how far you’ve run. These are neat things, but we’re still fighting wars and killing each other and judging others’ value systems. Is there a future where we eliminate that reality or is it in our nature to be rotten to one another for as long as humankind exists? What’s the solution?

Late one summer night I was driving to work and mulling these thoughts over and the solution seemed obvious. We just need to stop being rotten to each other. We need to love one another. And it had a profound impact on me emotionally. Of course I’m not the first to come to this realization. Philosophers, scientists, authors, and musicians have been expressing the importance of love for centuries. So why is love such a problem when the only thing needed to make it is the willingness of the human spirit?

Love makes me uncomfortable. I love my parents, my sister, my niece and nephew, all my extended family, and my friends. But I don’t say it. I don’t like to say it. That isn’t to say I don’t express it from time to time, but it’s usually in the form of an unexpected gift or unsolicited help with a project.  I don’t say, “I love you.” At least not often. I’m not sure I could pinpoint a reason why. If I had to guess maybe it’s because for so long I’ve been building up walls for defense. Love is a great thing, but you have to bring down those walls and be vulnerable to share it. I’ve had friendships that soured, a few romantic relationships that left me feeling used or betrayed, and tense moments with loved ones when I thought we understood each other better. So those walls go up to prevent that from happening again. It’s like anything else, if you see diminishing returns, maybe it’s time to cut your losses.

Those are just my hang ups. What’s stopping the rest of the world? Maybe similar circumstances maybe something else. Maybe it’s that vulnerability aspect that makes us think of love as a weakness instead of a strength.

Then there is the fact that love has different meanings. I feel that too often when we’re talking about love we’re talking about romance. Romance is a specific kind of love and it can be very intense. When you feel that passion for another person saying, “I love you,” takes on a whole different meaning than when you say the same thing to your parents or kids. If the word “love” has just become synonymous with “romance” we can probably thank any number of marketers for helping that happen. It’s no secret that sex sells. And if we didn’t have that instinct and desire to have sex, then the human species would go instinct. So it’s not as if romance is stupid or an irrelevant kind of love, but I feel that it’s just not the most important variety of love.

And I don’t think I’m the only one uncomfortable with love. Men have long been accused of not sharing their emotions in general, and maybe rightfully so. Why is that? The little bit I’ve read about it suggests that this is more of a societal issue. Men are taught at an early age that showing emotion is emasculating or wrong. Intellectually I know that displaying emotions is not wrong or emasculating, but I’ve gotten pretty good and masking my emotions, good and bad.

Maybe it’s just that we all display emotions differently. I love creating things. Performing music is one of the greatest emotional releases I’ve found. The only downside is that if I’m feeling too much of one way, the setlist can get a little unbalanced. You can only sing the blues for so long.

Maybe the problem is that love just isn’t cool. Most of us reach a point during our childhood when we’d rather not have our friends at school see our parents hug us when they drop us off for the day. Maybe a generation of stoned hippies shoving daisies into soldiers’ rifles left a sour taste in our collective mouth, especially when those same hippies eventually got a hair cut and jobs and became squares like everyone else, with their flower power not amounting to what they once imagined. The list goes on.

As I thought more about love as a solution to our problems, I found evidence of this almost everywhere I looked. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David and Goliath, he writes about how disadvantages and setbacks may work out in one’s favor. It was toward’s the end of the book that I first read about Wilma and Cliff Derksen, whose 13 year old daughter was bound, raped, and left in a shed in Winnipeg where she would freeze to death. After some soul-searching and a tall with the father of another murdered child, the Derksens agreed to make a press statement. From page 253 of David and Goliath:

“How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.

“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.

Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She continued, “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase “at this point.” “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”

(For more on this story without reading the book, read the article”How I Rediscovered Faith“)

For most of us to even consider forgiving the murderer of a loved one is outrageous. I like to think I might be able to try, but the instinct is to go for justice. Find who did this and do the same. In May of 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was killed by Seal Team Six, I remember America exploding in celebration. It seemed odd to me. I’m not a terrorist, or Muslim, or sympathizer. And I don’t have a problem with bringing evil-doers to justice. I asked a like minded friend if he thought it was weird that people were celebrating the death of someone, that t-shirts were being printed with images of the Statue of Liberty holding Bin Laden’s severed head. He said no, that Bin Laden was a close to a modern day Hitler as we’ve had. So maybe I was alone on that one. It recalls the question, if you had access to a time machine would you go back in time and kill Hitler before the holocaust? Most people say yes, and I probably would too. But what if it was nine year old Hitler? (Digression: And would removing Hitler before he was a player eliminate World War II, or would that tyrannical role just have fallen to someone else? And what if Hitler’s replacement had done worse damage? Sorry, the mind wanders.)

What are the limits of love? Would you kill for love? Die for love? And if so, for whose love? Where is the line drawn?

With these various factors in mind I started making a list of what love meant to me. It’s a broad range, much like when I pontificate about art. To me love is letting other cars merge with traffic. Love is letting someone go in front of you at the checkout line when you have a full cart and they have a pack of dental floss. Love is when a bartender gives you a free drink. It’s things you do for others without expecting anything in return.

As I’ve thought more about this question, can we ever get to a perfect society and is love the way to get there, I think the answer is no. We are human. We are not perfect. We are not ever going to be perfect. However, just because we cannot be perfect, does not mean we should not strive to be better, and I still think love is the big factor in that equation.

To err is human; to forigve, divine. – Alexander Pope


The preceding is part of a work in progress and these musings on love are what drove me to write the humorous Love Poem and launch a project on Kickstarter.

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