Pondering Love

There are those who believe that love is just an emotion. It can’t be explained and you shouldn’t even try. You can only know it when you feel it. I’m not one of those people.

I’m in the camp of “keep asking why until you understand”. Some topics require a lot of asking. Lately I’ve been pondering love, in particular what does it mean to love someone. One way to try to understand is to examine how things change when what you’re thinking about is there vs. when it’s not there. Love is one of those things that lends itself to this kind of consideration. The first thing that I notice is that “not love” is simply the absence of love. It’s not hate or any form of “anti-love”, it’s simply absence. Nothing needs to rush in to fill the gap when love isn’t there it’s just something that doesn’t happen to be a part of your life. Daily I experience “not Ferrari” but “not Ferrari” doesn’t imply “in Nissan” even though that’s what I own. Life is rich and full and there are lots of things to fill it up. Those things that aren’t a part of your life may make you poorer in some way, but we’re all poor in some way if you want to be negative about it.

If not loving someone doesn’t mean anything other than the circumstances haven’t arranged themselves so that I might love them, then when I do love them what’s different? I’ve come up with the following …

  1. I care about that person’s wellbeing. In other words, I want them to be safe, secure and healthy.
  2. I care about their happiness.
  3. I want them in some way to be a part of my life.

Notice that I numbered these. I believe they are in priority order. Even if it makes someone I love unhappy I may feel motivated to arrange things to keep them safe. If you’ve ever had kids you’ve been there. The trade-off between 3 and 1 or 2 can be hard. Sometimes for their wellbeing or happiness they can’t be a part of your life at least for a while. Not a pleasant circumstance but it’s what you do sometimes when you truly love someone. For me it’s the last item, wanting them to be part of you life, that distinguishes love from general good will. For the most part I want everyone on the planet to be safe, healthy and happy, but I don’t need all of them to be a part of my life. I do want those that I love to be part of my life.

I don’t think the list is any longer. There is a lot of clutter that gets piled on top of loving relationships; often to the detriment of those relationships. The various promises made during a traditional wedding have little to do with love, have a fair amount to do with trust, sometimes have to do with authority and control, and still occasionally carry the remnants of being a transaction. The various significant other relationships often tend to be weaker versions of this. These agreements aren’t necessarily bad and may be very practical, they just don’t have anything to do with love.

Part of the clutter that often comes with traditional loving relationships is the requirement for the other person to sacrifice in some way. If you’ve ever seen the movie “A Knight’s Tale” you’ve seen an example of this. That isn’t love in my opinion. That’s either a power play or a transaction (I’ll give you what you want if you give me what I want). This happens in politics and business all the time, but at least they’re honest about it.

A danger that can occur when you assert that you love someone is that all of the above comes along for the ride. I believe that assumptions and misunderstandings are the overwhelming cause of relationship disasters. Unfortunately, and thank God, we can’t all be Howard Hughes and have an attorney with us whenever we start a relationship. Most of us err on the side of caution. This is unfortunate because love may not be expressed for fear that more will be read into it than is really meant. This in turn limits the ability for many to know they are loved and that’s sad. There are so many people in my life that I care for, want to be happy, and want to be a part of my life but I have to be so indirect about it that sometimes the message doesn’t get through. It’s strange that when we can’t really say want we want we default to saying too little (though we may talk a lot) because the language gets in the way.

Nothing here talks about how intensely we may love someone. That’s a different discussion.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject at the moment. If anyone else happens to read this, I’d love to hear yours.

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  1. It would be fun to chat with Sankar about this (say "Hi" for me), but perhaps he was talking about the three "gunas"? (Ain't Google grand?) If so, they map the space a little differently than your list, but in either case the idea of representation in a three-space is intriguing. Such not only suggests paths, but also the valid domains. For example, are there negative versions of the quantities? Perhaps the negative of your #1 would correspond to the gunas "tamas"? Probably not that simple, but pondering such transformations might lead to interesting insights.

    The use of color space is particularly germane, because of the way it maps to human perception. Although one can define negative values, they are meaningless. In fact, color is properly defined only in terms of human perception. No doubt pushing the metaphor too far, but are these properties limited to humanity, or do they have an independent meaning?

    I would suggest not, just as your list has to do with motivation, and not actions. One can imagine identical actions performed both with and without a loving motive. The motive is important. Lots to ponder.

  2. Interesting, one of the first things that occurred to me when reading this is whether there is a "cost" axis -- what one would give up to achieve the items in the list? Perhaps the same thing as intensity, but didn't occur to me that way. Yes, that may be a different discussion, but it seems that may actually be the main one.

    • I was talking with my friend Sankar this last weekend. Among other things he spends his time translating and writing a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. He was saying that a portion of the Gita attempts to describe human behavior as a function of three characteristics. Unfortunately, I can't remember those characteristics at the moment, but the analogy was to think of them as defining a space like a color space where various combinations of those characteristics yield a particular kind of behavior.

      This notion is intriguing and might be applied here. If you imagine a space defined by the three elements that I describe then varying intensities of each will provide a location within that space. We use other words to label those regions. For example, I asserted that if you are concerned with a person's wellbeing and happiness but don't really want them to be a part of your life then that's labeled general "good will" and would be on the middle of one edge of the triangular space. Equal intensities of all three would put you in the middle of the triangle and may be labeled "true love". It's really more of a psycholinguistic kind of study, I suppose, but it's interesting to ponder especially when you consider paths through this space. Collections of these paths might reveal "textures" on the space that could shed some insight into human culture and behavior.


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