Sunday, May 8, 2011

Her laughter

I'm not worried. If there is a single change I would make in you, it simply does not occur to me in this moment because it is so joyously, raucously overwhelmed by everything about you that I could not imagine wanting to change. This would be a dimmer world without you. These words trail off into obscurity before you. I only hope my eyes, my touch, my life will convey this message.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The meaning of love

tl;dr: Love is saying yes.

In my post on significance, I mentioned love. This is an extremely important concept for me, and the will to think and express myself clearly about love has probably been the most important driving force behind this whole endeavor. More than anything, I want to show that love can and should serve as a source of meaning in life, and as an answer to the conditions of tragedy and finitude that cast doubt on life's value. Clearly, then, I have a lot to say about love, but in this first post on it, I'm just going to try to say what I mean by that word, and maybe include some trailing remarks. It's very important that I do this, because what I mean by "love" is something quite specific, though I expect it to continue defying exact definition, and it is very different from some of the things the word is often used to denote.

I think it will be easiest to begin by letting you know what I don't mean by "love". I'll start by giving a rapidfire list of negative influences that shouldn't go anywhere near love, gathered under three major headings. First of all, by "love", I do not mean possessiveness: love has no part in jealousy, suspicion, or the presumption of ownership or entitlement. Second, by "love", I do not mean pathological attachment: love also has no part in need, craving, desperation, obsession, or false idealization. Thirdly, by "love" I do not mean any attitude that could promote harm or manipulation of its object: love has no part in demands, obligations, expectations, resentment, or excuses, at least in the petty or self-serving senses of those words.

When love is forced to coexist with possessiveness, pathological attachment, and manipulation, it is muted and strained, and the good work it can do in our lives is suppressed and undervalued. It is unfortunate that such things are often considered unavoidable consequences of love, or even conditions of love or part of the essence of love itself. In the way in which I use the word "love", and recommend that it be used, love is quite simply opposed to this raucous din of pathological influences. When we find ourselves under their sway, we had best take therapeutic measures to free ourselves of them, as they will diminish the voice of love or drown it out entirely.

As a final word on what I don't mean by love, I want to point out some generally positive influences that are compatible and in many cases synergistic with love, but which I do not identify with it, singly or in any combination. These include infatuation and lust, which should be enjoyed but not taken too seriously, and can make good partners for love. Openness, good will, affection, sympathy, and compassion can promote love and be promoted by it in turn, but are not love itself. Respect, admiration, and pride of association get along well with love, but do not constitute it. Thankfulness and gratitude are unquestionably virtuous states and friends of love, but should not be mistaken for it. Finally, in all of these cases, intensity of feeling is often taken as an indicator of love, but it is not love, and it can be love's most fickle partner. A particular case of love might hold flourishing associations with all of these influences, and it's hardly conceivable that love would appear in isolation from all of them, but they do not constitute love in themselves.

There are, then, an awful lot of things that love isn't. So what is it? What is it that I think is worth calling by that name, and is supposedly distinct from everything I've listed above?

To put it poetically, love is saying yes. In my usage of the word, love is an attitude whose most essential attribute is affirmation of its object, for its own sake. The object of love is experienced as something that should be, and insofar as its being is understood to entail a standard of flourishing, it is experienced as something that should flourish as well. To love something is to host a desire- a positive motivation grounded in recognition of an opportunity rather than in privation or insecurity- for its flourishing, a desire which feeds the commitment underlying the feeling of rightness toward the object of love. With this affirmation there comes an openness toward the object of love: an intimate responsiveness to its states of flourishing or diminishing. When I love something, I take its interests as my own through this openness, and in this way I become vulnerable to the contingencies of its development as I am to those of my own. In a way, love is choosing to be vulnerable. Like trust, it is a risk we take for the sake of rewards that are intangible, and perhaps ineffable (though you know I'm still trying to find the words).

Love is patient; it is not born of insecurity or pathology, and so it knows how to wait. Love is enduring because commitment is part of its essence. Love is spontaneous; it is part of who I am to love what I love, and it cannot be forced if it is not forthcoming.

This post has been waiting for weeks for me to come and finish it. There's so much more I want to say, but my thoughts are in their usual state of disorganization now, and I'm tired of leaving my most important subject on the back burner. I'm posting this now unfinished, I may update it later, and I'll be writing more about love in the future.