♦ LAST UPDATED ON February 5, 2021 ♦
“Love, especially true love, makes life worth living.”
Would you agree? Is that a good short-form for the meaning of true love? If nobody loves you, if nobody ever loved you, if nobody will ever love you, if you never loved and if you cannot or never will love — then what is the significance of being alive?
OK, call me the fool I am, but let’s ponder about all that just a little more.
People use the word “love” in so many ways that any one rigorous definition is futile. Rather than working out a lexical definition of the term, we ought to evoke its meaning through our shared experiences. I have come to think that the term love, including true love, is really used more as a metaphor than anything else.
The philosopher of language H. P. Grice drew attention to a difference between things that have meaning on their own – like the position of a window in a wall – and those things that have meaning because somebody meant something by them. Grice describes things that have meaning, as it were, on their own as having natural meaning, and those that need a specific type of ‘meaning-maker’ as examples of non-natural meaning.
Words in a language require meaning-makers who communicate with a very specific intention: that somebody else would recognize their intention, and thereby come to believe something. That is, when people say “I love this or that,” they mean to say that this or that is really valuable to them. Be that so.
The Love that makes the world go ’round
However, my concern with love, including true love, is with its meaning in the context of an interpersonal relationship between two living singles, excluding the following: “I love my car.” “I do not love myself.” “My cat loves being cuddled.” “God loves me.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I have come to ponder primarily about the love that makes the world go around – that is the possibility that there can be love between a living man and a living woman. If so, can anything really substitute for that? Can the love for or by a god substitute for that?
In the end, I prefer the real love of a compassionate woman over God’s love most anytime. And I am happy to grant women all their desires and hopes for a caring man capable of real love and loving.
Love, in its simplicity and loosely defined structure, is broadly adaptable to significant affection and esteem between a man and a woman. That is just my take on the issue of orienting love, others may take a broader or narrower or simply different approach — so be it. I have read Ronald de Sousa’s book Love: – A Very Short Introduction and found it very informative and recommendable. But no, it isn’t short, it is comprehensive.
Is God’s love preferable?
Regrettable, most churches in the Western world promote the issues of God’s love and marriage at the expense of erotic and/or conjugal love. By erotic love, I do not mean just the experience of sexual sensation at all. Erotic love is much broader in scope, but these few words seem to always hit the wrong keys with many moralists.
Erotic love is a passionate love as it springs from a desire for beauty. As such, it can be found in many lived experiences other than those originating solely in bed. Freud told us that pre-puberty boys are ‘in love’ with their mother. It is well known that women can be secretly ‘in love’ with Jesus, much to the irritation of their husbands. Courtly love in the Middle Ages, often an illicit yet not consummated love between a knight and a maid of higher social standing, had been sung about by many troubadours. Erotic love is different from sex.
Can a regular human really have a fulfilling marriage without erotic love? God’s love is not much help as it is a different love altogether, a love that operates in a rather ‘otherworldly,’ scope, sort of as an ethereal abstraction. The idea that God wants us to love each other as brothers and sisters is nice, but should I look forward to marrying my sister? I cannot help but think that God’s love is a love akin to a love of a parent toward a child — if applied to the earthly realm — and not really a substitute for the love that makes the two people more than ‘tolerate’ each other.
Erotic love has gotten the public bum rap because it is deemed unsafe. In our minds, we can easily distinguish between sex and love and family, the three projects connecting a man and a woman in interpersonal relationships. Historically, sex has been consented to by the Christian religion at best as a ‘necessary evil’ in service of procreation. And love, seen as vagarious and being closely associated with sex, has been dislodged by the Christian religion in favor of Agape love. It comes in handy for clerics when trying to preserve the authority of their calling. Passionate, erotic love is way too unruly they imply. You must trust them instead of your passions of love.
But real life is not that discriminating. The love between two living people wanting to share a bed with each other, in contrast to godly love imagined in the sanctuary of a ‘purified’ mind, is erotic by nature.
That is the way Mother Nature made it. ‘We are a weird, wonderful and sometimes downright kinky species,’ writes Neil McArthus, a philosopher at the University of Manitoba in Canada, in this Aeon essay on stone-age sex. To get around that predicament, unsavory or intriguing as it may be, the Christian religion says that this earthly life is unworthy, and we ought to abstain — if we can — and look forward to a better one in the next life.
Young people may find that hard to swallow, as I always did. As a consequence, it seems, that many young people find their pragmatic orientation in love and life via peer pressure in high school. And that is unfortunate as testosterone and estrogen rule in adolescence.
I resonate with French romantic writer Stendhal (1782-1852) who wrote in On Love that ‘…love is no ethereal abstraction but an urgent practical necessity for which good advise and preparation are essential.’ There you have it. I did not get good advice and preparation from my parents or my church during my formative years of youthful curiosity. Again, I do not refer to sex but the real love that makes the world go ’round. A small dose of healthy intuition often helped me out to avoid the worst. Somehow, I always knew the difference between sex and love, and I cared about it.
Please do not ditch romantic love
While romantic love perhaps is the volatile affair as suspected by many of the weary — with people ‘falling in love heads over heels’ and all — must there not be natural gradations in the intensity of how romantic love is experienced? Can it be nothing but bad? How about just too early? I do not mind having ‘fallen in love’ a couple of times in my youth. Not at all. It had felt really good then, to be honest, and — considering all things — I am glad to still have these memories today. Had I ever fallen ‘madly’ in love, it probably would have been another story.
Sure, it did not work out then, during my teenage years, as hoped for — as I was not really ready for the contingency of love. Yes, one is ‘in love’ when love smites, and few other things will matter then. ‘Love is blind,’ as they say — and I know exactly what they mean by that. Romantic love does seldom last more than a year or two. It will fade more often than not into memory, but on many occasions grow into the real love bonding the two lovers for good.
Today I still carry the scars of hurts from disappointments due to youthful inexperience. The hurts have largely healed over and the scars are not debilitating at all. I look at them as badges of honor. Once in a while, however, a scar bursts — much like a little pimple, and I just have to wipe it off. The unforgettable memories of unrequited romantic love continue to fuel my passions here and there, I cannot deny it.
Yes, the dictionaries say that we ‘suffer’ our passions. Passions are feelings of intense enthusiasm towards or compelling desire, barely controllable, for someone or something. English philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) wrote prominently about it. Passions are about what moves us. Passions are about what makes us come alive. In short, passions matter as we act on them rather than pure reason alone. And we suffer passions because we cannot turn them off as we are unable to attain the fulfillment of their underlying desires.
Real love is contingent
How can real love, passionately real love find its footing? And what does it mean to say that real love is a contingent thing? Romantic love is not contingent as the two people want to be together for eternity — but are not yet. Each is still alone in his or her perspective of life, in his or her emotional state – undecided, wondering, hoping, fearing, imaginating, falling, falling, falling over the precipice… Unless they meet somewhere over the precipice they will not make it — they will miss each other, fly off in their separate ways, and the romantic experience will fade into their poetic memory. If romantic love is unrequited, one may suffer as much as two.
But when they meet, when they encounter each other on the other side of the precipice, they may decide that this is it, they may openly endorse each other for the first time as what each is for the other — the One.
At that moment, real love begins. Mutual dependency is acknowledged and endorsed, and love and life become contingent on the fidelity of each lover. Real love then is when and while it lasts. In other words, and for me, conjugal love — that is that real, reciprocated, bonded and lasting erotic love between a man and a woman, makes life in this world worth living.
True love endures the test of time
True love is taking the expression of real love to another height. Real love may be true when and while it lasts, but can only be called true love when it endured the ups and downs of life.
Few people have publicly exemplified this kind of love. Privately, yes, many, many more — all unsung heroes. We do not know much about them, only their children may still remember them, while rarely getting to tell. Publicly, real love that has lasted the test of time is almost unheard of.
Jesus, apparently, could not get himself to be married. Buddha refrained from passions altogether. Mohammad had a few wives, yes, but he lived a long time ago and thus we are not sure anymore about what was going on and that it was true love ever. Was it? The Catholic popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, etc., do not even marry — it freaks me out. Mother Theresa was too devoted to caring for the poor. And Hugh Hefner could not be trusted, anyway.
So, who’s left? The late Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han? Perhaps. I wrote about him here. True love has been one of Moon’s favorite expressions in his many speeches — when trying to inspire members about God, love, and life. While we will never really know, we may believe that theirs was true love. I figure, it most certainly was erotic love as well. The face, some say, is like an instrument panel. Facial expressions of love, like in the picture, and corresponding demeanors and behaviors are hard to fake over time, only actions are not so. And the Moons had many kids.
Was, or is it true love for them? Mrs. Moon, nowadays referred to admiringly as the Mother of Peace by many members and friends of the Unification community, says that it is so.
I recently read her memoirs Mother of Peace, hoping to get to know about her personal life a bit more. Her story, as told in the book, is not as revealing or introspective as I had hoped. Still, it gave me a good idea of what, perhaps, motivates her – it is a devotion to ‘living for the sake of others,’ I believe. Commendable as it is, living for the sake of others does not say much about whether or not she truly loved her husband and/or if they were mere soulmates in terms of a shared devotion, an attitude of self-sacrifice and self-denial.
I know that matters of love and life are not either/or, so I am giving her, and them, the benefit of the doubt. True love, as I think about it, is real love that endured the ups and downs of life, love that endured the test of time. Does real love, and thus true love, allow for tensions — ever — in a relationship, for disagreements, for ecstasy, for upsets, for forgiveness, for cold days, for romance? You bet it does.
True love is rare
Regarding true love, others like Henry VIII or Madame de Pompadour certainly do not qualify, but what about Abigail and John Adams? Abigail Adams is hailed for her now-famous admonition that the Founding Fathers “remember the ladies” in their new laws. She was not only an early advocate for women’s rights, she was a vital confidant and advisor to her husband John Adams, the nation’s second president. As such, she opposed slavery and supported women’s education.
‘Adams is also remembered for the many letters she wrote to her husband while he stayed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Continental Congresses. John frequently sought the advice of Abigail on many matters, and their letters are filled with intellectual discussions on government and politics. The letters serve as eyewitness accounts of the American Revolutionary War home front,’ says Wikipedia, and less so about their personal relationship.
Moreso, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony also had a famous, a passionate love relationship with each other. As rival forces entered Alexandria, the distraught Antony committed suicide by his own sword. Cleopatra followed him in death. Hollywood told us that she killed herself with a poisonous snake bite to her breast. Was it true love? I doubt their extended fidelity, even though they now live together for eternity in death.
‘True love is a rare occasion, it seems. ‘Humans are a weird, wonderful and sometimes downright kinky species,’ explains Neil McArthus in his Aeon essay on stone-age sex. ‘Beneath all of our diversity, the thinking goes, there are certain forms of behavior, such as stable heterosexual pair bonding, that might not be universal, but which recur with sufficient regularity as to be considered the norm.’
True love will perhaps never be that universal norm — not in this world, but it is amazing that we may aspire to it, and so live just as many sung and unsung heroes already have done.