February 14, Valentine’s Day, is a holiday of the heart, a day when we celebrate Love and give gifts and send greetings to those we love. This has always been a special holiday for me, because my maiden name was Valentine, a name I was sorry to “give up” with marriage.
We usually think of Valentine’s Day as a holiday meant especially for lovers. But what is love? And who are lovers? Is love just a feeling, or is it a social contract? How is it experienced? What has been its significance in human culture and human history? Why is it such an important emotion? How does love drive so much of what we desire and what we do? How does love differ from passion? From lust?
Love as Emotion
I only speak for myself when I write about love as an emotion, because emotions are private experiences. Others cannot truly know or experience the way we feel; they can only experience the ways our emotions drive us to act. I also suspect (in fact, I feel quite sure) that the experience of love is strongly colored by hormones coursing through the bloodstream that bind to receptors on neurons in the brain. So men and women no doubt love differently, and this can lead to endless misunderstandings.
Love is probably the most positive of all emotions, and it can take many forms: romantic love; caring deeply for others; awe of the surrounding world; love of the ineffable (sometimes called “God”). The apostle, Paul, wrote about love eloquently in Chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians. His understanding of love in this passage is caritas, the love that cares–charity in its original sense.
The love object may be another human being, or it may be another living thing or an inanimate object. It may even be an idea. Whatever its object, love motivates us to be near and to care for the beloved. This desire to be near–to care for–another, can lead to a possessiveness that becomes destructive to both the beloved and the lover. Selfish love is best described as lust.
Love is experienced as awe and admiration; lust is experienced as the desire to possess. They both seem to arise from a common instinctive, emotional well. Love may be desire tamed by a civilizing consideration for the beloved.
How Have I Experienced Love in my Life?
As a child, I loved my mother, of course; my feelings for my father and my sister were more problematical. I also loved our pet dog, Sporty, whose very being gave me joy—her unrestrained enthusiasms: for a walk into the nearby woods, for a boat ride across the lake, or for simply skittering along behind us on childhood adventures.
And I loved the wilderness within walking distance of our home. It afforded an endless experience of soul-expansion—watching the clouds form and disperse, smelling the fermentation of early spring on a newly green hillside, exploring the endless life-forms on the forest floor.
On becoming an adolescent, I felt a new kind of love, the stirrings of romantic love. This began around age ten, with a grade-school crush that lasted through junior high. In high-school I became enamored of a guy who sat near me in study hall. He elicited the confused emotions that inspired a personal journal I have kept, albeit irregularly, throughout my life. Then, in college, I had a full-blown, heart-stirring and heart-wrenching romance that lasted a few years, but it didn’t survive graduation.
Shortly thereafter, I was wowed and wooed by the man who became my first husband and with whom I had my first child. I loved my husband, yet the love for my child was even more intense and compelling than the romantic love that had created her. Moreover, my husband’s love soon became a possessive, controlling love, and I fell out of love.
Many years later, that pattern repeated itself with my second husband. We had two children, and the difficulties took much longer to develop. But in the end, control and possessiveness drove me away.
Between the two marriages, I experienced several types of romantic love – some requited and some not – and came to understand how complex and variable love could be.
A Meditation on Love
In one recently rediscovered journal, I found a long entry relating to a particular love object that had motivated me to write about the complexities of love. A paragraph from that meditation is below.
“I experience it (love) as a heightened awareness, being alert, tuned in to everything around me, on edge, filled with diffuse nervous energy. I noticed things, details, that I might not usually pay attention to. Any experience—gazing out the kitchen window at trees in the back yard, watching children tossing leaves, observing oddly dressed people pass by while I’m standing at a train station or walking down the streets of a city—any of these experiences might become so intense as to be almost painful. Small things, like the sight of a child’s delicate, trusting hand, the spreading and disappearance of rain-drop rings in a puddle, the sweet smell of wet, decaying leaves, any brief encounter with external reality could become incredibly poignant, as if sent to enliven my imagination or to torment me.”
I suspect that those experiences motivated me to write, to write out the awe and the pain and the confusion of love. Those images have been incorporated into fictional narratives, and some of those stories have nothing to do with love.
Threading through these human loves have been both a love for the natural world and the love of learning/understanding. These loves have motivated a constant exploration—of the world itself and of the world of ideas.
Since menopause, I’ve experienced love as a sense of awe toward the world around me coupled with gratitude that I’m a part of it. And that feeling, which may be what people mean when they use the term “grace,” is with me most of my waking hours.
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY