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Just What Is Love, Anyway?

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How many times have you heard it: “love is all you need,” “love is the answer” or “love will save the day”? If you’re listening to pop music, that’s probably what the lyrics are saying. If you have some inspirational book at your bedside, that’s probably its message.

Everyone wants love. Everyone, it seems, wants to give it as well. Why, then, does there seem to be so little love in the world? Why does love get so much praise when we see so little of it in practice?

It doesn’t seem to be for lack of trying. The billboards, the greeting-card sections of the drugstores, the cheesy e-mails forwarded by well-intentioned friends are full of hearts and balloons and smiley faces. Well-coiffed ladies in smart suits abound on television shows, telling us how to love better and smarter and perhaps even faster. The bookstores are clogged with titles containing step-by-step instructions for fixing everything that is broken in our emotional lives. In the midst of it all, love seems to slip through our fingers like wine through a sieve.

I don’t want to offer yet another in a long line of simplistic and banal solutions (which are more of a symptom of the problem than a cure). But I do want to draw attention to one of the chief difficulties in our constant struggles with this overwhelming emotion. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance: we believe one thing about love with one corner of the mind and something very different with another.

Nearly a half-century ago the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. He carved up the terrain of his subject into four quarters, based on the words the ancient Greeks used for love (equated with eros or sexual love; family love; friendship; and agape or unconditional love, pronounced a-gah-pay). This makes sense up to a point: ancient Greek, unlike today’s English, didn’t have to make one single word cover everything from the highest sentiments imaginable to plain old lust. Even so, the Greek delineation of four loves is perhaps as arbitrary as those of any other language.

Essentially, I believe, love can be divided into two major kinds: transactional love and unconditional love. Much of the suffering we experience comes from our failure to tell the two apart.

Transactional love is based on bargains, reciprocities, and keeping inner accounts. Practically everything we call love falls under this category. The problem is that we fail to recognize this fact. Sometimes we refuse to recognize it.

This may sound cold and cynical. I don’t care. Most writing about love is like cake frosting, giving a heady sugar rush but offering nothing in the way of solid nourishment. I have no intention of adding to this pile of loathsome sweetness.

In any event, it’s not hard to prove that most love is transactional.

With romantic love, for instance, it’s easy enough. If there’s no reciprocity, there’s no relationship. If the man doesn’t call after that date or the woman doesn’t return his calls, the message is clear. Many dating guides spend a lot of time explaining to the would-be lover how to avoid looking pathetic in these circumstances. In an actual relationship, the rules are clear: if she cheats on you, you have the right to dump her (or, some say, to cheat on your own part).

There’s unrequited love, of course, which nearly everyone goes through at one time or another (and the discomfort experienced by the lover is often matched by the embarrassment of the beloved). But most of us would agree that there’s a point where you’d just better give up and admit that your adored one just isn’t going to adore you in turn. These days men who ignore the signals too obstinately may face the added annoyance of a restraining order.

Perhaps you think that the love of a married couple is, or should be, above transactionality. Consider this case, then: a woman has a mean, lazy husband who gets drunk and kicks her down the stairs every night. She sticks it through, obeying Tammy Wynette’s injunction: “Stand by your man.” Many women (and men) do. This looks about as much like unconditional love as we usually see. But what are her family and friends probably saying? Not many are going to commend her for her devotion. Most of them will say she’s crazy for not leaving him. There is even a name for this kind of loyalty. It’s “codependence” and it’s not generally used as a term of praise.

Then there is family love. Maybe you believe that the love you and your family feel for one another is far above such niggling. Very well, then, prove it. Don’t give them any Christmas presents this year. If your love is really beyond transactions, it shouldn’t make any difference, should it?

Some families, it’s true, have called a moratorium on Christmas giving, which as we all know has long since strayed into the realm of the ridiculous. But even this ceasefire of consumer spending has to be painstakingly negotiated beforehand to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt. And what is that if not transactionality?

When I mention these ideas to parents, they often object, claiming that their love for their children is unconditional. Certainly parental devotion often goes far beyond the give-and-take of ordinary transactions, as we learn from those reports about mothers who suddenly gain the superhuman strength to lift locomotives when their children are trapped underneath. With rare exceptions, no child can really repay all that her parents have done simply in enabling her to reach adulthood. But if parental love isn’t exactly transactional, it isn’t unconditional either. In fact it’s highly conditional – conditional on its being your child. Even the proudest parents have to admit sometimes that other people’s children are cuter and stronger and smarter than their own. But somehow it never makes the parents love those other children more than their own inferior specimens.

If you glance back up at the preceding paragraphs, you’ll see that we’ve just dealt with three out of four of the loves delineated by C.S. Lewis and the ancient Greeks. That leaves agape. When you read about love in the New Testament (which was originally written in Greek), this is almost always the word that’s being used. When Christ speaks about loving thy neighbor as thyself, this is the love he means. It’s also the word used in Paul’s famous encomium to love in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape is free from transactionality and “seeketh not her own” (1 Cor. 13:5).

Christianity has extolled agape so highly that we’ve somehow come to believe that every form of love is, or should be, agape. When it turns out otherwise, our hopes are dashed. This is precisely the cognitive dissonance that I mentioned at the beginning. We’ve somehow come to believe that all love should be pure and unconditional when in fact only the rarest kinds of love are. To say all love must take the form of agape is one of the greatest mistakes that Christianity has ever made. It has constantly denigrated and despised other forms – especially eros – with disastrous consequences for our inner lives.

If you look it up, you find that agape is a peculiar word. Liddell and Scott’s authoritative Greek lexicon says that it can imply “regard rather than affection.” And in fact in the Greek of all periods agape usually suggests something slightly remote and disinterested. This suggests that the purity of this kind of love, taken by itself, can be rather cold and bloodless. Divorced entirely from transactional love, agape turns into a dry theological virtue.

So it’s hard to see how unconditional love, even at its best, will totally eliminate our urges for closeness and companionship and sexuality (however much the saints of the world, real and supposed, may tell us that we have to). There are said to be holy people who have reached such pinnacles of achievement. I’ve never met any. Ultimately we are joined to one another by our needs and transactions as much as by anything else, and no degree of sanctity is likely to change this fact. For most of us, probably even the best of us, love comprises an intense, even violent dynamic between an impartial sublimity – the sense “that I was blessèd and could bless,” as W.B. Yeats put it – and the sizable part of our nature that keeps a watchful eye out for its own interests. It’s our very humanity that spans this whole range of feeling, and if we revile one section of it, we risk making ourselves not more but less human.

Sometimes, however, agape is translated as “conscious love,” and I think this hits closer to the mark. To be loving in any but the most unthinking and mechanical way, we first have to be conscious – conscious, in the first place, of our own hidden motives and agendas and neuroses. Even though it’s no doubt both impossible and unwise to eliminate these entirely, simply being aware of them takes away some of their power. You can no longer play the usual games of dominance and submission, the one who needs versus the one who is needed, and so on, or at any rate you can’t play them with the same unreflective aplomb. Something in the back of the mind keeps you back from engaging in the game wholeheartedly, but it also keeps you free. You become aware, however dimly, that you are not the games and agendas you often identify with. This in turn sets something free in the relationship itself.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Many parents of adult children can’t seem to acknowledge that the child is a grown-up: “You’ll always be my baby.” Up to a point it’s charming that the old parental instincts are still in force. But often it takes a more pernicious form. The parent feels the need to put the child down, to treat him as if he isn’t capable of making his own decisions, to behave as if he is still a five-year-old when the child may at this point be more functional than the parent. Sometimes it descends to absurd lengths. An old woman who can no longer even take care of herself nags her daughter about how she is doing everything wrong and botching her life. Whatever type of love this is, it’s certainly not conscious.

The only liberation possible from this unsavory dynamic starts with acknowledging it. I remember hearing a story told on a talk show years ago. It concerned an actor (I forget which one) who had extraordinary control over his bodily functions. One role he played was the father of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street. As is well known, Mr. Barrett violently objected to his daughter’s romance with the poet Robert Browning. At one point in the play, Mr. Barrett has a moment of epiphany in which he realizes that his love for Elizabeth exceeds, shall we say, the normal feelings a father has for his daughter. Apparently the actor had such masterful control that at each performance he was able to bring an alarming purplish flush to his face to show the force of this realization.

A flash of insight like this is rare in real life. Often it’s actively resisted and immediately stuffed back into the attic of the unconscious. But if you can stay with it and face its full force (admittedly no easy task), you can open up a new dimension of freedom in your life. You become able to step past your own games of manipulation and become capable of unconditional love in the true sense. The transactions don’t go away entirely; it might not even be good if they did. But they suddenly have to take their place in a larger dimension, in which quid pro quos are far less important and insistent than they were. Love then has the possibility of being both conscious and unconditional in the true sense.

This article is adapted from Richard Smoley’s latest book, Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity which has just been published by Jossey-Bass. His blog is

Copyright ©2008 by Richard Smoley

Images by: Osvaldo Zoom, used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

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