What is love?
This is a deeply rooted, fundamental question humans have been trying to answer for a long time. For centuries, philosophers, writers, scientists and psychologists have tried desperately to define love, to categorize it and stick it in a box. There are the four basic kinds of love and the five love love languages, Shakespeare and the Iliad and Grimm’s Brother’s fairy tales. People have done crazy things for love: they’ve died for love, murdered for love, searched the seven seas for love and given up when maybe it had been there, right in front of them, all along.
I’ve always had a funny relationship with love, simultaneously fascinated and terrified by it’s ability to control our actions and yet fix so much of what I saw wrong in the world. I think I was eight or nine years old the first time I said, “I love you.” I remember my mother used to say those words to me on a daily basis, and one day, she told me that sometimes, she liked to hear those words too. It was a weird concept for me. I’d never really thought about it before. One day, not long after that, I was standing in our sunny kitchen and my mother told me she loved me, like always. This time, I felt the words sitting at the back of my throat, heavy and awkward like a stone. I wanted to say them, and so I did, my tongue nearly tripping over the syllables. My mother smiled and responded with a hug while I stood there, feeling slightly self conscious and uncomfortable, trying to figure out why that had been so hard for me to say.
For me, the words we use hold great power. Words can inspire a nation, or tear a country to shreds. They can destroy a person’s confidence or place it in the wrong source, manipulating and skewing the truth to fit one person’s twisted point of view. But words can also encourage trust and vulnerability, motivate a child to learn or make someone feel less alone. Words can be terrible. Words can be beautiful. For me, the words “I love you” are some of the most powerful words of all time.
Maya Angelou once explained how she believes words are things and we must take great care in how we use them. “You must be careful of the words you use, or the words you allow to be used in your house… Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things – I think they get on the walls, they get in the wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes and finally into you.” Words require trust.
I think love can be many things, but I know one thing it is not: judgement. Who am I to say that I’m right and you’re wrong? There are many different paths in life. Typically, it’s not so much a matter of what’s right and what’s wrong but a matter of what you believe in, what actions you chose to take and the consequences that go along with those actions.
Real love does not judge, and real love does not cause harm.
One of the things that angers me most in the world is when people argue over differences in opinion or belief. Far too many wars have been fought in the name of religion. If we take a closer look, the ancient religious are all built on the same foundation: the concept of love. If this is true, how can I tell you that just because you don’t follow my religion, just because you don’t believe what I believe, you’re going to Hell? How is that love?
I know Christians who are hypocrites and atheists who are some of the most caring people in my life. I know you probably don’t believe what I believe or see the world through my lens, but that’s okay – we’re all just trying to figure things out as we go, and we’re bound to encounter other opinions along the way. Who’s not to say that our beliefs can’t coexist, that different religions and theories and political parties connect with different people for a reason? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and as long as that opinion doesn’t ask that you cause harm or initiate suffering, I will respect that. To love is to give others the space to sit with their opinions and questions. If you truly believe what you say you do, then someone else’s perspective shouldn’t change that.
It is one thing to say that love does not judge, and another to put it into practice.
It is something I am learning and striving for every single day. First, I must learn how to stop judging myself, to unlearn a decade’s worth of bad habits. It’s one of the hardest journeys I’ve been on yet – I don’t know how to love myself for who I am, to accept that I am already enough. I’m very good at seeing the good in others, but not so good at seeing it in myself.
I think I’m still a little scared of love; I think we all are. I think it’s one of the most powerful forces in the universe, something to be reckoned with, not to be taken lightly. You can say “I love you” all you want, but ultimately those words are so powerful because they’re a commitment that require action. You can say “I love you” all you want, but if your actions show something different it means nothing. It’s very easy for those words to become a refrain, something we say without thinking about it. So the next time you say those words, look the person in the eyes and make sure you really mean it.
So what is love?
I’m still trying to figure that one out. I think it remains one of life’s greatest mysteries. I know that right now, for me, love means being there for the people in my life. It means baking cookies and making memories. It means looking up at the sky every once in a while to appreciate the fact that I’m alive. It means listening, really listening to someone’s story, even if it’s the tenth time I’ve heard it or I could be watching an episode of Arrow right now or I’m really, really tired and I just want to go to bed.
It means acknowledging the people in your life who have helped make you who you are.