The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Defining Terms – Love

Defining Terms – Love

Spiritual Formation and Creativity

In our last exploration I proposed that a continued pursuit of love may be just the thing that reconciles our desire for freedom to a balanced order. That is, away from both chaos and dictatorship. I also promised an exploration of the word love. So here we are.

Before diving in, you should know that I am the son of a mother and father who practiced the kind of love we see in movies. They committed to one another in spite of communal resistance, navigating a life of adventure (war, financial hardship, family strife, entrepreneurship, and more), and stuck together through it all – immersing (One might say smothering) me in love along the way. So, my vision of what is possible is biased. Even beyond my parents, I’ve been the recipient of immense generosity and care. Love exists.

To be sure, I’ve also been heartbroken, and been the one breaking hearts. No need to share details. It is enough to say that the pursuit of practicing love can ultimately lead to heartbreak, and yet it is still worthwhile.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that my journey with defining love is not new. In 2012, I was caught in a deep and important conversation not having a definition. I felt unprepared and like a bit of a failure. So, I went on a journey to try and fix that. The Define Love blog was the outcome – a public exploration of what love might look like. I stayed with it for a long time, the exercise clarified my thinking a bit, but I still couldn’t find a concise definition of the word. There is, of course, plenty of writing on love that can be mentioned. The two that immediately come to mind for me are the first poem in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, simply titled, “On Love,” and the classic writing of Paul of Tarsus as recorded in his letter to a group of Corinthians. There is also always the profound wisdom of children defining love that we can lean on.

However, there is a lacking here. These writings address aspects of love – what it might look like, how it might express itself, and what an interaction with it might be like, for example. But they are anything but concise and sometimes not even definitive. One way to come at a word like love is by guard-railing the idea. Love is kind, for instance, is a guardrail. Anything that is not kind can’t be loving. Put enough guardrails up (through stating what love is or isn’t, what it does or does not do), and what is left is an area that is what love is. I used this methodology when creating and presenting a tap dance story about love at TEDxChemungRiver. The only challenge with this approach is that what is left – love, in this case – is still not quite defined. All the guardrails are defined. We can gain some understanding as to what the boundaries of what we are talking about are. But the thing itself? Still enigmatic.

Big Love

Maybe the ambiguity is necessary with something as big as love. Different languages have addressed this by simply adding words for love. Greek has at least four. Ancient Sanskrit has more than 200 words. Words are to be used in stories to describe love in action. When language fails, we turn to the actions themselves. Acts of love are more recognized than prescribed, and more so on the scale of the personal than communal. We can tell how we feel (more often than not) when we are acted upon in love, yet societies, institutions, corporations, or governments will rarely be described as loving – not because they aren’t, but because we somehow know that love is not a corporate thing – it is personal. When actions fail, a definition seems to be the final place we can go for knowledge. In all my endeavors, I have yearned for something more concrete, grounded even, that I could sink my teeth into, and work out – a prompt, a directive, anything. I had been familiar with popular pull quotes from the Bible likely more widely known even than the letter by Paul. Things like:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, this is how God loves)

Or this more poignant and personally applicable one:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13, this is what love looks like at its greatest)

While these were formative, they seemed outlandish. Was I supposed to lay down my life for all my friends? I tried this out, keeping my schedule as open as possible, just in case a friend would call or wanted to hang out, for example. I was ready, thanks to the habits of my family to drop everything for a friend – even if the reciprocation would not be there. These, I think were good practices, but pushed my limits. How much time could I hold for “Just in case” scenarios? How many times could I drop everything until I dropped something really important? Again, my limited nature began to force choices, and the realization that I would never be big enough to be able to prepare for all the needs of love.

Small Love

The other way to approach love would then be in the smaller, or even smallest scale. If starting with the big thing had me hitting my limits quickly, maybe I could build up to it? Might starting with small love build a foundation from which the larger aspects of love could grow? C.S. Lewis describes affection as love in the small things – a word or sentence, a touch, an expression, a gesture, or a small offering perhaps. Bingo. My entire life – the series of small things I do throughout the day – could be infused with love. I could turn to this as a daily practice, reflection, and pursuit. But whether big or small, I still didn’t have a concise definition.

Risks in Love

The language of affection can, for some, be connected to the language of romance. The affection of a lover for example may be a more common phrase than the affection of a friend. Being a hopeless or hopeful romantic as I am – depending on the season of my life – fuels this connection. There is a terrible risk here. It is that we consider many of the ways that we can practice love to be things that can only happen in the context of a romantic relationship. There is truth here, deeply related to the limited nature of individual persons, the safety required for true intimacy, and the organization of modern life. But even here, to articulate the good and the evil in all this, the rewards and risks, we really have to begin with a working, concise, and testable definition of what love is.

Still Not Defined

Albert Einstein is known to have said, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t know enough about it.” This might not work for everything, but generally I think it is true, and overall, a worthy pursuit. So, what of a simple definition of love? One line. Can we have that? Love is…and we fill in the blank. Not with a series of books, essays, paragraphs, or even sentences. Just one line. It might be dense, but it would be simple.

I found just the thing while listening to a lecture by Dallas Willard. A philosopher and follower of Jesus Christ, Dallas tossed this one-liner out as if it was an aside to something more profound.

Love is to will the good of the object of our love.

I have stayed with this idea, working it out, for a number of years now. So, let’s pick this apart. Love is a function of the will. It is something that we can do. This is extremely important. Love doesn’t just happen unless your will has been formed in that way. More likely, there are some conscious efforts toward considering love, and acting in its ways.

Love has to do with what is good. Again, we find ourselves in the world of the moral. Love, if we are to hold on to it cannot be associated with evil. We can have other words for actions done in the name of love that are not loving. Things like manipulative and lying may work well there. Regardless, love must remain couched in goodness. It is good to be loving and to receive love. It is good to encourage love, and be encouraged to love. For what comes of love must be good. After all, it is what is good that love desires.

Lastly, love is ultimately relational. It can’t happen with only one party. Of course, I can will the good of my physical body, or my mind, or even my own heart. They can all be objects of my love. But without an object to love in the grammatical sense, love goes nowhere. It may get sent out, but never lands anywhere. It may be intended, but will have no impact, because there is nothing to have impact on.

This exploration naturally opens a few entirely separate pursuits when it comes to language and relationship. One may be thinking about how we might come to know what is good generally. Another may be how we can know what is good in a specific situation for a specific person. You may notice a theme here. That love has to do with knowledge. Frankly, without a sense of how we come to know things, this exploration – and any of the prior ones for that matter – will have been in vain. So, knowledge will be next.

In the meantime, working out the definition of love that we’ve explored here may be a worthwhile endeavor. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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