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What does “love” mean? One source claimed it’s the word in the English language with the least meaning because it’s used to express SO MUCH—from a preference for chocolate to sexual passion. Actually, considering the beating most English words take in the mouths of those who crave new slang (try explaining “up” some time—”fed up,” “tied up,” etc.), I don’t suppose “love” fares worse than most.
But as our world apparently grows greedier, more self-centered, and cynical, we don’t want to degrade the word we use for a power we hold dear. We know we’re going to need it going forward. What’s so different about the kind of love that makes miracles, from the red plastic neon word? Have we stomped on the concept of love so often and so hard that it looks like a dirty crinkle french-fry?
Let’s begin with romantic love, the inspiration for Valentine’s Day. Why does it let so many people down? Love is not equal to romance. Many people fall in love with the idea of falling in love—of feeling gooey all the time. They crave the excitement, but love isn’t falling and it isn’t merely desire. It’s accepting deep responsibility for a relationship that can begin with sex but is sustained with good humor, loyalty, patience, and sensitivity—a relationship that is not 50/50 often but should average out to be close. Long-term love is work. Sometimes it hurts. Most long-term partners are also best friends. That’s the reason the couple doesn’t have to be heterosexual or even sexual at all. Unadulterated love is its own permission.
One definition of “love” specifies family and friends, as though we can’t feel real love for anyone else. Au contraire. What about the people who work and sacrifice for strangers? For example, I know plenty of teachers who stay in the classroom, nurses who spend personal time in the hospital, and law enforcement personnel who risk their lives out of love. Service jobs don’t pay well or draw much public respect. So, unless the employee is on the job solely for sick access to victims he or she can dominate, only love shyly described as “sense of duty” keeps the worker showing up day after day. Who wouldn’t want to make a difference—meaning a positive impact on humankind?
I think this kind of other-love is underrated and mocked, but it’s the magic potion that has elevated what’s good about human civilization. It’s a bond that enriches those on both ends of the rope. It feeds a part of us we can’t locate (is it in the heart or the mind or the soul?). It can act as treatment for abuse and even hate. As truth is beauty (thanks, John Keats), love is hope.
When society intensified treating people as ciphers in schools and jobs—crowding them into small anonymous spaces designed for profit not growth or cooperation and manipulating them with fear, mutual distrust, and threats—some people began acting out. They have lost their sense of love for those around them and, perhaps, themselves. Current popular culture emphasizes that violence is the best answer to a need for control while it provides everyone easy access to weapons of war. Killing the innocent is more prevalent because the innocents mean nothing. Love is meaning.