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“I love you.”
For every time I’ve either said the words or heard them directed toward me, I can honestly say that, in retrospect, each experience has left me more baffled than the last.
Historically, the term has gone through several incarnations. A few of these have endured, mostly in the annals of cultural lore. Eros; Philios; Agape – to name a familiar few.
Strangely, the Mediterranean region seems to have a corner on its multiple expressions. I say this because one only has to observe the social coastline of that sea to find more versions of alleged love than ever found their place in a Harlequin romance novel.
Privately, I have reached this tentative conclusion: Love has no fixed definition, beyond that which is expressed in the way one person makes another feel.
Once we recognize and feel that we are loved BY someone else, then we know what love is.
We really can’t say we love another, other than ourselves, until that other person tells us, emphatically: “Yes! You love me. I know this, because I feel loved by you.”
Civilized society has always taught that love is a very powerful emotional force, a state to be sought after and nurtured. But, if love is so powerful, why isn’t its force self-sustaining?
We adore babies. Most of us are drawn to wrap ourselves around them and give them our all. Love for helpless children, borne in healthy adults, seems automatic. But, the care of babies is a consummate effort, and requires a level of devotion which challenges even the most convinced.
I imagine that parental love, as children grow to adulthood, is an extension of that automatic attachment which is borne at the child’s birth. As such, children who are wrestling into emerging adults often do not FEEL loved by their parents, because their parents’ love for them is still infantile – locked in the automatic phase of parental attachment. (The Greeks have a word for that, too; and, I wonder if its definition is also fixed.)
Does love “grow”? What about it does the growing? Does being drawn to another increase, over time, and by what criteria? How is it that we can feel more – or, less – loved by another, as we move from the present to the future? Perhaps, rather than actually “growing”, the feeling that we are loved merely changes in dimension and, that, according to our perception of ourselves and others.
Lately, I have speculated that parental love for children does not move in tandem with the child’s growth; I think it arrests, causing all sorts of problems for the children. Parents who are mindful, however, learn to adjust their behavior, in order to permit their children the necessary growth. But, their feelings toward the children remain in that infantile state.
And, this brings me to the first point I want so to make clear: Human NEED is paramount. Need is so huge, so great in its capacity to render us vulnerable, that I sometimes wonder if it masquerades as Love.
We’ve all known strong attraction. The first time such chemistry overwhelms us, we clamor to define it for ourselves. Surely, we must be in love. We read about it, somewhere, in a book by Grace Livingston Hill. And, the object of our attraction, if and when that person turns toward us, moving toward us, allows us to be utterly taken by the belief that we are loved, in return. Or, maybe, we simply don’t care; just the realization, that the object of our desire has rewarded our attraction with a response, is more than enough. This must be love. We’ll take it.
But, is it need?
When we have a gaping need ( a need to be appreciated, a need for physical affection, a need for comfort, a need for company, whatever the need) , and somebody appears, bringing even a fleeting imitation of our notion of love, wanting to become attached to us in some way, we seize upon that person, eagerly expecting to be loved.
And, when TWO people, with similar, gaping need, converge……..they might very well convince themselves that they love each other !
So, many humans couple up, under all the conditions described above, and any number of various corollaries of that which is described above. And, all these couples THINK that they love each other.
And, then they proceed to live.
And, as they live, they grow. But, each of them grows at a different rate. One may cease growing completely, for a time, while the other may have a huge growth spurt. Whichever the case, the two people – who think they love each other – eventually find themselves at odds. Their notions of love have all fallen away, and they are left confused and disappointed.
Yet, the needs remain. And, the desire for the feeling of being loved remains, too.
And, so, they reach for the nearest living being willing to provide what they need most immediately. Pets – dogs. Children. Artistic endeavor. Everybody finds somebody, or something, that brings them emotional satisfaction. It’s easy to feel loved by music, or art, or poetry, or dance, or drama. Dogs. Even children, when they are young and dependent.
I can’t begin to defend my failures in the loving people department. All I can do is observe others, and draw conclusions. And, identify those who make me feel loved, by their actions.
I think that any parent, possessing an unfulfilled need, will attach to his or her child in an attempt to get that need met. Perhaps it is a need for appreciation, or acknowledgement, or affirmation, or affection, or emotional attachment – any or all of the above. If, for example, a father is physically absent, a mother may attach to her child all the attributes of loveworthiness. She transfers her affections from the object of her desire to the object of her devotion. And, another father – perhaps his wife is physically withholding. He becomes notably affectionate toward the child who is most accessible. The child in this equation develops a notion of love that is informed and colored by his or her parent’s behavior. And, perhaps more importantly, the child develops a response which casts its own hue.
In families with more than one child, each child according to birth order develops his or her own notions of love. First born children may grow to expect to be loved, by entitlement, and treat others according to that expectation. Second born children might grow to perceive that love is a feeling bestowed upon an elder sibling first, and learn to observe the process of love without allowing themselves the opportunity to directly experience it. Such children may become able to counsel others in matters of love, while being removed from the feeling of being loved, or grow to defer the feeling, as if somehow someone else should always be first in line to receive it.
Youngest children may grow to believe that love comes automatically, with the territory, so to speak, due to being immersed in an environment of general acceptance and affection. Perhaps such children have a more difficult time with notions of monogamy, being more comfortable in an atmosphere of collective love.
The most heartbreaking scene is one wherein a parent, due to emotional or mental illness, is unable to bond with the child that, together with a partner, they have brought into the world. How do such children develop a personal definition of love, or ever know when it comes to them?
My father was born in a Massachusetts sanitarium. His mother, deemed unable to bond, was not permitted to raise him; rather, he was removed from her at birth, and placed in both foster care and, ultimately, an institution for wards of the state. His stories of his own childhood were always vivid. One of the most memorable was his recounting of two women in the charge of the boys his age. He recalled that they were partners, one of them mean and harsh, known to pinch the boys in their ribs as they sat at table, and the other sweet and adoring. He had one experience with the sweet woman that he was fond of repeating; he remembered the day she put her arms around him, and held him close. He said that this was the first time he had ever been hugged. He was 10 years old.
Yet, my father was among the most spontaneously affectionate people any of us ever knew. He was, in a word, adorable. How did he learn to make another feel loved? Interestingly, in matters of temporal need, Dad made almost no demands. A dry roof over his head, a hot meal, shoes and clothes…..the man was happy. He expected only the basics, and so his needs were regularly met. Because he had need of nothing, he gave continuously, from the depths of his heart.
Our mother’s story was vastly different. Her perception of our father’s capacity for making her feel loved was colored by her family climate and resultant self image. She brought an endless list of expectations and needs into her pairing with Dad. And, none of these were the result of selfish pride or traits which would easily be judged as self serving. But, as a result, she gave of herself in totality to her family, deferring all personal need satisfaction for the sake of those of each of her children. My love for her was unable to express itself in a way which could make her feel loved, and this realization was a source of private agony in my life.
So, how do we love? Do we say “I love you”, and hope to sound convincing? Do we, instead, refrain from any declaration, providing instead all the actions of our hearts – first, recognizing the other, empathizing with the other’s matrix of desires and interests, then setting about to fulfill a need we see in the object of our adoration? Or, do we fulfill our own needs, first, so that we can distinguish between what we need and the power of loving another? Perhaps we might avoid actions toward others which only fulfill our need to force an attachment. Perhaps we might focus, instead, on giving what the objects of our desire and affection genuinely seek, without their having to ask, before they recognize a need at all.
We are exhorted by Jesus in the Biblical scriptures to love one another. But, I don’t find any scriptural references to actually making the declaration. John was the disciple “whom Jesus loved.” This meant that John, or the rest of the collective, recognized that Jesus loved him. Jesus is never quoted as having said: “I love John.” Rather, I find a life – Jesus’ short, earthly life, and – as Christians would define it – his sacrificial death, as embodied testament. Perhaps if we are mindful, attentive, and sensitive to that which convinces the other rather than ourselves, and live the giving, we will feel loved in return. And, then, we can say to our beloved: “Thank you for loving me.”
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
8/11/15 All rights those of the author, whose name appears above this line. Sharing by direct, WordPress.com ReBlogging, only. Thank you, dear readers.