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The Meaning of Love

Clark Swain

A song tells us that “love is a many-splendored thing.” In a humorous way love has been referred to as a supersaturated solution of sentimental slush. It has also been described as an insane desire to squeeze orange juice out of a lemon. Throughout the centuries poems have been written, songs have been sung, mountains have been climbed, and battles have been fought because of love. Even murder and suicide have been committed in the name of love.

We do not always think in an accurate way about love. One of the incorrect and irrational attitudes we tend to have is that love is merely a mystical feeling, a mysterious power that takes over; and when it comes, we “fall into it,” helpless to control it. We are prone to think that it can vanish as mysteriously as it came and that we are helpless to prevent its leaving.

A number of months ago a woman came to me for counseling. She explained that she had fallen out of love with her husband and had fallen in love with another man; she and the new man were considering divorcing their marriage partners so they could marry each other. Each had several children—ten children were involved—and yet they were considering giving up these children and their partners because they had fallen in love with each other. The woman felt that she was as helpless to learn how to love her husband once again as she was helpless to terminate her love for the other man.

Another individual who came for counseling told me that he was thinking about divorcing his wife because, he said, “I don’t think I love her anymore,” as if it were impossible for him to do anything to change his feeling. Such a person needs to learn the meaning of real love. We need to stop thinking of love as a mysterious power that has control over us. We need to think of love as a way to treat other people, rather than as something that happens to us; then we will begin to have power over our loving.

Those who conclude that love cannot be defined—that there is no way to explain it and it is something we cannot understand—are those who think incorrectly about love, who think of it as a mystical feeling, a mysterious power, a trap into which one may fall. Those who think of love as it really is can define it, explain it, and understand it.

It helps if we think of a person as being loving, or if we think of one as either having ability to express love or lacking this ability. One of the most important things to look for in a marriage partner is the extent to which that person is able to express love. And in preparing ourselves for marriage, one of the most essential characteristics to incorporate within ourselves is the ability to give love as well as to receive it.

This ability begins in childhood, in the loving care of a mother’s arms. To illustrate, a city boy went to visit his cousin on a farm. He watched carefully as his cousin milked the cows, took the milk into the house, ran it through the separator, and then took some of it back to the barnyard where he gave it to the calves. Finally, with a tone of enlightenment in his voice, the city boy said, “Oh, I see what you do. You put it into them when they are young; and when they get big, you take it out of them.”

This is the way it is with people and their ability to give love. The more love we give a child in his younger years, the more ability he will have to give love throughout his adulthood. When parents give love to a child, they are helping him develop loveability.

Babies and children need love just as they need vitamin C and whole grain cereal. It is impossible to give a baby too much love. One who receives insufficient love may become retarded in his physical growth and his personality development. He may become emotionally and physically ill.

One of the important reasons for giving an abundance of love to a child is that it helps him develop self-esteem—appreciation, respect, and love for himself. And the more fondness one has for himself, the more able he is to give love to others.

The selfish person isn’t the one who loves himself; it is the one who has negative feelings about himself, who is self-centered, who is focusing on himself, trying to overcome his misgivings about himself. One who is at war with himself does not have peace of mind; he has inner conflict. If we can help a child develop self-love, then he is likely to be free from inner conflict and free to give kindness and love to others.

In one study recently, people were asked to indicate what they loved. Ninety-two percent said they loved children, 86 percent said they loved God, and 66 percent said they loved animals, but only 33 percent said they loved themselves. We need to stop thinking that it is wrong for a person to love himself. The Bible doesn’t say, “Love thy neighbour instead of thyself”; it says, “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt. 22:39. Italics added.)

If a woman says, “I know my husband loves me, but he hardly ever tells me so, and he seldom shows affection,” it is possible that this man grew up in a family where love was seldom expressed. It is important for parents to tell their children often that they love them and to physically express love to them; and a husband and wife should frequently show love to each other in the presence of their children so that their children learn that to feel love alone is not enough—it must also be expressed.

Many persons have not grown up in loving families; they still can learn to love, however, by learning what a loving person does and by making an effort to do those things. Dr. Erich Frohm, in his book The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), defines and explains what a loving person does. A loving person cares about the loved one. Parents who really love their children take good care of them. A person who says, “I love flowers,” but who doesn’t water and cultivate his flowers, really is not loving his own flowers. A person who says, “I love dogs,” but who doesn’t feed his own dog, is not giving love to that dog. Loving is caring.

A loving person respects other persons. A part of respecting people is not to force them. It may be necessary at times for an adult to force a child to do something against his wishes; but when two grown people are relating to each other, if there is love between them, there is no force. We may try to persuade a person to see our point of view, or we may try to convince him to do something we would like him to do, but if we really love him, we do not force him.

A loving person responds to others. Since some people have more ability to love than others, it is reasonable for us to conclude that some people have more ability to respond than others, but we can learn to improve our responses. Loving is empathizing, trying to understand how the other person feels and letting him know that we understand.

A loving person has concern for the welfare, progress, and happiness of the loved one. He not only has concern; he does something about it by making his resources available to the loved one. Loving is giving. It is the giving of material things to others, but even more important, it is the giving of one’s time. Among the gifts a father gave to his son for Christmas was a letter that read: “To my dear son: During the coming year my gift to you is one hour of my time each day for you to use as you see fit.” Isn’t this an act of love?

Loving is giving, but what about a person who becomes upset because the gift he receives is not as fine and luxurious as the gift he has given? This person has a bargaining approach to giving. A true gift of love is one that is given with no strings attached; it is given with no concern about what will be received in return.

Who is richer: he who has much or he who gives much? The giver is the richer, for he always receives for having given. Consider the parent who gives abundantly to his children by educating them and helping them maintain good health; then, when they grow up to become happy, productive adults, they are able to give more in return to their aging parents.

The builder who gives extra time and effort to build an excellent house gains satisfaction from the contentment of the family that lives in it. The actor on the stage who gives extra preparation and exertion to his performance receives from the audience their approval and applause.

An important dimension of loving is that the loving person also makes a conscious effort to receive. He is willing to receive not only physical gifts but also suggestions, advice, and acts of kindness. Have you ever known a person who will not allow you to do anything for him? who will not even permit you to open the door for him but always insists that you go first? who will not allow you to pay for refreshments when you are accompanying him on an outing? A person who is not willing to receive deprives others of giving. Receiving is an important part of loving.

Loving is sharing. Have you ever seen a rainbow or a beautiful sunset when you were alone and thought, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to share this with someone?” Or have you ever been alone during a time of illness or trouble and thought, “Wouldn’t it be consoling to have someone here to share this experience”?

Loving is forgiving. A loving person forgives one who has wronged him, and he also forgives himself for mistakes he has made. Guilt feelings can have some value in motivating a person to stop whatever it is that is causing him to feel guilty. To keep the guilt feelings beyond this point only interferes with a person’s effective living and happiness. It is a mistake for one not to forgive himself for something he has done that he considers to be wrong.

Another word for love is charity. Thus, when Paul tells us what charity is in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, he is really explaining what love is. A loving person suffers long and is kind. His love is of long duration; he envies not. He is not puffed up. Arrogance, boastfulness, and conceit are not his ways; he is humble. A loving person does not behave himself unseemly; he thinks no evil; he bears all things; he endures all things; and he is not easily provoked to anger. A loving person does not hold a grudge against others; he realizes that to do so is to bring more harm to himself than to them.

Real love is basically the same in all human relationships, whether between a grandfather and a grandmother, a newly married couple, or a mother and her child. It involves caring, respecting, responding, empathizing, having concern, giving, receiving, sharing, forgiving. Notice that these words we are using are verbs, and verbs denote action. Loving requires action.

A person who says to another, “You have killed all the love I ever had for you,” does not understand the art of loving, because nothing can kill love; if it dies, it commits suicide, because love is not a measure of the one being loved, but of the one doing the loving. Whether or not we give love should not depend on another person’s attributes and behavior. It may be easier to love one person than another because one may be more charming, more pleasant, and more physically attractive. But our loving should not be determined by the nature and the behavior of another person; it is not just a feeling—it is a way of treating a person.

If a person is mature in his ways of loving, then for him love is not blind. Mature love sees more, not less; but because it sees more, it is willing to see less. The mature lover is other-centered in his loving, not self-centered. He is patient and willing to prepare for a good marriage. If a man and a woman are mature in their way of loving, their love relationship will enhance their growth as individuals.

What about being in love? It is possible that a couple may have great capacity to give love as individuals, but they are not in love. Perhaps they have different backgrounds and interests. He’s from the country and she’s from the city; he’s interested in ranching and the out-of-doors and she’s interested in travel and music. He is Catholic and she is Protestant. He desires to have children and she is not interested in having a family. Thus, even though each may have great ability to give love, it would not be wise for them to marry.

Maybe you are wondering if you are really in love with your partner, if the two of you have a genuine love that will stand the test of time. If there is admiration between you, if you agree on most things, if you cooperate instead of compete, you are probably in love. If you feel comfortable together and can relax and be natural, you are probably in love.

If you feel proud to be seen together in public, if you have similar interests, and if you really trust each other’s loyalty, you are probably in love. If you enjoy one another’s company so much that when you are apart you have a longing to be together, and if you have feelings of deep affection for each other, you are probably in love.

The more of these dimensions that exist in your relationship, the more resilient and lasting your love is likely to be.

Love does not consist of gazing into one another’s eyes, but of looking outward in the same direction. When a man and a woman have learned to do this, though they are two separate persons, a state of inter-person fusion exists between them so that in a real sense they have become one. Each feels toward the other, “I am all for you and you are all for me.” Thus, love is truly “a many-splendored thing.”