Valentine’s Day was that time of the year, when as a child I thought I would discover who truly liked me. At school, little pre-printed cards were distributed by each classmate that typically said something like, “Be My Valentine,” or “Be mine.” Some even had a piece of candy taped to it. Regardless of what the intention of the giver was, all it meant to me was that someone was thinking of me as special. But it was more often than not, disappointing. Even when I received a card from one of the girls or guys in the class with strong social capital, it took only a few seconds to realize that everyone else had received one from that person too. And then there were the cards that had “mushy” words of affection added to them, typically from someone whose special attention I did not particularly desire; for some reason those cards never counted. In the end, it was usually a day of letdown. I was looking to receive something, a certain feeling, that I did not know how to articulate. But I never thought about what I might have to give to another classmate. The Day would leave me with the question that I still often ask: What is love all about, really?
America still appears to celebrate our cultural understanding of love on Valentine’s Day. While some (children and adults) use it as a celebration of affectionate friendships, I think it’s safe to say that the majority understand it as a time to commemorate romance and sexual attraction. On this day we tend to exalt the deeper feelings of allure along with physical and emotional chemistry one person experiences with another. It is a far cry, I suspect, from what the original Saint Valentine would have endorsed.
Devoid of REAL meaning?
I have talked and written quite a bit about love over the years, how it is the core longing of the human heart. But I find I’m still trying to wrap my head around what exactly it is supposed to be, in its multitude of facets and nuances, and what it is not. I long to drill down to its essence and say, “Here it is!” and then enjoy the moment of silence as everyone nods in awestruck agreement. Though I doubt I will experience such unanimity on the subject during my lifetime, the fact remains that it is a word that is in danger of being devalued to an empty shell. Some of the ways it is commonly used reveal how fuzzy and indistinct it has become in our minds:
“I love my grandchildren.”
“I love Superbowl Sunday.”
“I love a good taco.”
“I love you.”
“Love is love.”
And of course I cannot leave out a poignant sampling from the Bible: “God is love.”
So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, here are a few thoughts (often repeated) on what I believe, so far, to be at the core of love – at least the kind of love that the human heart seems to be aching for.
That Certain Feeling
A random internet dictionary definition says love is “an intense feeling of deep affection; or, a great interest in something.” Like most contemporary descriptions of love, it focuses on what a person feels. Emotions and sentiments are, and will forever be, an intricate part of being human. The problem I have with such a definition, however, is that we all know that human feelings are one of the most changeable – and therefore unstable – elements known. So, when we talk about love, it easily becomes something that can morph into almost anything at any moment at the user’s whim. Maybe this is exhilarating for some, but it’s hardly a solid foundation to build anything of lasting substance for human relationships.
If at its core it is merely a feeling, then love can become whatever someone wants to make it. Therefore, my strong desires and hankering for Mexican food can be established as my standard for defining love. And I will “lovingly” consume – that is until I get hold of a bad burrito and end up with food poisoning. Then because of my changed feelings, I will look for something else “to love,” that is, feel good about. In my observations, the idea of love has gotten mixed up with the activity of using and devouring. Whatever makes me feel good and happy, at least for the time being, I can call “being in love.” And when the feelings stop, the assumption typically is that the love has stopped – and thus the relationship must come to an end. Unfortunately, a growing majority seem to affirm this as the way it is and must be.
Feeling and Choosing
Going back to the Bible, we read in the great Gospel verse, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It does not say, “For God so loved the world, that He felt something deeply and therefore consumed that which made Him happy. It appears from God’s example here, that a baseline standard of love, at least for a Jesus follower (and I think it also works for those who don’t claim to be His followers), is always going to be associated with giving, not taking. And this kind of giving often results in pain, misunderstanding, and even rejection.
I also have come to see that there is an important difference between affection and love. Whereas affection is the feeling of attraction and desire, love at its core is the choice to give to another. Affection can and often does precede love. Affection can also show up late, after the choice to give has been activated. But just because affection and tender feelings are present doesn’t necessarily mean that real love is happening. Because affection is a feeling, it too will come and go even when genuine love is being consistently acted out. Strong feelings of tenderness and desire are an extremely unstable basis for a long-term relationship. I did not always feel affection for my teenaged children. But I chose to love them by giving what I had to give even when I did not feel like it. And the lack of positive feelings was the reality more often than I like to admit.
This distinction is important especially in our ideas of romantic love. Romantic attraction is powerful! But it can easily and quickly degenerate into consumption. We easily feel that we love another because we desire that other person. But what is left when the desire dissipates (as it surely will), and I find myself hanging out with just another person who doesn’t stir anything in me anymore? For many, that’s when it is said, “I no longer love you.”
Keep on Giving
So, how do I continue to love? I continue to choose to give. The potential and power of REAL love is in my ability to choose – to give to another when it’s convenient and inconvenient; when it feels good and when it hurts; when they receive it well and when they don’t; when I get something in return and when nothing that I can see comes back to enrich me. But perhaps the affection will follow.
True love is a much more gritty and risky endeavor than any Valentine card has ever acknowledged. And yet, it is what my heart longs for, both to receive and to give. I may initially feel attracted to someone and choose to love them, or I may choose to love someone and eventually feel attracted to them. And when I feel like I have nothing more to give, I can look to the One who continually gives to fill me again. Either way, I want the REAL thing.
What about you?