What in the World is Love?
A Reflection for the Young

Doug McManaman
Fall, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

It is interesting that so many young people think of love as something inexpressible and unknowable in itself, as if it is the unutterable mystery that a person can only experience, but never define. There is certainly mystery in human existence, mystery that will always evade the grasp of human reason and thus resist our attempts to contain it in a simple definition. I think I'd have to argue, though, that love is not this mystery. God, rather, is the unutterable mystery. And it is true that "God is love" (1 Jn 4, 8). But our love is not God. God's love is God. But human love, married love, erotic love, friendship, self-love and affection are all open to being clearly and distinctly understood. This does not mean that our relationships will lack that superabundance or that inexhaustible quality that characterizes mystery. Rather, being clear about the difference between genuine love and those other loves that are less stable can go a long way in maximizing a person's chances of having a successful marriage. The very word 'confusion' means 'fused with', or indistinct. If we misunderstand the nature of love and fail to understand how a genuinely human love differs from other kinds of relationships that we in the English world designate by that same word 'love', then we remain confused about love. Mystery is overwhelming, not confusing. And there is no doubt that the Western World is confused about love. We've been singing about it and celebrating it for decades now, yet consider the ever increasing divorce rate.

To understand love, let us begin with what the West typically regards as love. I am referring to the experience of 'falling in love'. I think one of the best things we can do for people is to remind them that it is only when a couple fall out of love that the real work of love can be initiated. This is from Psychiatrist Scott Peck's best selling book, The Road Less Traveled (p. 88). He writes:

Of all the misconceptions about love the most powerful and pervasive is the belief that "falling in love" is love or at least one of the manifestations of love...the experience of falling in love is specifically a sex-linked erotic experience. We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply... We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated...the experience of falling in love is invariably temporary. No matter whom we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. This is not to say that we invariably cease loving the person with whom we fell in love. But it is to say that the feeling of ecstatic lovingness that characterizes the experience of falling in love always passes. The honeymoon always ends. The bloom of romance always fades (p. 84-85).

People are generally shocked to hear this for the first time, especially young people, and it is inevitably received as bad news. But bad news it is not. In fact, it is very good news. For the end of this kind of love that is 'falling in love' can mark the beginning of greater things. When a couple find themselves at this point, that is, at the point of falling out of love, the relationship is at a crossroads. They can go one way, towards something richer, towards a discovery of what married love is really meant to be, or they can allow their relationship to disintegrate.

It is true that falling in love for the most part initiates an intimate relationship, and so the experience is in many ways a good thing. It is by no means evil or bad. But it is weak and fickle. As Scott Peck indicates, it is a specifically "sex-linked erotic experience". Consider that a boy reaches his sexual peak during adolescence, while a woman does so in her late twenties or early thirties. As the old saying goes, "What goes up, must come down" (no pun intended). If this sex-linked erotic kind of love is love, then the relationship that is based on it will rise and at some point fall. I recall, years ago as a teenager walking downtown, a wedding party driving passed, horns honking and cans dragging from the bumper of the car, etc. A man walking passed me turned and said: "There's a sucker born every day". If 'falling in love' is love, then our relationships are doomed, and this man would be right.

But this man was not right, for the experience of falling in love cannot be love for one very simple reason: love isn't love unless it is freely given. And one does not choose to fall in love with someone any more than one chooses to fall off a roof. This is clearly indicated in the use of the word 'falling'. One falls by the force of gravity. One does not choose to fall, or when falling one cannot choose not to fall. A very pretty woman will likely have all sorts of men falling in love with her throughout her lifetime, and eventually she will come to expect this. The experience will not be all that meaningful for her. "Nobody's ever gonna love me now," Marilyn Munroe once said to her maid. "Who would want me?" she asked her. "Millions of men," answered her maid. "Yeah, but who would love me?"

Being in love indeed has its place in a relationship, but that place is not at its foundation. A foundation needs to be solid, permanent, and enduring, able to withstand all sorts of pressure from rough weather. Romantic love (falling in love) does not have the necessary qualities to withstand such pressure primarily because such a love is essentially emotional, and emotions are variable and fickle. One is not free with regard to one's emotions, that is, one does not choose to feel a certain way, such as sad, complacent, angry, or afraid. We are free to act according to our emotions or against them, but not to feel them in the first place. And yet love is something free, that is, freely given or freely withheld. So we have to look elsewhere for the secret of genuine love.

Often we hear others speak of how much they love this or that, for example pizza or Krispy Kreme donuts. What do people really mean by this? They mean that they love what these things do for them. It does not mean that one actually loves the donut. Is it possible to love something that one immediately destroys? Certainly not. In eating the Krispy Kreme donut or the slab of pizza, our body is destroying it, breaking it down (nutrition) in order that it become human tissue. It isn't the piece of pizza as such that we love. Rather, it is ourselves that we love. We delight in the taste of it, among other things. In other words, we love what it does for us. The object of our love is the self, not the donut. That is why this kind of love is called 'self-love'.

And there is nothing wrong with self-love as such. Self-love only becomes a problem when human persons are made the object of that love. In such cases, we love the person for what he or she does for us. You see, the pizza exists for us, for our use, as do things in general. But human persons do not exist for our use. Persons must be loved, not used; things must be used, not loved. Often, though, people have this reversed. And don't we resent it when we discover that we've been used?

Most of us do not need convincing that self-love is not genuine human love. But consider that even Romantic love ("being in love"), if accompanied by no higher love, is really a form of self-love. And self-love, when directed towards a human person, is abusive; to use a person is to abuse a person.

Disinterested Love

But self-love can help us understand the meaning of genuine love. For we naturally love ourselves and want the best for ourselves. If someone comes running at us with a machete, our natural instinct is to run. In doing so we are seeking to preserve our own life, because we see life a something good and worthy of protection. Similarly, if we had a choice between a rotten apple and a fresh one, we wouldn't choose the rotten one for ourselves because we naturally wish the best for ourselves. Such is self-love. Now, you and I have a unique capacity that no other creature in the visible universe can boast of. You, as a human person, have the ability to know another human person as one having the same nature as yourself. You realize that every friend of yours, and every person behind the wheel of a car or in front of a computer screen, has the same nature as you have, and that nature is a human nature. And you know that since they are of the same nature, they too love themselves naturally and wish the best for themselves. This ability is nothing other than the power to know, or the power to have intellectual knowledge. A dog or a cat has knowledge, but not intellectual knowledge. The kind of knowledge that brutes enjoy is limited to sense knowledge. They may know the colors, smells, tastes, and sounds of things, but there is no evidence that they understand the natures of things otherwise animals could be scientists. But human persons can know the natures of things, and I can know that you are the same kind of being as I am. What does that have to do with genuine love? A great deal. But we need to continue.

The other ability or power that you have that distinguishes you from brutes is will. Will is not the same as desire. Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows this; for I may desire a piece of cake, but I can choose to go against my desires. The reason is that I have another appetite, a rational appetite, which is the will. In other words, I can will something that I don't desire. I can will to abstain from chocolate cake, even though I have a strong desire for a piece. Place a hunk of red meat in front of a hungry dog and the dog will inevitably eat it. The dog will never deny himself in order to lose weight, or reduce his cholesterol. Brute animals are governed by their instincts. But this is not the case with the human person. We can choose or will to do something contrary to our natural instincts. Why? Because we have the power of reason and will.

Once again, though, what does this have to do with genuine love? You and I naturally want the best for ourselves. This is self-love, as we said. But I can know you as another self, and so I can will the best for you as I will the best for myself. In other words, you and I can love another person as another self. And so even though I desire the fresh apple for myself, I can also know that you too, as another self, desire the fresh apple for yourself. I can join my will to yours and will what is best for you. In joining my will to yours and willing the best for you, I have to transcend my desire for the apple, deny myself, and allow you to have it. Notice that a pack of hungry animals cannot achieve this; for them it's first come first serve. That is why it is accurate to compare students to vultures or wolves when we see them diving for the box of pizza, without any consideration for anyone else in the room.

Genuine human love, which I will call disinterested love, is loving the other as another self, or willing the best for the other and choosing in accordance with that will. This is the only kind of love that is freely given. This love is not a feeling, but an act of the will. It is not an emotion although it may be accompanied by emotions.

Disinterested Love and Human Passion

"But this sounds very dry, a relationship without passion and spontaneity," some people say, or as one of our students said, one grounded merely in "protocol". I submit that this is merely appearance. In fact, it is those relationships based solely on feeling, that is, the feeling of 'being in love' that are destined to dry up in a relatively short time. The passion will eventually disappear. And since feeling was all there was to the relationship, the relationship will virtually be finished.

"But you said that the couple will eventually 'fall out of love'. Where will the passion be then?" This is a good question, and one not easy to answer. But let's begin by pointing out that the end of the experience of 'being in love' does not spell the end of passion in the relationship, much less does it entail the end of the relationship. It is an opportunity of raising that relationship to a new level, a higher level, one much richer in meaning. You see, the passions (emotions) have an innate need to be guided by something higher, that is, to be guided by the demands of reason. Psychiatrist Conrad Baars writes:

...man's emotions have an innate need to be guided and directed by reason. That is to say that they need and desire to be guided by their very nature. When an emotion receives its proper guidance, it is satisfied and is now disposed to submit to the decision of the will as to what course of action shall be taken.

It is only when they are so guided by reason that they achieve their greatest strength as passions. When a person's marriage is governed by reason and disinterested love as opposed to self-love or romantic love , and when the entire network of our emotions are made to serve that love, the result is that the passions are at their best and are most fully alive. Think of an army in which every soldier in the platoon is completely committed to executing the plan of the Lieutenant, and each Lieutenant is completely committed to executing the plan of the Major, and each Major is committed to the plan of the Lieutenant Colonel, who commands the Regiment, and so on and so forth. The entire army is ordered according to the overall plan of the General, who takes his orders from the Commander in Chief. What we have here is an organized and very powerful army. But an army in which each platoon is doing its own thing without regard for the overall plan is disorganized, divided, and consequently very weak. Or, consider a machine in which all the parts are working in harmony with one another, each working for a common end, which is the proper functioning of the machine so that it may fulfill its purpose, be it photocopy pages or transport you from one place to the next. It is only through that harmonious operation that the machine can function at full power.

So too, that person whose emotions are working in harmony with reason, that is, subject to the demands of reason and disinterested love is one whose life is passionate to its fullest extent. That is why our poster that reads: "For the best sex, slip on one of these", and depicts two wedding rings, rather than a couple of condom packages, contains a profound truth of human psychology. Sexual promiscuity and serial sexual relationships destroy a person's ability to love, that is, they destroy a person's ability to carry on a faithful, loving, and lasting relationship. There is simply no passion in the short term relationships of the sexually active young adult. Rather, sexual union that is the expression of the love one has for another as another self, as a person who is one flesh, one body with you, is the most passionate and the richest in meaning. This reminds me of a recent study done by researchers at the University of Chicago, said to be the most "comprehensive and methodologically sound" sex survey ever conducted, which reported that religious women experience significantly higher levels of sexual satisfaction than non-religious women (Revenge of the Church Ladies).

In fact, just consider the word ecstasy, which refers to a joy so intense that a person has the experience of being "outside of oneself". Ecstasy is from the Greek ekstasis, which implies an "exit-of-self". Dogs, cats and horses experience pleasure, but they do not experience joy. The reason is that they are not capable of an "exit-of-self", the kind of exit required by a genuinely disinterested love. This love loves the other as another self, which implies a transcendence of the self, a going beyond oneself towards the other. The proper effect of this love is ecstatic joy. So few people today know the difference between joy and pleasure, and the reason is that so few people know how to love in the genuine sense of that word. Self-love is good and achieves pleasure, but it is joyless. A marriage built on "Romantic love" might very well be pleasure filled at least for a time, but it will not become a joy filled marriage until the couple 'fall out of love' and begin the difficult work of loving one another for one another's own sake, and not merely for the sake of what they do for each other.

Marriage and the Virtues

And the point of marriage is to learn the difficult work of love. Disinterested love is the most difficult to achieve because the entire network of human emotions tends to be disordered and lacking in harmony. Animals are governed by their passions, and that is natural for animals; for the emotions are the highest appetitive powers they have. But this is not natural for human beings, and sadly many people are governed solely by their feelings. It is natural for man, on the contrary, to be governed by reason, just as it is natural for an army to be governed by the General. Only when a person's emotions are disposed to follow the dictates of reason and the demands of love does a person achieve emotional well-being and stability.

The hard work of disposing the emotions to readily follow reason and the demands of love is what is meant by the cultivation of the virtues. The virtues perfect the human emotions, that is, they moderate the emotions so that they may become fully alive and help in the execution of reason's command. Moderation according to reason, however, is not suppression. The one who suppresses an emotion denies it, is afraid of it, sees his emotions as bad rather than goods to be affirmed, felt and perfected. For example, patience moderates the emotion of sorrow; for it is unreasonable to allow sorrow to so overwhelm us that we give up the pursuit of some good that is difficult to achieve, but worthy nonetheless of our pursuit, such as marriage. The impatient person is conquered by sorrow. The emotionally repressed person, on the other hand, refuses to feel his sorrow, but instead buries it, denies it, and so fails to use it. Such repression only succeeds in storing up trouble that is bound to erupt at some later date. Or think of the virtue of courage, which is the habit that disposes both the emotions of daring and fear to follow the demands of reason, in order to avoid both cowardice and foolhardiness. The person whose emotions of daring and fear are not moderated by the habit of courage is overcome by fear, or by his inordinate sense of daring. The emotionally repressed person, on the other hand, will suppress his fear rather than feel it and listen to it. Repressed fear can often lead to inordinate anger, which, if not resolved, can destroy a relationship.

Other virtues that structure the emotions according to the order of reason include humility, which restrains the hope we have in our own excellence; pride and the refusal to change has never helped a relationship flourish. Temperance, which moderates the emotions of desire, self-love, complacency, and sorrow as they relate to the pleasures of touch, is necessary if one is going to be able to achieve a disinterested love. If a person is unable to remain faithful to his/her spouse, the relationship is doomed to failure. Moreover, a marriage relationship requires all sorts of personal sacrifices that cannot be made unless a person has achieved a certain degree of detachment from the various pleasures of touch, whether they be those pleasures associated with food or alcoholic drink, or with sexual activity. Once again, though, temperance is not suppression. Suppression occurs when a person refuses to acknowledge his sexual emotion. Perhaps he has been taught that sexual feelings are bad or sinful, and so rather than understand and affirm them so as not to be controlled by them, he suppresses them, only to find himself almost entirely under their control. Such a one is bound to experience emotional-sexual difficulties later on in life, which will affect his marriage.

The work of laying the foundation for a healthy and lasting marriage is arduous and slow, but the end result is a strong and beautiful edifice. Think of a time when you went downtown and witnessed construction work on a new building. Each time you'd return to the site, you'd notice that they were still working on the foundation. In fact, most of the time was spent on the foundation. They dig deep, use concrete and steel reinforcements, and if you peaked through one of the holes in the boards, you noticed that the spectacle was not all that interesting. But when the foundation is done, the building is erected relatively quickly, and what appears is much more interesting and spectacular. But if the foundation was rushed, it would be weak, and the building would be coming down much sooner than later. So too with a marriage relationship. The foundation is not the sweet experience of 'being in love', but the more difficult achievement of loving your spouse as another self and the difficult work of ordering the emotions according to the structure of the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.