What Is Love?


It’s that time of the year when lists are compiled, numbers are crunched, and a media with time on its hands sifts the past twelve months for some reflection of ourselves. Where did the time go? What does it all mean? How much weight have we all gained?

If our species can be said to have a hive mind — and it can, because it does — it’s Google. So when it comes to reducing 2012 to its particular essence, why not try the same approach we use for every other problem, and Google it? Well, according to the all-seeing searchmonster, a single search term dominated in ten different countries: “What is love?”

While we can assume that at least some of those searches were looking for the Haddaway classic, that still leaves a lot of people with the same question. What is love?

In one sense, it’s kind of heartwarming that so many people are looking for some sort of meaning in their lives, some profounder connection. Amongst the searches for Taylor Swift and Gangnam Style, this phrase speaks of a deeper yearning, one that is not sated by movie trailers and “funny pictures” (number 2 in image searches, behind One Direction but in front of Nicki Minaj). We’re supposed to be ironic and dispassionate and post-everything now, but there’s a touching sincerity to the idea that so many people are still curious about love.

On the other hand — as with Hindu gods, there’s always another hand — we’re asking, because we don’t know. Did watching our parent’s marriages collapse ruin for us the idea of this great abstract miracle, the Santa Claus for grown-ups? (Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as Santa Claus. Merry Christmas!) Love is the promise they use to make you crawl through the dirt, the dangling carrot that keeps you on the treadmill, keeps those wheels turning, because in the end it all comes down to that: keeping you quiet, keeping you producing, keeping you consuming. It’s the Big Lie, the only one, really, that still has power to move a generation that doesn’t believe in anything anymore. The idea of God is absurd — at least among the urban 20-30 somethings that I know — but love, somehow, is still something that people believe in. We don’t believe in nations, or churches, or governments, or capitalism, because in our fairly short lives we’ve seen all of those things fail. But love is bulletproof. No matter how many times we see love falter and fall, see it choked among the brambles, see it lying like a dog in an Oaxacan ravine, we keep looking for it, asking questions of it, refusing to believe that it can be as false as everything else seems to be.

The ancient Greeks used to split love up into its constituent parts: there’s philia, the deep, non-sexual intimacy you have with family, and maybe a few select friends that may as well be family. There’s ludus, the flirtation you have going with that sexy intern. There’s agape, the beautiful idea of a non-sexual, non-specific love that a person can have for all humanity. There’s philautia, the often underrated self-love without which no other love is possible. There’s pragma, the old, slow, companionship that builds up over years, relying more on compromise, compassion and understanding than it does on passion.  And there’s eros, which you can probably guess is the love that tents your pants/dampens your seat when that person you just have to possess wanders obliviously by.

The point, I guess, is this: no one’s going to come along and hit every note in that symphony. You can’t be all of those things to someone, and no one can be all of those things for you; that’s why the orchestra has many instruments. No one can be everything to everyone. And like the old joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member, I simply can’t imagine growing old with someone, sipping-tea-on-the-porch-and-reading-the-Sunday-newspapers-old, when she’s done the depraved things I’d want her to do in bed. Eros and pragma do not mix easily. Likewise, a generalized love for humanity sounds great, but no one wants that for themselves. Impersonal love is nice and all, but no one writes songs about meeting that special person who loves them theoretically; it’s the particular that matters.

Love’s not a word I use, ever, because I don’t know what it means. My parents loved each other until they didn’t anymore, and now, seventeen years after they split, my dad still won’t drive near my mom’s house, even though they only live two miles away from each other. He doesn’t want to see her ever again, even in passing. Is that love?

Then there’s my grandmother, who spent the last years of her life caring for her husband as he slipped inexorably away from her, wandering the dark paths of dementia. When it finally became too much for her to deal with and he was taken into a hospital we knew he wouldn’t return from, she lay down in bed and died that same night. Is that love, or is it co-dependence?

Meanwhile, I see friends on Facebook posting statuses like, “Steve bought me flowers today for no reason. OMG I <3 MY BOYFRIEND SOOOO MUCH!”, and three months later they’re suddenly single, while my desiccated relationships go on and on.

This is my statement of ignorance, and if you read this article in the hope of answers, I’m sorry; I don’t have any to give you. I love the mountains; I love the sea; I love the wind through the trees at the electric edge of the storm, and the golden light of late summer. But loving a person? People are too complicated.

So let’s give the hive mind another shot. Let’s use that comments section below for something positive: tell me what love is, to you. I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.

And for a little inspiration, here’s some music to help you think. Take it away, Haddaway.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhrBDcQq2DM&w=584&h=390]

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