I have spent a lot of time thinking about love this year. I’ve read books, talked to people, and thought about it. A colleague calls it my love quest. What is love?
My professor advises us to approach a novel problem by first thinking about it. Once you have a potential answer, go to the literature and see how other people have approached the problem. Then, repeat that process until you either come up with a testable hypothesis or the answer. In the case of love, there is not a lot of scientific research — only attempts to study romantic love. With no scientific research to fall back on, I’m left with only philosophical musings. And God, who is Love. I want to understand, and know, the unknowable. To know Love, is not to have a fully fleshed out definition of love, but to have a relationship. It is through relationship — relationship with others and self — that we come to know love.
I imagine most people understand love better than I do. Most people likely understand love so well that they no longer even recognize it as love. That is why romantic love tends to be the topic of so much discussion, and even research — it is love of a different type than the love that is a deeper part of one’s experience, of one’s identity. Love, true, authentic love, is so much more than romance and courting. A baby experiences love right at birth (and arguably at conception). Other than to learn, the primary job of a baby is love. The baby, through his need, shows love to his parents. In return, the parents give unbounded amounts of love to their child, it is their gift. Neither love is perfect but both are perfectly human. Each love is given and received and together, child and parents, learn to navigate this new, difficult, amazing experience of love.
As the child grows up his concept of love changes. He begins to understand that the love he has with his parents is different than the love he experiences with his siblings and cousins. When he enters adolescence and experiences the fledglings of romantic love for the first time, his concept of love is updated again. This process of updating is continuous and happens throughout his lifetime: marriage, children, grandchildren. Everyone’s individual experiences of love are different but, people with approximately the same experience in childhood will start with approximately the same concept of love — the unfailing symbiotic giving and receiving of love between child and parents.
But, what about people that do not have the typical parent-child gift-love and need-love? What if a person never has the experience of authentic, unadulterated gift-love from a parent?
When I was a child I learned about love from my parents. That concept, love, was instilled in me early on, just as it is in most human babies. My dad and mom looked lovingly into my eyes, and fed me, and held me, and loved me. I was loved.
I also learned about hate from the very same people. I learned about the variety of forms hate can take. I learned that the same set of eyes can express both love and hate. How does it impact a child when what she needs is love but what she receives is hate? To see love, and hate, directed at you from the very same person is…. I’m not sure if there are any words that can explain that experience. But one thing is for sure, it alters your concept of love.
As an adolescent I stopped talking to my parents. I forgot what it was like to see both love, and hate, in the same set of eyes. As a foster child, I mostly just saw apathy. Occasionally kindness. Sometimes pity. I stopped looking at people’s eyes.
Some years after I stopped talking to my parents, my grandfather died. I loved him so much. He was so kind to me. He always gave my malnourished body an extra helping of food and an extra hug. He died. I never said goodbye. I was a teenager. My mom wanted to take me to his funeral. I started talking to her again so that I could go. On the way there she missed her exit. She went into a rage. I was in the front seat. My mom driving, while in a rage, is one of the scariest things you could ever experience. I looked at her. Our eyes met. Her eyes were filled with the most intense hate I had ever seen. I could no longer hear her hate-filled words, I could only see the hate in her eyes. Hate directed at me. Hate because I was such a vile creature. Hate because I made her late. Hate because I was me. Hate because I needed her, her love. Hate.
I have never forgotten the look in her eyes that day. I don’t like looking into people’s eyes because I know, even if they hold love in one moment, they could hold hate in the very next. This has happened not only with my mother but also with various romantic partners, including my last one. It is disconcerting to know, from experience, that love and hate are on the very same continuum.
Since then I have come to understand that most people do not communicate hate of that type, ever, let alone with their eyes. Rather, eye contact is a way to connect socially and emotionally with other humans. Eye contact is a way to be vulnerable. Eye contact is safe. Eye contact is one way to give, and receive, love. The way we see others, and are seen by others, is through our eyes. Living life without letting anyone see you can be quite lonely. And so, I have been working on making eye contact with others, especially with my daughter — to catch her gaze and express and receive love without words.
I am trying to allow myself to be more vulnerable, to believe that I am safe, and to know that there are kind people in the world. There have been a few times when someone caught my eyes without my guardedness. Each time it happens, it makes a huge impression on me. Yesterday, I experienced one of those moments. A man walked into the room. As I stood up to shake his hand, our eyes met. My guard was down. Our eyes locked. I’m not sure for how long. Was it just a second? Did the other people in the room notice? The kindness in his eyes touched me, to the innermost part of my being. We finished our handshake and I turned away. I grabbed my stuff and left the room.
After that, I cried. For hours, I cried. I looked in the mirror, at my own tear-filled eyes, and all I saw was pain. Deep pain through my light eyes. Did he see my pain the way I saw his kindness?
When a broken bone heals the wrong way, the doctor has to re-break it, and set it, so it can heal correctly. My heart healed the wrong way. Many years of heartbreak and trauma led to a girl in constant survival mode. After years of prayer for healing, I understand now that God is answering my prayers. God is here, with me. In my struggles, in my pain, God is here. To be whole though, I have and will experience more pain. Pain that will reveal and undo the brokenness of the past. Pain that will help remove the darkness and open up room for God’s kindness and love. Love that can heal the deepest wounds. Love that makes me whole. Love that never leaves, never gives up, and never fails.
Someday I hope to be able to give and receive love the way God gives and receives love. I am learning. I am healing. I have hope. I am known. I have God. I have Love.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth; Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. … as for knowledge, it will pass away. … When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. …
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
2 Corinthians 13