What Does Love Even Mean?

How many different definitions of love do you think there are? Then again maybe that’s the wrong question to ask since most people probably couldn’t even offer up a definition, and even if two people could give a definition and the exact same definition there’s no guarantee they would both mean the exact same thing, so let me try again. How many different understandings of what love is do you think there are? So, no need to use any words, all that is required is that whenever the person thinks of love they are able to conceptualise it, even if they can’t explain it to anybody else or even themselves. Now, I would wager that the answer to this question is about the same number of people alive that are able to form concepts. However, there are likely to be minimal differences between some people’s understandings of love so it’s perhaps best to only think of how many sufficiently different understandings of love there are that can form their own categories. My guess is that, even still, there are likely to be countless dissimilar categories when it comes to people’s understandings of love, and yet we are so ready to tell everyone to love either themselves or others without bothering to explain what we think loving entails.

This is a significant discrepancy. Ultimately, loving people don’t really need to be told what love is nor do they need to be told to love but it is likely that the people who are not acting in a loving way, and thus the targets of calls to love themselves and others, also misunderstand what is meant by the term “love”. There are plenty of abusive and excessively controlling people that believe they are being loving towards the people they abuse and control. Thus, it is incredibly important to make an attempt to define love, both to serve as a standard for how the abusive should behave, if they are under the illusion that they are treating others in a loving way, and to serve as a standard by which the abused can judge the supposedly loving behaviour of their abusers. However, defining love is not just important in the context of an abusive relationship as, given that even someone that physically abuses their children can think they are acting in a loving way, it is perfectly possible that we would have a false impression of how loving our own behaviour really is and so it would be good for everyone if there was a less subjective definition of love against which we could judge our own behaviour.

To me, love is the facilitation of that which satisfies the soul of the receiver. My definition is somewhat inspired by this video of Dr Maya Angelou and it applies whether we are talking about loving ourselves or others. To love yourself is to act in a way that allows your soul to be satisfied and to love others is to act in a way that allows their soul to be satisfied. As we now know that there is no guarantee people will understand this definition in the way I would like them to, I think it is best that I explain my concept of love a little more in depth and explore the aspects of love that I think this definition encompasses to better the chances people will understand it in the way I intend.

First things first, when I define love this way I am not talking about romantic love or familial love or the love you would have for your friends. These types of love are determined by the attachment the people share and their responsibilities towards each other. While I do think that the kind of love I’m talking about should be present in these relationships it is still separate from these kinds of love. The love I’m trying to define is more like what the Greeks called “agape” which is an unconditional love that a person should have for all people regardless of their relationship.

Another source of confusion might be what I mean by “satisfies the soul”. When I use this term I’m really talking about contentment. Contentment seems to only be attainable by accepting the reality of today and knowing that you are doing your best to work toward the betterment of tomorrow for all people. Without doing this, it really doesn’t seem to be possible for a person to find contentment, just try to find a person that wants others to be worse off or can’t accept the world as it is today that is or was content, in the case that they’re dead, because I haven’t been able to do it. And when I say all people I am including you, it does not seem possible for a person to be content without wanting the best for themselves tomorrow and accepting their reality today. It is not actually possible for you to completely change yourself in a day, the brain is just as physical as the rest of you, your habits are physically ingrained into your brain, and so just as you can’t expect to suddenly be able to run a marathon, you can’t expect to suddenly be a completely different person, changing your bad habits takes time and you can either hate yourself for that or accept it and enjoy the ride as you change those habits. Of course, if you can’t even fix yourself today, then the folly of thinking you could fix the world today is clear.

This focus on the facilitation of contentment inevitably means the love must be results driven and receiver-centric. Our good intentions aren’t really enough, we must be focused on what the consequences of our actions are and change them if they do not help satisfy the soul of the other person. We must also allow the other person to choose how they are loved because only they truly know what will bring them contentment. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t make people’s lives difficult. Obviously we should always challenge our loved ones if they’re being hateful or refusing to accept the reality of today, as they will never find contentment this way, but sometimes we see how people wish to better the world as being unrealistic or as being too dangerous or sometimes we just don’t like them doing something that’s neither here nor there when it comes to accepting reality or bettering the world, like their haircut (and yes, that example is from experience) or something of the like, and in cases such as these I think all we can do is voice our concerns and then leave them be about it. The only way to do any of this is to allow others to be honest with us. We can’t try to dominate our loved ones and become furious anytime they say something we don’t want to hear because then we wouldn’t be loving that person but someone that shares their face. The only way we can help to satisfy the soul of others is if we provide an environment in which they feel they can bare their soul to us.

The same also applies when it comes to loving ourselves. We need to focus on if we are actually getting closer to being content and make sure we’re not just fooling ourselves into thinking what we’re doing is making us content. It’s a little bit easier to love ourselves at least because we aren’t experiencing our contentment or lack of it through the words and perspective of another. Ask yourself one of these two questions, when appropriate, and you’ll know what to do to love yourself. Can I truly be content with doing this for the rest of my life? And, could I truly be content if I never did this in my life? Becoming more honest as you go along is also an important part of loving ourselves because which of us could truly be content having never been truly and fully ourselves with anyone other than ourselves? Also, the only way you’ll change things for the better is if you’re honest about what you want. What you don’t ask for you don’t get.

And so, that is how I view love. It’s focused on the satisfaction of the soul, focused on the results of our actions, focused on the receiver of our love, and, most importantly, the definition makes it harder for abusive people to think they’re being loving by abusing others. I’ll end this post on something else I find to be important. There is a reason I wrote that love is the facilitation of that which satisfies the soul and that reason is you cannot force people to be content. Us being content is on us. The best we can do is provide the right conditions for them to find contentment, but they are the ones that must find that contentment, no amount of our love can find it for them. It’s like a broken bone, we can put it in a cast and make sure the bone isn’t used but, ultimately, the bone has to repair itself, all we can do is provide the best conditions for the mending of the bone. This is another reason it’s easier to love ourselves because at least we can do the work, but we can’t do the work for other people. So that is the obligation of love: to facilitate that which will lead them to find contentment, be there for them as they struggle, and celebrate with them when their soul is finally satisfied.

You’ve a Hole in Your Heart, Dear Johnny

The young boy padded over to the side of the big leather armchair. He was just tall enough to lean his elbows comfortably on the armrest without having to stretch, his chin  would normally slot into his hand out of habit as the leather of the chair made noises of protest against the new weight but today he was here with a purpose. Sitting in the chair was a hairy, burly old man, his wide frame filling into the chair, his long white beard reaching down past his chest, seemingly in an attempt to compensate for the lack of hair on the top of his head.

The young boy proceeded to place his palms on the arm of the chair, pushing himself up off the ground until the only things keeping him in place were his arms straining from the exertion required to handle the weight, locked out at the elbows to ensure stability. The old man now turned his head towards the boy with a look that was a mix of loving admiration and confusion, the fat of his cheeks raising towards his eyes and making them close a tiny fraction. The child then began to tip himself forward, stretching out his neck and head towards the man’s chest. He lost his balance, however, and slammed his heavy skull into the heart of the old man, causing his face to twist from a look of confusion and love into one of pure pain, letting out a yell as it twisted. The boy, too, was in pain and quickly threw his head away from the chest that had caused it so much pain, but remembering his mission the boy quickly regained his composure, paid no attention to the man’s cry of pain, and moved his head back towards his heart, except gentler this time round.

The old man’s eyebrows raised and he held his jaw as the young boy was finally able to set his head upon his chest without causing any pain. The boy stayed there for a few moments, pressing his ear against him, seemingly trying to listen for a heartbeat. The old man finally spoke, “I’m not a zombie if that’s what you were wondering, Johnny.”

The boy quickly jumped back to the side of the armchair, not expecting the sudden conversation. He giggled at the assumption and opened his mouth to speak, “I know that Grandpa, you would’ve tried to eat my brains by now if you were. I was just trying to see if I could tell whether you had a hole in your heart.”

The grandfather’s eyes now squinted at his grandson. He considered joking that the boy had no brains for a zombie to be able to eat but decided against it as the second part of what he said was a much more pressing matter. He spent a little time trying to come up with an intelligent and careful response but, despite all his attempts, he could still only respond with a, “What?” His face contorting as the word escaped his lips to ensure his utter and complete confusion was successfully expressed.

Johnny took no notice of his grandfather’s exaggerated expression, obviously used to them by now, and attempted to explain himself. “Chloe was talking about people having holes in their hearts and I was wondering how she could tell. Do they have a weaker heartbeat? You would think so if part of it was missing.”

A slight indent could be seen in the man’s cheek as he held it between his teeth. He released it to respond to his grandchild, “Alright, I think I get it now.” After taking a moment to organise his thoughts, the old man once again opened his mouth to speak, “You see, when people talk about having a hole in their heart they’re not talking about an actual hole in their actual heart, at least most of the time anyway. Instead, what they mean is they feel they’re missing something in their life. It’s an imaginary heart and an imaginary hole they’re talking about, barring a few outliers.”

The young boy’s face was now scrunched up showing the hard work he was putting into trying to understand what his grandfather was telling him. “But then what are they missing that they have an imaginary hole in their imaginary heart?”

“Well, love.” Realising the boy leaning against the arm of his chair might not have an extensive knowledge of love, he began to make an attempt to list all the different kinds. “Romantic love, love between friends, love from your family.” The old man had to stop there as he couldn’t think of anymore, he thought that perhaps he needed to study the different kinds of love a bit more as well because surely there’s more than three. “Basically, anytime someone talks about the heart they’re talking about love except for when they’re talking about an actual heart.”

“So then how do they fill the hole in their heart? Does someone else give them a piece of their heart? But then that person would have a hole in theirs. And I thought having something jammed into your heart was meant to be a bad thing.” Johnny’s voice was beginning to reach higher and higher pitches, his facial expressions more exaggerated as a result of the strain caused by trying to understand how this whole “hole in the heart” business worked.

Johnny’s grandfather laid a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him down. “It’s not that the other person gives them a piece of their heart but they share their heart with them and so the one that has a hole in their heart can get better that way.”

“But what if the other person’s heart can’t handle being shared? Or what if the person dies and now there’s no heart to share?” The young boy had now taken to looking off into the distance intensely as he questioned what his grandfather was telling him.

The old man hadn’t been expecting a question like that and was now going into panic mode except he didn’t at least have the opportunity to express this as it could upset his grandson. “Well… if that happens…” Stuttering over his words, he began to realise he was out of his depth trying to explain heartbreak and loss to an eight years old boy. He began to avoid looking at Johnny and started praying that something would happen that could get him out of the conversation. Thankfully the universe had decided to be kind to him today, probably to make up for the loss of hair. Although if that was the cost of escaping the questions of his grandson then he would take it.

Before the bearded oldie was able to stutter over his words some more, his wife walked into the room. The woman, her hair a platinum blonde in transition from its once natural colour to its now natural grey, took in the sight of her grandson leaning upon the armchair staring intently at her red-faced, red-eared husband and felt the edges of her mouth tugged up into a subtle smile. “So what’s going on here then?” she inquired, trying to ensure no hint of teasing was evident in her voice.

The old man saw this as the perfect opportunity to trap someone else with the child’s questions but before he could even utter a syllable Johnny had started to answer his grandmother. “Grandpa is telling me what having a hole in the heart means and how people with holes find other people to fill those holes or heal them or something. I don’t really get it.”

“Well no wonder you don’t get it, your Grandpa is telling you a load of nonsense.” stated the boy’s Grandma in a rather matter-of-fact manner.

Johnny quickly turned his head towards his grandfather to guage his reaction to what was just said. While his pride was slightly damaged by the remark, it was a price worth paying to get out of the situation, as apparently his hair loss wasn’t enough, so he simply replied with a “Your Grandma’s probably right, Johnny.”

His grandfather’s response caused the young boy to laugh, similarly to how he does when he’s watching Tom and Jerry. “Why’s Grandpa talking nonsense, Grandma?” the boy asked, not showing the same courtesy as his grandmother by ridding his voice of any signs of teasing.

The woman required no time to respond and almost began talking before Johnny had even finished his question. “Because when you have a hole in your heart nobody else can heal that but you. Think about it, when someone breaks their leg who has to heal it? Them or their husband?” Her eyebrows were now raised as high up her forehead as possible, “When you get a scratch can I heal that for you or does your body have to do that itself?”

“But then why do people go to the hospital when they break something?” asked Johnny. His grandfather had almost asked the same thing but feared it would lead to him being pulled back into the conversation and once more getting interrogated by the boy who’s curiosity seemed boundless.

“Well sure other people can help. When you break something the doctor can put the bone in place to make sure it doesn’t reattach the wrong way round.” The woman paused so her words weren’t drowned out by Johnny’s giggling at the idea. “And when you get a scratch I can put a plaster on it and kiss it to make it heal a bit faster. But, ultimately, it’s your bone that has to grow back together again. It’s your skin that has to scab over and knit your skin back together, no one else can do those things for you.”

“And it’s the same for having a hole in your heart?” inquired the young boy.

“Exactly.” stated the boy’s grandmother, “Other people can help the hole heal quicker and show the person how to heal their heart, sure, but ultimately the only person that can fill the hole in their heart and make it whole again is themselves.”

“But,” the young boy looked over at his grandfather with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes, the teasing in his voice back once again, “Then why didn’t Grandpa know any of that?”

“Oh, well that’s an easy one.” The old woman now looked over at her husband too, the same mischievous twinkle mirrored in her eyes. “It’s because he’s never watched Oprah.”

Demand Repentance Not An Apology

If going to church twice every Sunday, when you were a child, teaches you anything it’s the difference between repentance and saying sorry. An apology is only words but repentance is action. To repent means you must actually change your behaviour and stop doing whatever it is you’re repenting for. This distinction is important when considering whether we should “forgive and forget.”

Now, I am a big believer in forgiving unconditionally. Forgiveness allows you to free yourself of any bitterness or desire for vengeance you might feel and thus prevents it bringing you down to a level you never wanted to end up on. However, I do have an issue with the “forget” part of “forgive and forget.” Or that is to say, I have a problem with a certain interpretation of this saying, which is that when people apologise you should just go back to treating them the same way you did before they wronged you. This is foolish, to me, because an apology does not ensure a change in behaviour. Take someone having an affair as an example.

So, Timon and Pumba are dating, everything’s going great, then one day Timon sees Pumba kissing someone else. Now, if Timon was to follow the principle of “forgive and forget” then whenever Pumba turns up to the door sobbing and begging for forgiveness then Timon has to forgive him and act like nothing had changed, otherwise he would be acting immorally. Except that clearly makes no sense, it is not immoral to protect yourself from further harm and, it doesn’t matter how many tears Pumba had to choke back to get out an “I’m sorry,” an apology does not ensure that Timon will not get hurt again by Pumba playing away from home. Now let’s imagine the same situation, but this time with a focus on repentance and not on apologies.

So, same thing, Timon and Pumba are together, everything’s going great, until one day Timon walks in on Pumba and a stranger “wrestling” in bed. They fight but for whatever reason, Timon decides to stay with Pumba but only if he repents. Now, another key difference between repenting and apologising, other than the focus on action over intention, is that there is an understanding that the onus is on the person that did something wrong to earn back the trust they lost and to get things back to the way they were before, so there’s none of this “but I said I was sorry” nonsense, it’s not the responsibility of the person that’s been wronged to suddenly trust them again. So, in the case of Timon and Pumba, rather than Timon acting like nothing happened, it would be up to Pumba to prove they’ve repented by not showing any interest in being with other people and not being secretive about their activities.

When considered in terms of an extreme case this demand for repentance seems obvious but often when dealing with less serious cases of hurt or betrayal people will suddenly think showing repentance is unimportant and that an apology is enough to make things better and to return the relationship back to normal. Let’s go back to school and imagine you’ve told someone about your friend’s crush that you weren’t supposed to tell anyone about. Now, this is a serious issue because you have broken their trust but a lot of times people will believe saying sorry will make everything better and get annoyed if their friend doesn’t immediately trust them with their secrets again. What is needed here is repentance not an apology. The friend that broke the trust must show they understand they are not to share anymore secrets and carry through with keeping secrets to themselves. This is much more important than an apology.

Truth be told I don’t even care if someone apologises to me, all that matters to me is that they realise they should no longer do whatever it is they did that hurt me and that they then don’t do it. I don’t need people to feel bad about what they did, some people have far too fragile egos for that or maybe they truly think they did nothing wrong but so long as they stop treating me in a way I don’t want them to it doesn’t matter to me how they rationalise it.

In a way I guess I’m both more lenient and stricter than most. No matter what someone does to me there is always the chance that things can go back to they were before so long as they have repented. I would literally accept someone who stabbed me back into my life so long as they proved themselves to no longer be a danger around anything you could find in a kitchen. However, I do expect those that have hurt me to actually change their behaviour. There is no ” try” when it comes to me, either the person improves their behaviour or clearly the two of us aren’t compatible and they are out of my life unless and until they have changed their harmful behaviour.

The biggest difficulty with holding others by this standard is that you have to live by it too. You can’t expect others to repent and to accept that it will take time for things to return to the way they were without living by those standards yourself. You can’t tell people “do as I say, not as I do.”

Ultimately though, I believe focusing on repentance will improve people’s relationships, even if it does end a few because people don’t like to change but perhaps that’s for the best, maybe yourself and whoever you fall out with just weren’t compatible. No matter how good they treat you at the beginning of your relationship, whatever form it takes, if people aren’t willing to change their behaviour to stop hurting you then I find it unlikely that that relationship is in your best interests or healthy. Provided they are not putting you in danger, someone that starts bad but repents when they do something that hurts you will make a better friend than someone who starts well but refuses to change when something they do hurts you. A repentant sinner will make a better saint than a stubborn priest.