What is Love? Looking for a Definition of Love

28 November 2012 · 25 comments

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a pretty rational guy. I’ve prided myself in a scientific mind, one unclouded by spirituality and mysticism. Yet as I’ve experienced profound personal changes over the past few years, I’ve found myself more and more fascinated by abstract (or “spiritual”) questions, the likes of which I haven’t thought about in decades.

One topic I find especially fascinating is love. What is love? What does it mean to be “in love”? What are the different types of love? How can we show others that we love them? And what does it mean to love yourself?

While most of my exploration of love has taken place slowly and internally, I’ve also had some interesting external experiences with the notion of love. First, and most obviously, I chose to end a long-term marriage. That event forced me to dive deep into the nature of love. But there have been other experiences as well:

  • I have a friend who is conducting what she calls a “love project”. She’s methodically watching every movie she can find about love. She’s also reading books and talking to people. This project has no real purpose other than to help her understand what love is and how it manifests. Her only conclusion after six months of study so far? “Love is messy.”
  • I have another friend who seems to manifest love in nearly everything she does. It’s a very subtle thing, but if you watch her closely, you can see that in her interactions with strangers, in her relationships with friends, and even in her career choice, she’s motivated by love. A few months ago, I told her what I saw. She was surprised. “It’s true,” she said. “I do act out of love, but nobody’s ever noticed it before.”
  • As part of my work, I’m involved with a couple of large projects. One of them — which you can probably guess, but which will remain nameless — seeks to edify people, to move them to positive change. I was speaking with the man behind this project last summer, asking him what the project’s true purpose was. “It’s about empowerment,” he told me. “And love. Without using those words.” Suddenly everything made sense. Our work with this project is to spread love.

All this thinking about love has come to the fore recently because I’ve been reading (and enjoying) M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. I’ve mentioned this book before, and I’m sure to mention it again. It’s had a profound effect on me. It articulates much of my personal philosophy in ways that I’ve been unable to do. Plus, it’s pushing my own personal development in new and exciting directions.

The Road Less Traveled

The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott PeckBriefly put, The Road Less Traveled is about love and spiritual growth.

To begin, Peck explores the idea of discipline. “Life is difficult,” he writes, but we gain purpose and meaning in life through meeting and solving life’s problems. Mature adults are disciplined, and this discipline manifests itself in the following abilities:

  • Deferred gratification, the ability to put up with discomfort in the short-term to obtain a reward in the long-term.
  • Acceptance of responsibility, the ability to own up to your thoughts and actions instead of blaming others.
  • Dedication to reality, the ability to deal with the world as it actually is, the ability to be completely honest.
  • Balancing, the ability to be flexible, to handle conflicting demands and desires.

But why be disciplined? What is the motive to develop self-control? Peck says that the bottom line is love.

What is Love?

The first part of The Road Less Traveled is devoted to discipline. The last part explores the notion of religion (or, more properly, spirituality) and “grace” (or luck or happenstance). But the middle of the book is one long lecture on the nature of love.

According to Peck, Love is not a feeling. It’s an action. It’s an extension of the self, a conscious effort to grow the self — or someone else:

I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.

I love this definition because it moves beyond the idea of romantic love (which Peck calls a myth) to something more profound. And because the definition emphasizes the importance of self-love. Peck writes:

We cannot forsake self-discipline and at the same time be disciplined in our care for another. We cannot be a source of strength unless we nurture our own strength.

I’m reminded of something my friend Sally once said to me: “Self-care comes first.”

Peck stresses that love is not dependency. It is not self-sacrifice. Nor is it the same as “being in love” (which he calls cathexis, or a collapse of ego boundaries where you lose your sense of self). Instead, love is a choice. It requires effort. Peck says that love is a form of courage directed to nurture spiritual growth in ourselves and/or another person.

The principal form taken by the work of love is attention. When we love somebody — ourselves or another — we set aside other concerns to devote attention to the object of our affection. When we love our children, we give them attention. When we love our partner, we want to spend time with them. When we love ourselves, we spend time on personal development. The most important way to express love, to give attention, is to listen.

But love involves more than just attention. Love also requires independence. When you love yourself, you develop the courage to leave behind the parts of your life that were broken. It also requires the courage to spend time alone, by yourself, apart from the ones you love. “Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss,” Peck writes.

It is only when one has take the leap into the unknown of total selfhood, psychological independence, and unique individuality that one is free to proceed along still higher paths of spiritual growth, and free to manifest love in its greatest dimensions.

Commitment is the foundation, the bedrock of any loving relationship. You cannot foster growth in yourself or anyone else if you are not constantly concerned with that growth. This reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability and Jonathan Fields’ writing about uncertainty. In order to love, you must be willing to be vulnerable in the face of uncertainty, you must give yourself without the expectation of anything in return.

Peck argues that love also entails the risk of confrontation, of criticism. “Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful human relationships,” he writes. “Without it the relationship is either unsuccessful or shallow.”

He also says that love is disciplined. To love well, you must properly manage your feelings. You cannot love everyone. And, as has been said, you cannot love others if you do not love yourself. When you love, you must “order your behavior” in a way that contributes to your own (or somebody else’s) spiritual growth.

All of this builds toward one interesting argument: Peck believes that psychotherapy — the work of counseling — is love:

For the most part, mental illness is caused by an absence of or defect in the love that a particular child required from its particular parents for successful maturation and spiritual growth. It is obvious, then, that in order to be healed through psychotherapy the patient must receive from the psychotherapist at least a portion of the genuine love of which the patient was deprived.

Love in the Larger World

The Road Less Traveled starts with discipline, moves to love, and ends with religion. Peck writes:

As human beings grow in discipline and love and life experience, their understanding of the world and their place in it naturally grows apace. Conversely, as people fail to grow in discipline, love and life experience, so does their understanding fail to grow.

Peck says that this “understanding” is each person’s religion. You might call it spirituality. Or a blueprint for life. Peck says that our blueprints are constructed primarily from our childhood family life. Our maps of reality are “microcosms of the family”, and they’re useful only insofar as these maps reflect the realities of the world around us. The problem is that often these maps only work for the particular family in which we were raised.

Note: Long-time readers will recognize this as being exactly like the notion of financial blueprints, which I’ve written about for five years now. Our attitudes about money are formed largely by our parents’ attitudes about money. What Peck is saying is that our mental blueprints are about more than money. They’re about all of life.

Ultimately, Peck argues, our aim in life is continued personal development, continued spiritual growth, ongoing self-love. As part of that, “a major and essential task in the process of one’s spiritual development is the continuous work of bringing one’s self-concept into progressively greater congruence with reality.”

Over the past five or six years, I’ve been on a mission to discover who I am. I’ve been learning to love myself. And I’ve been learning how to love other people. It’s been a fantastic experience, and I’m fortunate to have (or, in Peck’s words, “grace has provided”) friends who are in similar journeys and who are willing to share the experience.

This process isn’t over. It never will be. My aim is to continue learning until I die. Next up, I’ll be reading Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person and How People Change by Allen Wheelis. When I’m finished with those books, I’ll share what I learn with you. Because I don’t just want to nurture my own spiritual growth — I want to nurture yours too.

1 Paul Williams November 28, 2012 at 11:07

I’ve come to adopt a similar definition of love – the engagement of the will for good (the good of others or your own good in the case of self-love). The “good” in mind here is the absolute, best good and not just what is desired. So it’s fairly similar to Peck’s definition in that it is a choice, requires discipline and courage, and may have the risk of confrontation or criticism.

2 David November 28, 2012 at 11:24

Interesting stuff. One corollary to his definition of love is that it precludes the idea of “loving a god”. God, by definition, is perfect, and thus requires no spiritual growth. Either a person denies that god is perfect (blasphemy) and tries to nurture god’s spiritual growth (through love), or accepts that they cannot love their god and contradicts their religion.

This post is a good example of what I have been calling Harmon’s 4th law (of the internet):
“All bloggers eventually become philosophers.”

3 Willa November 28, 2012 at 11:41

@David — your concept of God is a closed concept influenced greatly by your culture. How many religions, outside of the Triad who believe in the same God, believe God(s) to be perfect? There are hundreds, thousands even, of Gods worshiped and loved in this world. Few are thought to be “perfect” beings. Possibly enlightened, possibly powerful, possibly a lot of things humans aspire to be, but not “perfect”, not even all of them are all knowing or all powerful. :-)

@Paul — I like your definition (maybe because it’s about the same as mine!). Giving myself for the highest good — of self and others — is how I love, recognizing that the highest good, overall, might not be what I or someone else really wants to strive for in that moment.

4 David November 28, 2012 at 14:26

In which case it’s a deity, not God. The name/word “God” is defined by perfection.

5 Willa November 29, 2012 at 00:25

Then do I misunderstand your original post? You said the definition of love presented by Peck precludes loving a god because god, by definition, is perfect. The belief that one’s god is perfect is a very Judeo-Christian idea. Therefore, while it may be that this definition of love can not describe the love of Judeo-Christians for their god, it can still be used to describe the love a believer has for a god who is not believed to be inherently perfect.

Question, then… is your statement limited to the Judeo-Christian, capital-G God? Or are you saying this definition precludes “loving a [little-g] god” (meaning any god/deity)?

6 David November 29, 2012 at 07:39

I see. Yeah, I should’ve said “Loving God” instead of using the indefinite article. I spell “god” with a lowercase ‘g’ out of habit.

7 Kevin M November 28, 2012 at 11:53

Thanks for these posts JD. I’m nearing 40 and struggling with many of the same issues as you. I’m going to check out the book! I totally get what you’re saying about the blueprint idea, I see a lot of my childhood repeating itself now with me as the adult. Mostly good, but some not so good that I need to grow out of.

8 Kathi November 28, 2012 at 13:48

All interesting stuff, although romantic love seems to be of particular mystery to me… At what point do you consider that you “love” someone and then conversely, at what point do you not “love” them? And how does commitment fit in with “un-loving” someone? How do you go about purposefully “un-loving” someone, as you might want to do (for your own self-love) when your spouse is divorcing you and you don’t want the divorce?

Hmmm… I agree with J.D.’s “love project” friend, “love is messy.” The one thing I can say with certainty about love is that it doesn’t lend itself well to definition. Sure you can say that love is an action, not a feeling, but you can’t ignore that feelings often (always?) motivate the actions that define love. Yikes, my brain is spinning… :)

9 Kathleen, Frugal Portland November 28, 2012 at 14:30

Have you read Richard Roth’s a Bridge Across Forever? I think you’d find beauty in that — it’s also about love.

10 bethh November 28, 2012 at 16:51

That was Richard Bach – I haven’t thought of that book in ages!

11 bethh November 28, 2012 at 16:54

I’m glad you mentioned Brene Brown’s stuff, I’m just reading her Daring Greatly and I’m getting a lot out of it.

I feel a strong reaction to Peck’s bit on mental illness that you quoted: “mental illness is caused by an absence of or defect in the love that a particular child required from its particular parents for successful maturation and spiritual growth.”

I read that as blaming the parents for a chemical condition. I think there are conditions that can be helped by therapy that could have roots in childhood/parenting but I don’t think mental illness is one.

12 jdroth November 28, 2012 at 17:05

Hey, all. I want to address a point that’s been brought up both here and on Facebook. People are pointing out that some mental illness is caused by chemical imbalances. This is true, and Peck would not disagree. In fact, he states as much in his book.

However, Peck and I both believe that a significant amount of mental illness — most mental illness, in fact — is caused by childhood trauma. This has been clear to me for many years. I could see it in childhood. I could see it when I studied psychology. I’ve seen it over the past twenty years. And I see it now.

When I look at the people I know, even the majority who are reasonably well adjusted, their hang-ups come from their childhood experiences, and it’s blatantly obvious. Sure, some of the problems are chemical. But the vast majority stem from the culture in which they were raised. Sometimes it’s a relief to learn that somebody was raised, for example, with emotionally distant parents. It does so much to explain who they are and why they act a certain way. Or it helps to know that certain friends had parents who were very controlling; that explains their behavior too. And I’m beginning to understand that some of my own socialization issues are a result of my experiences as a child. It’ll be interesting to see how I address them in the years to come.

Please don’t condemn this book (and Peck) based on that one idea alone. His position is actually more nuanced. Yes, he believes that childhood events are the primary cause of mental illness; but he recognizes there are other sources as well.

13 SG November 29, 2012 at 08:45

And then there’s the issue of soulmates. When you do meet someone you connect with on a spiritual level, whom you are also connected to on an eros level, but then becomes agape (although still elements of eros as well, just that it deepened).

These have been the most profound experiences in my life. I have been blessed to have 2 soulmates, one of which I am married to for 13 years now. With each I have had the spiritual growth on a very deep level that Peck refers to (and of which I agree with him it is more profound than romantic love).

The other one (other soulmate) I think of every day. But I lost over 2 decades ago over a matter related to faith (not faithfulness, it was related to a matter that was part of our spiritual faith…and one in which we came to agreement to….but only years later after we had already gone our separate ways unwillingly).

It’s easy to say ‘leave the past behind you’, but not so easy when you have had such a profound experience of finding each other at your absolute core, and where you do have spiritual growth with this person.

I focus on what I have now with my marriage and soulmate (and am aware I am blessed beyond measure), but the other one, the first one, he is embedded deep in my heart and soul.

My soul awakened as a result of that relationship.

I know I will be with him again, but not on this side of heaven.

14 chacha1 November 29, 2012 at 11:26

Hey J.D. We are having a Portland-ish day here in L.A. and I *love* it. :-)

I read “Road Less Traveled” a long time ago and it may be time to revisit. I have changed quite a bit since then.

Always pretty much agreed, though, that love is what we DO, not what we FEEL. What we feel is, almost by definition, a result of chemical reactions and electrical impulses; it’s physical. Our mental or emotional recognition of these reactions and impulses, and our consequent actions, are commonly perceived as “love” or “being in love” but there is a lot more to it.

Going through life with an intention of loving (meaning the act of applying love where and whenever we can) is, I can attest, a much more peaceful and rewarding approach than any other I’ve tried.

Living with love, by the way, I do *not* take to mean that we are indiscriminate. Being loving toward someone destructive, for example, means abandoning self-love. Self-love also is not the same as self-esteem (70s concept that has not done well by us).

For more on this general philosophy, along with those recommendations already made, I would suggest reading The Fluent Self by a fellow Portlander.

15 Jane November 29, 2012 at 12:30

Thanks for this post. It really comes at the perfect moment for me.

I started reading this book years ago, but only finished the first part.
Your post is prompting me to finish what I started because this exploration is what my life sorely needs right now.

16 Jon November 29, 2012 at 13:49

One book that may interest you is “The Four Loves” by CS Lewis:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Four-Loves-C-Lewis/dp/0156329301

In typical CS Lewis writing, he goes deep into something while also keeping it simple.

17 Holly@ClubThrifty November 29, 2012 at 17:38

I love this post. I have learned so much about love over the past 9 years since meeting my husband. I don’t think I truly loved myself until my husband showed me what real, unconditional love was. Learning to love myself has made me more able and willing to truly and deeply love him back. And now that we have children, I have discovered a new and amazing love that I could have never imagined experiencing before.

What can I say? I am in love with love itself and I love sharing my life with the people I love most. Still, even at this stage and after so many years together our love is still changing and growing. I love that as well. =)

18 Jody November 30, 2012 at 05:15

Spoken like a man in love. :)
Love the post. Definitely made me think that your friend should write a book along the lines of the “Happiness Project.” Even if she could point out 10 ways to bring more love into our lives, it would be a hit.

I want the people I love to know without a doubt I love them. I know it’s important to “show love” but harder to put into every action you do and every plan you make. Thinking about getting a clunky piece of jewelry that reads “show love” just to be a physical reminder. i.e. a big bracelet not a rapper style gold chain necklace :)
Jody @apinchofcharacter.com

19 Diane C November 30, 2012 at 06:26

Funny timing, this post. I just got married (10-11-12!) for the first time at the ripe old age of fifty-four (and a half, but who’s counting?) In all my years of singlehood, I occasionally doubted finding this kind of love. Rather than despair, I poured my energy into family, friends and my community. I didn’t think of it in terms of love, specifically. I just knew I did not want to become a hardened, bitter spinster. I am retiring as we speak to enjoy my married life. (Thanks for all those GRS Lessons, JD.) I will still have time and space for all the old places in my heart, along with wide open spaces to explore with my new love. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I think it’s time to re-read TRLT. Fortunately, since I’m a library volunteer, I know where to find a budget-friendly copy.

20 Martin November 30, 2012 at 20:42

Actually, it’s interesting your brought up the chemical imbalance and mental illness situation. Someone close me to suffers from mental illness due to a rough childhood. I take my family for granted at times, but annoying parents who pull lame jokes are by far, way better, than abusive parents.

21 Mitzi December 1, 2012 at 04:40

Thank you JD.

22 Amy F December 3, 2012 at 13:14

Have you ever been at a wedding shower where you are asked write down some advice for the couple-to-be? The answer I always give:
“Love is a choice. It is an action. It is a decision to live the vows you make every day. Remember your partner is first and foremost an individual. Do you not ask him to be different than who he is, for it is the individual who first attracted you. Create a life that celebrates both of your individual selves, and you will have a happy life”.
I developed this belief system in my 20’s after reading this book. It changed my life and my marriage. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last, but we were too young to have developed our SELVES before developing as a couple. Now in my late 30’s, someone who believes similarly as me on this is the #1 litmus test in my dating life.

23 Richard December 4, 2012 at 19:17

I read The Road Less Traveled after you mentioned it in another recent post. It has had a profound effect on my life as well, especially at my current stage of personal and spiritual growth. Scott Peck’s attempt at explaining some of the nuances of love really resonated with me. After reading the book, I really believe that we’re all in this journey together and there’s no better way to spend time than with the friends you love.

I consider myself very lucky to be so happy with my life right now (I’ve got a plan to get debt-free thanks to you), and am finally in a stable financial situation. As a result, the book got me so excited about continuing on the journey of spiritual growth, that I’ve decided to dedicate a pretty significant portion of my income to my personal growth. My excitement overcame my belief that psychotherapy is for people with serious mental health problems and am currently searching for an analyst who’d be willing to work with me long-term on my personal growth.

J.D., thank you for putting yourself out there and for your inspiration. I’d like to share the details of my journey as well. If you have some tips on how to get started being comfortable sharing such personal things with strangers, I’d love to hear them. I’ll definitely check out the next books on your reading list, too.

24 athena December 22, 2012 at 08:18

hi! delurking to recommend a couple of books along the same lines. i read “the road less traveled” years ago, and also found it illuminating. another book that was actually “built” on m. scott peck’s definition of love is “all about love” by bell hooks. this book blew my mind open. she takes his definition further. at least, that’s how it felt to me.

i have also recently read, “the conscious heart” by gay and kathlyn hendricks. this book reinforced the other two and broke my heart open even more.

just thought i’d put those out there. :-)

i appreciate your writing about your path and happy that another person in the world is walking towards a life of love and peace.

25 Maru March 12, 2013 at 14:52

I’m not sure I’d turn to M. Scott Peck for advice on love:

http://www2.citypaper.com/story.asp?id=15940

Although, of course, anyone is free to.

Previous post:

Next post: