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.

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