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About Love, and How to Make it Less Confusing

November 24, 2019

“Love, what life is all about.” — Leo Buscaglia

In the United States, unlike some other countries like Poland — where they have different words for loving people, vs food, vs objects — we use the word “love” for everything from how we feel about our romantic partner, our children, and our friends, to how we feel about mustard instead of catsup on hotdogs, the wind in our faces, and the sound of the ocean. We love so much!

Love seems to be one of the least understood and most over-used words in the English language. Defining it can be exasperating. Most of us assume we know what it is until we struggle to clarify it for ourselves or try to reach a consensus with someone else on what exactly it means.

In romantic relationships, where it seems like it should be clear-cut, it’s still puzzling. Is that early stage–the stage that guarantees we’ll keep procreating to ensure the survival of the planet–is that love or lust?

When we tell our children, “I love you, but I don’t like your behavior right now”, is that love? Traditional wisdom says that’s a good one-liner — focus on the behavior, not on the person. But when you’re enraged with your child, and ready to rip their face off (which you don’t do because you want to be a “good parent”), are you feeling love like you say you are? Or is that a misuse of the word “love”? Is it healthy to use “love” in the same sentence as a qualifier like “but”? I wonder how confusing that might be to a child who is certainly not “feeling the love” at that moment.

Have you ever had someone say to you, “If you loved me, you would or wouldn’t do this thing I want you to do,” or, “If you loved me, I wouldn’t have to tell you what would make me happy”? Is that what love is all about? Fulfilling someone’s every desire or reading their mind?

When we protect our children from experiencing discomfort and learning from their mistakes, is that love?

When we volunteer time, or service, or money and make sure everyone knows we’re doing it, are we loving?

Is it love when I tell you what’s wrong with you, “for your own good”?

Is love a value that we want to live by? Or is it a feeling that comes and goes? Is love a commitment? Or is it, like Buscaglia says, “What life is all about”?

We can probably come up with many examples of how loving we are. And that’s wonderful. Because I do believe that at our core, that is what we are — the essence of love.

But I also think there can be value in exploring some of the ways we may not be as loving as we imagine. Not to make ourselves feel small or guilty or uncomfortable, but to challenge ourselves, to question traditional wisdom that no longer holds up, and hopefully come up with some newer, fresher ideas about how to increase love in our lives and the world. The world has never needed it more.

I can guarantee every one of us is occasionally unkind and unloving, and sometimes wildly oblivious to it when it’s happening. I wonder if we would be way less depressed and anxious if we got out of our own way and gave a little more attention to how we relate to and offer love, rather than being so focused on whether or not we’re getting enough?

We quickly see when others miss the boat on loving, but if Buscaglia’s right, it may be worth becoming a little more intentional and thoughtful about how we’re expressing love on a moment-to-moment basis. When you think about it that way, is there anything you would change?

Three questions have helped me explore my role in each of my relationships. They come from a form of self-reflection called Naikan, which means “looking inside.” Naikan was developed in Japan in the 1940s by Ishin Yoshimoto, a devout Buddhist who wanted to make the introspection that had so benefitted him available to others.

Three Questions

Naikan offers three questions we can ask ourselves, to determine if, in fact, we’re adding to the health of our relationships:

What have I received from ____?

What have I given to ____?

What troubles and difficulties have I caused ____?

Before I became familiar with Naikan, my questioning usually revolved around the first question, what was I getting? I often got stuck there. Was my partner paying enough attention to me? Was my child respectful and responsive? Were my friends going out of their way to meet my needs? Was life giving me what I wanted?

The other day, I had the thought that my son hadn’t called me in a while, and I started giving that some meaning. My first thoughts were not that he has a full-time job, a wife, and two daughters to think about, care for, and attend to. He “should” be calling me! Well, guess what? I hadn’t called or texted to check in with him either. Because I’m the “mom” does that mean he is an indentured slave to my whims? Naikan question number two to the rescue. I texted him. We teased each other back and forth about nothing important, which is all I wanted — a warm moment with my son. He does love me! All was well. I didn’t have to deal with question number three because I cut myself off at the pass before I caused trouble.

Naikan has helped me see my role in every good or bad, happy or sad, successful or unsuccessful interaction I have. When explored with persistence, I have found it very difficult to fool myself about how loving I am. Yes, of course, at times I am loving and focused on what I’m giving — when I’m getting my way, or feeling good about an accomplishment, or my hormones are stable, and the sun is shining.

What matters is who I am when I don’t get my way, and when I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished enough. Who am I when my hormones are unstable, and the sun hasn’t been out for days? That’s where the rubber hits the road.

Much love,