What Is Love?

We act as if the definition of love is, to borrow words from one notorious explorer of the subject, a truth universally acknowledged. We say that all you need is love. We reassure each other that love trumps hate. I have the word “love” tattooed three times in a row on my forearm (having been taught that in Hebrew, a word appearing thrice in succession is a mode of emphasis indicating wholeness or perfection.)

And we all kind of know--or we assume that we all kind of know--what is meant.

In general, I think we do. I think there is indeed a collective, perhaps hackneyed but no less agreed upon understanding of love amongst folks in our society. It is rather indistinct, of course. As with many abstract concepts, if you were to ask a random person on the street to explain “love”, they would likely have an easier time using synonyms than settling on a denotation. Love is...care. Love is adoration. Love is loyalty, love is affection. Love is commitment, love is sacrifice, love is devotion. 

Love is something we understand, basically. To be sure, English is sparse on words that more precisely get at the different kinds of love one might experience (romantic love, for instance, friendship, and so on) but those of us operating in this linguistic bubble seem to be doing alright conceding to a string of somewhat anemic approximates for the sake of establishing common ground. It’s when we get out of the abstract and into the praxis, however, that things can sometimes start to get a little shaky. 

Thankfully, it’s probably more often than not that an action I take that’s intended to be loving is also felt as loving by the person who’s receiving it. I give my younger brother a big hug as a gesture of my affection, and he feels loved by me as a result. I buy my co-worker an iced coffee because I want her to know she is cared for, and when she gets the coffee, she does. This is all well and good. In these moments, we don’t sense any need to make our definitions of love explicit; we assume we’re on the same page, and it turns out we are.

But what about when we’re not? Sometimes, a person takes an action that they believe to be loving--that they would insist is them being loving, or expressing their love--that does not feel like love to the person on the receiving end of it. I think of a parent spanking their child, and saying that they do it because they love them (as my parents did with me). I also think of a church trying to cast the ‘demon of homosexuality’ out of a young man because they believe being gay is an abomination, which is something that has happened to more than one person I know. In both instances, disparate as they are, you have folks imposing a version of “love” that does not, in its manifestation, match the definition we count upon sharing. In fact, it is beyond a mismatch--it is the opposite of love; it is abuse. 

How can this be? How can a person use the word “love” as a label for something that does all harm and no good? How does a person not see that this violent action that they’ve convinced themselves is loving is in fact only an expression (and perpetuation) of their own fear and pain? 

When I was young, I was taught that loving people meant telling them about the salvific power of Jesus. I believed that anyone who died having not accepted Jesus into their heart was guaranteed an eternity of terror and torment. So of course I, being a loving person, felt a great burden to share with folks the Good News (and to argue them into accepting it, should they find it ridiculous, as many of those to whom I proselytized did.) Again and again, throughout my adolescence, I mustered the courage to tell any unbeliever I could about the way to heaven. Were they annoyed? Often. Did I care? Not really. On the contrary, their exasperation only made me more desperate to convince them. I believed I was acting in love, that I was literally saving people’s lives. I believed that love could mean denouncing someone, and even threatening them with permanent condemnation, if I was doing it because I had special knowledge of what was best for them in the long run.

I’m embarrassed that I did those things. I try to make up for it now in some small way by writing about all of the religious foolishness I was caught up in back then. Much more difficult than understanding why I was such a pesky little Christian, however, is coming to terms with the premise from which I was working, the one mentioned above: “anyone who died having not accepted Jesus into their hearts was guaranteed an eternity of terror and torment.” What we have here is not just the idea that my love, as a believer, needed to look like evangelism, but that central to God’s love was sending people to hell if they didn’t accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Putting aside the fact that hell as it’s generally conceived of is not actually Biblical, if we’re working from Western society’s “hell” archetype--which is the theology I inherited--then what I’m saying is the Evangelical Christianity in which I grew up taught me that God’s “perfect” love necessitated that those who didn’t accept or believe in him would be tortured in perpetuity. 

Often this was framed as God “allowing” those who rejected the Gospel to go to hell. Somehow that was supposed to make it more palatable (of course palatable doesn’t really matter if you’ve been brainwashed into this so-called logic since infancy.) In other words, “love” meant giving the people what they wanted--if they heard the Word and still said “No”, then what they wanted was hell; love was giving it to them. This was also a nice way of affirming free will, which was a fairly foundational tenet in the tradition in which I was raised. And in your so-called free will, you were presented with a pretty straightforward choice: become a Christian to enjoy total forgiveness for all of your wrongdoings plus residency in heaven for time infinite, or don’t become a Christian and maybe have some superficially fun hedonistic years, but ultimately you’ll be handed over to Satan.

I believed this set-up was somehow love--perfect love. And for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with being indoctrinated into submissiveness) I didn’t have the wherewithal to bring some serious inquiry to it until I was well into adulthood. When I finally got to that point, after years of brushing off the concerned and incredulous voices of non-believers, I started to wonder: if God’s love is the most perfect version of love, then shouldn’t it be exponentially better than the love of a human? And, if even wildly imperfect humans would not, if they could at all help it, allow loved ones who reject or ignore them to experience literal torture as a consequence, then shouldn’t God be infinitely more unlikely to act in such a way?

My conclusion was yes. Yes, this supposedly loving God should act in ways that we humans know to be loving, and should do it better than we could ever imagine. Hell is not compatible with love. I realized this, and the expertly-packed Jenga tower that was my belief in the Christian God lost an essential block. But I don’t want to get too far into the long story of the toppling of my faith in this post. My point here is that not everything that we call “love” is in fact love. Because of the nebulous nature of the concept, it can be easy to reason that there’s some relativity to it, and we (or at least I) tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding their intentions. But maybe, even if someone believes they’re being loving through what is actually a damaging action, it’s time to push back. Maybe we need to get a bit more strict about what we allow people to classify as “love”.

In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman published a book called The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The premise of the text, according to the book’s website, “is simple: different people with different personalities express love in different ways.” When we learn about how we give and receive love, and how the people around us give and receive love, our relationships will “strengthen and improve.” Dr. Chapman proposes that there are five love “languages”--words of affirmation, acts of service, gift giving, quality time, and physical touch. Typically, each person has one or two languages with which they primarily express love, and one or two languages through which they feel most loved (or “receive love”, as the lingo goes). Figure out how you show love, how you feel love, and how the people with whom you’re in relationship do the same, and “you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, give and receive love in more meaningful ways, and grow closer than ever.”

There is some merit here. After all, the book was and continues to be on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which doesn’t necessarily speak to its quality but does speak to its felt relevance. It clearly struck a nerve. I happen to know it well because it was big in the Evangelical scene (Dr. Chapman is a pastor and religious ‘counselor’, with 2 of his 3 graduate degrees, including his PhD, being from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) and the idea behind the book truly did have therapeutic power for me and many people I know. 

I learned that there are different ways of loving--genuine loving--that we can be open to, and maybe should be open to. I came to understand that some combination of our innate personalities and the environments we grew up in will mean we don’t always express ourselves, our love, in ways that immediately make sense to those with whom we interact. But if I can recognize that, say, my partner folding my laundry for me is them showing me love, even if I would have felt love more immediately had they told me something they really appreciate about me, then I can avoid going straight to the place in my mind that is insecure about their motivations. It is important to partner with someone whose love languages are compatible with yours--I would think, assuming there’s any truth to this idea--but we can also, through this lens, learn to have more compassion for those whose actions are mysterious to us. 

This is also where the danger creeps in, though. In our desire to understand each other and be understood, as evidenced by the Love Languages phenomenon, we can become a bit too broad with what we accept as love. Or maybe I’m veering into victim-blaming here. Maybe I should say that there are people, sometimes whole groups of people, who take advantage of our eagerness to come together and embrace each other in all our subjectivity. While it can be helpful to validate a variety of love expressions, as the idea of Love Languages does, we have to remember that, at the same time, not all expressions of “love” as defined by the actor are valid. Who’s to say that someone’s not using that word incorrectly? It can’t mean just anything. Even the person-on-the-street definitions that I threw out earlier all fall under a wide but decidedly bounded umbrella of interpretation.

So then, what is love?

This is where I get stuck, because my first thought is, somewhat ironically, Who am I to define it? I immediately go back to its subjectivity, despite all that I just wrote about the dangers therein. But then that just leaves space for others to define it in ways that are toxic, which is the problem.

And it’s true that love is not always pleasant for the one being loved. Young children have good but frustrating boundaries imposed on them all the time by people who want them to stay safe and unspoiled. When a close friend calls us out on our ignorant or unkind behavior, it stings, even if we want to know the truth. I’m not saying that if we’re going to call something love, we’d best make sure it’s an action that everyone enjoys. What I am saying, I guess, is that we don’t have to agree. 

Consensus is nice; tolerance is nice--in a certain way of thinking. These are virtues in a liberal society. But they are also often used in the interest of maintaining the status quo, a surface-level peace, which then ends up obscuring a multitude of sins. All I know is that I and so many people in this world, especially people who have encountered Evangelical Christianity in one way or another, have been deeply damaged--and I mean significantly harmed--by people professing love but acting out abuse. This isn’t unique to some segments of the church, of course; it is core to abusive systems: telling someone that the nefarious thing you’re doing is love. Wherever it comes from, it thrives on silence, on people being too nice to stand their ground and say, “That’s not love.”

I am often silent because I dread the thought of making someone feel bad. I’ve also been silent for fear that I won’t find healthy love somewhere else. I have settled for insufficient love again and again because at least someone was saying they loved me. At least someone was accepting me, as long as I accepted the terms of their “love”. I’ve thought that I should take what I can get, because what if I walk away from it to look for something better but something better never comes along? What if that idea of love we’ve all agreed on, nebulous as it is, is just too good to be true in the end?

There are a lot of reasons to settle, to be scared, to not speak out. It’s easy to give up on holding strong boundaries around what is acceptable love. We become exhausted fighting off those who, aware of what they are doing or not, keep trying to take advantage of its semantic elasticity. But it just so happens that I have the energy right now, so I will take this opportunity to say that I may not always be able to articulate exactly what love is, but I do know what it’s not. 

Love is not ignoring people’s autonomy. Love is not threatening people into obedience, or forcing it through violence. Love is not demeaning people’s intelligences by insisting they don’t know what’s true or good for them. Love is not rejecting and condemning people’s natural identities, especially those related to sex and gender. Love is not seeing others’ selves as things to be conquered or won. Love is not telling people they’re inherently bad, and unacceptable to their creator.

We do not have to accept these things as love, nor do we have to agree to perpetuate them. If it feels off, the version of love you’re being told you must receive or you must enact, it probably is. 

You do know what real love is, in your heart or in your mind--I think we all do. And we need to offer it to ourselves as much as anyone else. Care for yourself. Adore yourself. Be loyal to and affectionate with yourself. Be committed and devoted to what’s best for you. Be forgiving of yourself when you do these things imperfectly (because you certainly will), and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you have to accept a “love” that does the opposite of these things, to you or anyone else.

Too Good For Grace

    The words in the second half of this sentence will likely induce a little laughter in those who know me well, but the truth is that I’ve never seen myself as a perfectionist.

   To me, perfectionism is not being okay with getting a 98% on a test, whereas I have always been fine with whatever gets me an A, even if that score is less than 100. To me, perfectionists keep a clean room, and a clean car, and a clean lap when they’re eating. I am messy in all of these areas, and pretty much clumsy in general. I do need to be seen as capable, as among the best at work or school, but I’ve never been conscious of needing to be seen as actually perfect. “Perfect”, to me, has never felt achievable.

    That said, as an Evangelical Christian, I was also never okay with actually needing grace. I’m not sure how many of us truly were, or are. Yes, the whole religion--or vague-ish sect, if we’re talking specifically about Evangelical theology--is based on our fundamental need for God’s saving grace. “Saving” in the literal sense, of course, for without it none of us is capable of being good enough to earn entry into Heaven. And yet I was also regularly bombarded with intense guilt trips about how my sins either angered God, broke God’s heart, or, my personal favorite, nailed Jesus to the cross one more time.

    It was a strange dichotomy: I knew I wasn’t capable of being perfect, but it seemed like I wasn’t allowed to mess up, either. No matter how many times I was reassured of God’s unconditional love, the message was belied by a very vocal focus on all we could possibly be doing wrong, and making sure we were constantly asking for forgiveness, which was apparently a necessary part of the “unconditional love” equation.

    Somewhere along the way, probably very early on, my goal became to need as little of God’s grace as possible. I was not conscious of this, either; I just didn’t want to feel bad. I didn’t want to carry the shame of needing grace at all, and it was shameful to be a messed up human in the Christian church. On the other hand, if you were a good disciple (no premarital sex, no law-breaking, no cussing, etc., etc.) you were commended and thoroughly accepted by the group. Over time, never having to apologize became my highest priority. Of course, being raised female I was apologizing right and left for every silly little thing, but that was more socialized manners than real repentance--and, in fact, being willing to say “I’m sorry” for things that didn’t actually require an apology was a pretty effective way of keeping myself in good standing with the world.

    I never wanted to owe anyone anything, because I had never learned that it was possible for people to still love me if I wasn’t getting things right. I was too scared to take the risk of finding out. I never learned that my imperfections actually weren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, and that, in general, people are understanding of a lot. Basically, I never learned that it was okay for me to screw up. I had no idea that I had value beyond being dependable. To this day, I still struggle to believe that I do.

    I wasn’t until I left Evangelicalism, and Christianity on the whole--until I got out into the real world, that is--that I noticed that plenty of people were living lives that depended on others’ being okay with their flaws and annoying habits. People were saying mean things sometimes, and missing things at work sometimes, and making selfish decisions sometimes, and they weren’t pariahs; they just had to be okay with needing their friends and family and co-workers to forgive them, and they had to be assuming, on a certain level, for the sake of getting on with life, that they needn’t be perpetually ashamed of being less than good.

    One day it dawned on me: I, as a Christian, was so much less accepting of grace and so much less willing to rely on it than these heathens I'd been taught were living in perpetual terror of dying unredeemed. I was the one living in terror, despite having a worldview in which the joy of my salvation was supposed to be my greatest strength.

    How pathetically ironic, right? Even worse, how hypocritical. But it wasn’t my fault, I don’t think. Forget whatever loving acceptance your local congregation is pitching on its church sign. The dark truth is that those of us who grow up in conservative communities are taught not to be okay with being less than pure. We are shamed. The pain and sorrow and weight of Jesus’s crucifixion is handed over as our burden to bear, regardless of how antithetical that seems to the whole point of God’s sacrifice in the first place.

    The truth needs to be told: we weren’t offered unconditional grace. And we were bullied into being the enemies of ourselves. We were taught to self-scrutinize without mercy, to dig around for all the manifestations of our inherent evil. We were taught that we were not lovable unless we earned that love. And the only way to earn that love was to never screw up.

    But here’s the thing, and here’s my reason for writing about it at all--it’s a lie. I want to tell you, fellow raised-Evangelicals, that I jumped the fence and found a place where folks know that nobody’s perfect, and they think it’s ridiculous to expect anybody to be. Where as long as everybody’s allowed to make a mistake now and then, and as long as you’re willing to learn from it and apologize, it’s all good. It’s called ‘not Church’. It’ll take a while to unlearn all the bad habits, maybe even the rest of your life. That’s okay, though. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “We’re all mad here.”

Love and Luck: A Nihilist Prayer

Yesterday, as my partner and I were returning from lunch, driving wordlessly along the winding forest road that takes us to our house on the southwestern outskirts of Portland, it occurred to me: I got what I wanted.

I got the thing I had been praying and pining and sweating for since I instantaneously fell in love with the too-cool floppy-haired (it was the 90s) boy who showed up at my school in seventh grade, shrouded in the mystery of being from out of town.

I got my man.

Only it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, because it’s not like it suddenly happened when I became okay with being alone and learned all the magical single girl lessons that we long-time single girls are told we’re supposed to be learning (and enjoying, don't forget). And it wasn’t an answer to prayer; I stopped praying a long time ago. So maybe “got” is not the right word.

But it did happen. It didn’t and didn’t and didn’t for so many years, and then it did. And I was so burned out on wanting it that I barely had the energy to celebrate when it did. For what, exactly, would the celebration be, though? And to whom should I offer my thanks for this great gift?

Not God--it wasn’t He who came through for me.

Not even myself, because, though I’ve worked hard on being well-adjusted enough to be a good fit for a similarly well-adjusted mate, I know plenty of people who’ve been doing that work for a longer span of time than I and it hasn’t earned them a companion yet. And let’s not forget my overwhelming privilege. Every demographic I belong to sets me up for success in the field of heterosexual coupling in this society.

So what does it come down to?

I think, luck.

I got lucky.

A temptation bubbles up in my heart to wrap itself in gratitude around some Grand Scheme that, though perhaps technically atheistic, is driven by benevolence that (of course) benefits me. Still, I can’t shake the feeling, after all the prosperity gospel bullshit I’ve managed to disabuse myself of, that it simply...just happened.

What does that mean?

Nothing, I suppose.

But it feels like it needs to mean something.

I know. But maybe it doesn’t.

Maybe I spent too long studying literature, engrossed in narrative and understanding and significance.

I loved it. It filled a gap.

So did Christianity. Give me a story to interpret, give me a lesson to learn, give me anything that gets me out of my now-body and into my anytime, anyplace-head where I don’t have to figure out how to be comfortable being present and alive.

Give me a reason this person I love is driving this car I’m in to the house we own in a town we chose together, far away from the places that did their best to raise us right.