Try this exercise: Go out to a park or into a bar or church and ask several individuals their definition or understanding of ‘love’.
The answers you succeed in getting will surely be disparate and difficult to synthesize. Our age, sex, culture, religion (if any) and personal experiences will all influence our responses. Many will believe that true love, like Peace on Earth and other ideal states, is unattainable. Others will believe it’s a discipline, so if you play according to the rules, it will eventually be yours. Some will confuse it with infatuation —an obsessive and unsustainable flooding of emotions, that will always include that I’ll-die-if-you-leave-me feeling.
So what is it, exactly?
There is no simple answer and, indeed, it may be beyond human capacity to define. I believe this but respect the rights of others to define it as they will. One of the most challenging definitions is the following, which is often read at church weddings here:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
If this doesn’t make you count to ten, take a deep breath, think twice or leave the door to conjugal love closed altogether, then nothing will.
One of my favorite authors is Raymond Carver, known widely for his short stories and poetry. He was a smoker and full-blown alcoholic, who eventually sought treatment for his addiction in 1974, though he continued to drink until his third hospitalization in 1977. Among other things, he was warned that the threat of death was imminent for him if he kept drinking.
During that same year he met Tess Gallagher at a writers’ conference in Dallas, TX, and in 1979 they began to live together. They waited until June of 1988 to marry and six months later Carver died of lung cancer on August 8, 1988. Carver hadn’t divorced his first wife until 1982, and much of his earlier emotional troubles were undoubtedly traceable beak to their married life and eventual breakup.
Carver and Tess knew he was dying well before they decided to marry. Somewhere within his troubled history he had kept his sense of love alive. His prior life and decision to marry made me look into his work to see what he thought of love. I will leave you with two of his poems, both written just prior to his death, which fulfilled my search.
From the window I see her bend to the roses
holding close to the bloom so as not to
prick her fingers. With the other hand she clips, pauses and
clips, more alone in the world
than I had known. She won’t
look up, not now. She’s alone
with roses and with something else I can only think, not
say. I know the names of those bushes
given for our late wedding: Love, Honor, Cherish—
this last the rose she holds out to me suddenly, having
entered the house between glances. I press
my nose to it, draw the sweetness in, let it cling—scent
of promise, of treasure. My hand on her wrist to bring her close,
her eyes green as river-moss. Saying it then, against
what comes: wife, while I can, while my breath, each hurried petal
can still find her.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
Please take from them what you find, even if it is nothing. For me, they take me closer to and understanding of love in its fullest sense.
(Both poems) Carver, Raymond (1989) A New Path to the Waterfall. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press