The substance of that human quality of mind, spirit, and action we refer to as “love” has a hard time landing in a word that even comes close to accurate representation and communication. “I love you” can mean any number of the following sentiments:
- You raise my level of erotic desire.
- You call forth in me the finest aspects of who I am.
- You arouse in me pleasurable feelings that I deem necessary for my well-being.
- You do things for me that make my life better.
- I obsess about you when you’re not around.
- I am miserable when you are not here.
- You elicit a strange emotion in me, an inner sensation that makes me think I’ve encountered something akin to what people refer to as love.
- You are too important in my life to lose.
- You do too many things for me that I would miss if I lost you.
- You understand me.
- You create an atmosphere of acceptance and grace in my life that allows me to experience the full range of my human possibility and potential.
- I find you attractive.
- I want to spend my life helping make your world as good as it can be.
- I am willing to do whatever is necessary to relieve your suffering.
- I am willing to do things that will cause your suffering if that suffering is needed to help you move to where you need to be in terms of character.
- I am willing to fight with you and for you.
- Your way of life is one that I want to emulate.
- No sacrifice is too great to support who you are becoming in the world.
- My good is to find and create your good.
- We connect in ways I want to continue.
- To interact with you makes me feel good.
The language of love is slippery, and within a single conversation, the word’s meaning can be a shape-shifter, making such conversations extremely confusing and potentially heart-breaking. To talk about the love of God, the love of chocolate, and the love of a lover all in the same paragraph can make for fuzzy meaning. Many people know that other cultures have multiple words to cover the various shades of “love” (Greek’s eros, phileo, and agape, for example), but in the common popular language we Americans use, the Greek stuff doesn’t help. Truth is, in practice, we use the word “love” constantly, rarely pausing to parse out what we really mean.
Postmodernism posits that language is limited, political, and in need of deconstruction if we are to get at the heart of a matter. True enough, though most of you reading this post understand pretty much what I’m getting at. (Language is a miracle, actually. We’re far too close to it to grasp it’s essential wonder. It’s amazing that I am generating words and you’re processing and comprehending…talk about a wow!) Perhaps this is especially true with words like “love.”
The word love is a potent word, a word with action attached to it, by implication and practice. To say “I love you” is a sort of pact, an confession of a vulnerability opening. To say “I love you” is an invitation to a deeper place of relationship, or an affirmation of a commitment of heart and stance if not of action and time. But the offshoots of the words “I love you” are not commonly understood or commonly held. If you say “I love you” to someone, what is your expectation? How is a relationship changed if the word love is introduced either in the mind or language of the person perceiving a growing “love” for the other? And of course the words “I love you” can be weaponized, used as means of manipulation, guilt, and control, which is nothing like love at all. You’d think we would recognize that easily enough, but we are all so desperate for “love” that we are often willing to risk a shady deal in hopes of “love” coming true.
What brings this to mind is simply meditating on the love of God. Is this world a loving place, or a joke of a puzzle with mostly cruel edges and corners leading to dead ends? Is God near, hoping to help and sustain and encourage and empower? Or is He far, chuckling gleefully over the insipid human attempts to war with Him, hungry for praise and ego-stroking, furious at our ingratitude and our constant attempts at sovereignty which do nothing but subvert His will? Is the great command to “love the Lord Your God with all Your heart, soul, mind, and strength” a loving command, an ego-driven command, or simply a “this-is-how-it-is” command?
Here’s a thought exercise. Put it into practice and see what happens. Let’s say that the words “I love you” have been stricken from the English language. The word “love” no longer exists. The substance of whatever the word represents doesn’t go away; you just have to find completely new ways of describing and communicating that substance. What do you say? What do you do?