The word “love” is, I think, highly problematic.
Words convey meaning. As a word, as a way of explaining an idea both clearly and succinctly, “love” is a failure. I am sympathetic though. It isn’t love’s fault after all! It’s expected to describe so much for so many people. The word is versatile, but its versatility goes hand-in-hand with its ambiguity—a causal link, perhaps.
Below I describe three ways of discussing love: evolutionary (L1), colloquially (L2), and overflowing (L3). Before delving into the three kinds of love, a brief explanation of what I mean by evolution precedes.
Love as the result of a contingent evolutionary history:
Love as the result of evolution is of course discussed in scientific discourse. Using Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene as a guideline, genetic information, or the DNA blueprint within the reproductive cells, is the primary replicator in evolution. In consequence, each individual organism’s existence is fundamentally and irreducibly directed toward the propagation of his or her genetic material through successful birthing and rearing of genetically related offspring (both her own children and her family’s).
(L1) Evolution and Love
The first iteration of love I offer—L1—is chemical in nature, and evolutionary in cause. The bond created via love is an effective mechanism for getting two parents to pool their resources. (I will endeavour to speak in a non-agent-esque tone here, as evolutionary pressures have no intention.)
If the human organism is to reproduce and do so successfully (where success is raising the offspring to the point where it can and will itself reproduce), then the best method might be as follows: tightly bond with another human organism in order to pool resources, to provide protection, and to provide a “plan b” if one of the parents were to get sick and/or die.
Like most other chemical functions defining and constricting our daily and yearly lives, there are chemical functions that promote and manipulate the experience called love. Simply Google search “love is a drug” and a slew of articles citing scientific research will explain that falling in love causes the same areas of the brain to light up on scans as does morphine and cocaine. Reward centers for the brain light up, and the result is that you, dear reader, have not the freedom you once believed yourself to have.
And that is problematic, particularly if you romanticize the idea of love. A pure and romantic view of love requires a strong sense of freedom, and a definite lack of all sources of coercion. (Regarding coercion as demeaning to love, think of most peoples’ response, and likely your very own, to the idea of getting an arranged marriage.)
(L2) Romanticized Colloquial Love
Romanticized colloquial love is both widespread and problematic. L2 is the love often portrayed in novels and movies. You know of it. We all do. While hard to describe succinctly because of its sheer number of mutations, there are a few key features of L2:
>>> Putting the other before oneself (e.g., “I would die for you”)
>>> There are no well-defined reasons as to why the love arose; and if there are, then they are either inaccessible or not worth examining
>>> Each partner completes the other
>>> Life becomes exceptionally more fun and fulfilling with the other
>>> The other becomes a necessary fixture in one’s life (e.g., “I can’t imagine my life without you”)
>>> A dense fear of losing the other to sickness or to another lover sets in for some
>>> Thinking about the other becomes a preoccupying habit within the mind of the one in love
>>> The lover’s identity, both to others and most importantly himself, becomes tied up in the other
When people speak of L2 they are referring to an intense, preoccupying, identity-creating activity that happens for reasons beyond him or her and results in some other person taking special place in his or her life. L2 is unstable. It affixes a strong emotional, chemically-induced state in a volatile concoction of self-identity and valuation through the other.
If you believe as I do that we rarely have mastery at any given point in time over our own states and behaviours, then the risk of pouring yourself into a distinctly other container carries all the more risk. Indeed, one can expect to end up a watery mess on the floor.
For straightforward reasons, L1 and L2 are discussed exclusively. L1 is not romantic. Merely contemplating L1 seriously erodes one’s romantic experience of L2. It can be upsetting. Not coincidentally, however, L2 exists precisely as a result of L1.
(L3) Overflowing Love
L3 is an attempt to redefine love as a result of excess in the lover.
In this way, the lover is not trying to gain important parts of his or her identity, or to supplement his or her own emotional states, with the help of the other.
L3 is a reaction to L2. L3 understands the limitations and instability inherent in L2. While L3 cannot change L2’s limitations and instability, it can redefine love’s overall purpose, goal, and its markers for success. L3 is difficult to describe, so instead I will describe an L3 practitioner.
A practitioner of L3 requires a solid understanding of his own identity and values. He understands the contingency of all things such that if he gets caught up on someone it is (as much as possible) by choice—an intentional letting go—and he accepts the ramifications. He understands that most relationship problems are a magnification of his own problems, while many of the remaining relationship problems are the result of a mistaken choice of partner.
He knows how to appreciate his life, and to make things happen for himself, solo. His love is free of insecurities to the point where even a hint of the fact that it might be otherwise is a complete turnoff for all parties. His act of loving is as much for himself as it is for the beloved. When and if that changes, he must be willing to let the relationship dissolve into a fruitful past lesson.
L3 is accepting of the fact that most relationships do not last. L3 is brave because the lover invests in the other while knowing and respecting the fact that all things (including attraction and love) are temporary and fleeting. L3 must therefore come from a place of strength and compassion.
The practitioner’s strength is the result of an overflowing, where he is a cup and his vitality (i.e., life energy) is filled to the brim and overflowing. In this Nietzschean sense, the quintessential practitioner of L3 has no choice but to love as a gift he bestows on to others. His choice is not whether or not to brave loving someone, but rather which someone he will bestow his gift upon.
The L3 practitioner’s compassion comes from experience and understanding. Through his own story and those of others, he understands that well-meaning people naturally make difficult and sometimes hurtful choices. This allows him to care deeply and sincerely for a wolf that will occasionally and thoughtlessly use its claws, and may very well even unsheathe its fangs. Many ideas in this section are borrowed from David Deida’s The Way Of The Superior Man.
If we look at L2 (colloquial) and L3 (overflowing) relative to L1 (evolutionary), a stark difference arises. In conversation L1 and L2 are mutually exclusive. To speak well of the one is to speak badly of the other. L3, however, is capable of affirming L1 as true.
There is much more to discuss within this framework. A wealth of comparisons and conclusions can be made. I hope that L3, which is likely a new take on love for you, is both intriguing and motivational. I hope that, relative to L2—which most of us have practiced at some point—L3 stands out as a far superior and vastly more responsible practice. And yes, regrettably, I have in no way put forth any method outlining how one can abandon the cognitive framework of L2 for L3.
An Aside on Dawkin’s Evolution:
It is both unnecessary and untrue to say that all of the organism, all of the time, is directed toward the goal of genetic propagation. Rather, the upshot of this revelation—that genetic replication is the cornerstone of evolution— is the understanding that all features of the organism (both proactive and disruptive), when explained or accounted for, relate in some way to the formerly stated evolutionary reality.
Most striking is the explanatory power such an evolutionary view has on aging and degenerative diseases. If the organism’s ability to successfully reproduce and rear offspring is the top priority of our genetic material, then it’s no wonder our genetic material also contains a slew of disruptive, degenerative coding that emerges as we age.
There was never enough evolutionary pressure to demand strong, lasting genetics past a certain age, and that age is the age we need to be in order to have had, and reared, children fit enough to successfully have and rear their own offspring.
After that time—the time our genetic information has succeeded in replicating—the evolutionary pressure to keep the parent organism alive dwindles drastically. There is beauty and elegance in this explanation. Do you see it? If so, please do give The Selfish Gene a read. The book gets its name from Dawkin’s endeavour to explain altruism, a seemingly “non-selfish” trait, through his gene-focused view of evolution.
You can read more about Dawkin’s theory, along with critiques of it, at the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
A brief disclaimer: love is a feeling and an experience, and in the case of love, any analytical analysis of it ought to be done distinctly from the practice of it. For better or for worse (and likely for worse), such a distinction between theory and application is common in philosophical discourse.
Author: Adam Simonini
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Joana Coccarelli /Flickr