I have intentionally, up to this point, not provided a definition for love. Part of the reason for that omission was that I found it difficult to produce a single, concise definition that was as expansive as my beliefs surrounding love. Beliefs that involve different types of love, and evolutions, depths, breadths, and aberrations. Instead I chose to explain my individual beliefs in detail without defining the critical word that anchored those beliefs. I knew such evasion renders this blog incomplete and that some day I would need to address the issue. In part, I hope to do so now.
Another reason for me not defining love is that readers of this blog will all have different definitions of their own. Defining love can be a very personal endeavor as we can all experience it in different ways. But of course the fact that we may not agree on a definition of love is no reason not to provide my own definition, based on my own beliefs, that can hopefully provide some clarity to this blog.
And the last reason for not defining love is that it is a term that is used so pervasively in my culture. We not only love our family and friends, but we can also love our smartphone, our car, our country; and that song, or movie. Do all of those instances truly represent love? I believe they do and so my definition, ideally, would somehow account for all of them.
With all that in mind let me provide a definition of love and then explain how I think it provides some clarity to at least some of the beliefs and points discussed above and throughout this blog:
Love is a willingness to prioritize another’s well-being or happiness above your own
I also believe in the importance of self-love and the above definition can be used to naturally derive a definition for it as follows:
Self-love is a willingness to prioritize one’s own well-being or happiness above that of others
I did not come up with these definitions on my own. I consulted several sources in search of suggestions. I chose the above definitions because I believed them to be true and because they also provided clarity to some of my beliefs in this blog. But the definitions do have their limits. I believe the definition above describes well a single link in our chain of love. But every link in our chain of love is unique and often we must consider many such links when trying to determine how to act in a given situation. Some of those links are not described well by the definition above. For example links that involve inanimate items like a smartphone to which the trait of “well-being or happiness” cannot be easily applied. The same is true when the link represents our love for our god(s). Can traits such as well-being and happiness even be applied to my god? Additional concepts like infinite love or the evolutions of love also fall outside the scope of this definition. Despite all these limitations, I believe the definition is a good start and captures well what love has traditionally been understood to mean.
The first keyword in the definition for love is “willingness“. It is critical and cannot be left out. You cannot simplify the definition by stating “Love is prioritizing another’s well-being or happiness above your own”. Because that would mean that to always love another is to never prioritize oneself over them. Instead you can do both. Loving yourself is also important and there will be times when we prioritize the love for ourselves over another we love most deeply. That does not mean we do not love that other person. It means instead we are always willing to assess a given situation and determine priorities based on our love for the other as well as ourselves.
In an earlier post I said The Greatest Love judges us primarily, not on our beliefs but, on the loving actions we perform throughout our lives. It is in these actions that we reveal the love in our hearts. Certainly a definition for love is important. But what is more important is understanding how to apply that definition to our actions. It can be challenging.
Consider an example. Suppose a person falls into a raging river. We are nearby on the shoreline and see the fall. We assess that the only possibility for saving the drowning person’s life is by jumping in and swimming them back to shore. But it is highly dangerous and we may die in the process.
What do we do? How do we act?
Answering this question can be exceptionally difficult. It is a question of morality and there is often no single right answer. But even if we believe we should always act with love in our heart, determining how to act is still often murky.
We can consider who we will leave behind if we die in the attempt. Do we have a young family? Do we have people that depend on us? Such considerations imply we must somehow assess our love for this drowning person at the same time as we assess our love for the others in our lives and how our possible death may affect them? Love for one person can conflict with our love for another and when it does determining how to act can become paralyzing.
We can consider who the person is. Is it our child? A distant relative? A complete stranger? I believe this is a valid consideration. I believe the fact we may be willing to greatly risk our lives to save our own child but not a complete stranger is not acting contrary to love. I believe in fact it is as The Greatest Love intended and it is based on the depth of our love for each. All other things being equal, the deeper our love is for someone the more willing we are to prioritize their well-being over that of our own. It is why we do not jump in to save our smartphone when it falls into the raging river. Yes we can love that smartphone but it is a shallow, unrequited love that should not be prioritized over our own life.
We can consider the love for ourselves: what is the likelihood we will drown in the attempt to save the person? Or what will be our mental anguish if we do not jump in and the person later dies? I believe these are both valid questions and we must not be ashamed for asking them. Self-love is a form of love. It must be considered along with our love for others. We must not be willing to jump in if we deem an attempt to save the other person hopeless. But what if instead of hopeless we can assess that we have a 10% chance of success? Or a 25% chance? Or a 50% chance? At what point do we jump in? At what point does our love for the drowning person get prioritized above the love for ourselves?
What would you do? What should you do? Should you address all of the above considerations if not more, and if so how do you prioritize each?
First off let me say that all of the above assumes we have the time to properly consider all of the individuals impacted by our decisions and rationally assess our relevant beliefs and emotions when determining how to act. But sometimes we need to make a decision so quickly that we act “on instinct”. There is ongoing research on whether this instinctual decision-making, is so deeply rooted in our evolutionary past, that it may be impossible to change. Clearly if this is the case we cannot be judged on actions that are instinctually made. So the assumption in the questions above is we have the time to make a rational decision based on our beliefs and love, and act accordingly.
Secondly, it would be rare, if ever, for the stakes of our actions to be so high as in this example. Most of the actions we take in our everyday lives are in response to the most mundane of questions that do not reveal anything about the love in our hearts: Should I wear that shirt today? Cereal or smoothie for breakfast? Should I take the car in for a wash? It is not these questions or resultant actions that are of concern to The Greatest Love. It is instead when, as in the example above, our actions can impact the lives of the other loving beings around us that, I believe, The Greatest Love is most concerned.
Returning to our example, and given the assumption made in the first point above, the path to follow still remains very unclear. We begin to see how the decision making process starts getting much more difficult. We begin to realize that there are often no single, simple answers when deciding how to act based on love. There can instead be many difficult assessments and multiple conflicting conclusions. Even in this example, a small sample of such conclusions may include:
- I could not live with myself if that person died, it would weigh on me too heavily, so I will jump in.
- The risk of my death and the love for my family are too great that I cannot jump in to try and save a complete stranger.
- That person is my child and my love for them is too strong. If I die we will be together in heaven. I will jump in regardless of the risk.
I believe these are all examples of acting based on love. However they may not be a complete enough accounting of all the love in a persons heart at the time. For example in the first conclusion did the person consider the impacts to their family and friends if they died? We must be careful to consider all the people impacted by our actions. But even if the person did consider everyone impacted, they still may have come to the same conclusion. And we are left with the realization that given the same situation two people can come to very different conclusions on how to act, based on the love in both of their hearts at the time. A love that is continuously being shaped and molded by our lived experiences.
The last conclusion also shows how our beliefs can affect our actions. The belief in a heaven. Could the decision be different if that person had no belief in a heaven? Certainly. But that does not mean the person would not act, albeit in possibly some other way, based on other loving beliefs they held. You do not need to believe in a heaven or a god to act with love in your heart.
Now if one always prioritizes their own well-being over that of others, regardless of the situation, I would question their love for others. I would question whether they have a healthy self-love or an excessive, narcissistic one. Likewise if one is always prioritizing other’s well-being over that of their own I would question their love for themselves. I would question if they have a mental illness such as depression or a low sense of self-worth. However it is not a zero-sum game. Love for others does not need to come at the expense of love for oneself and vice-versa although I believe there are occasions, like in the example above, where that may be the case. Just as there are occasions when our love for one person comes at the expense of our love for another. Such situations have no easy answers. Instead I believe it is our willingness to consider the well-being or happiness of everyone impacted by our choices, and act based on those considerations that is of the greatest import to The Greatest Love.
But deciding on how to act based on the love in one’s heart can still be daunting. An alternative approach: being told how to act by others, via secular laws, sacred texts or clerical interpretations, can bring a person comfort. Whereas acting based on the love in your own heart can be unsettling especially when it contradicts what we have been told by outside sources. It can require careful consideration and may ask us to evaluate and prioritize the love we have for many others as well as ourselves. But it is in these constant evaluations where I believe a deeper understanding of our love comes from. This in turn triggers growth and evolution.
The love in our heart develops over our lifetime and will have been influenced by a number of sources: sacred and secular beliefs and laws, the thoughts and opinions of our family and friends, the norms of the society, culture, and environment we were raised in, to name just a few. But it is in our willingness to come to conclusions that more clearly reflect the love in our own heart, even when those conclusions run contrary to these influences in our lives, where, I believe, The Greatest Love rejoices. They rejoice not in our willingness to defy secular or sacred laws, or the opinions of others. Instead they rejoice in our willingness to consider and understand all of those sources of influence but then draw our own conclusions, based on our own understanding of a love for all, on how to act.