Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Real True Love

Heather and I got to talking about the meaning of love on the drive to work this morning. (Yes, we have those kinds of conversations during the morning commute. Doesn’t everyone?) The radio was playing one of those songs about how the singer would do absolutely anything for the person he loves, and this got us both asking questions. I won’t name the song - while I’ve never been particularly fond of this song, I’m in the minority on this one, and it is from a singer whose work I otherwise enjoy greatly - but the specific song isn’t terribly important. It’s a fairly common idea, and I think it is also fairly common that this idea is expressed in a way that is neither helpful nor useful to anyone. It’s not really a good view into love, either, when you get right down to it.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first. Artistic license is artistic license, and I don’t expect anyone to get complex philosophy addressed completely and in detail in a three-and-a-half minute song. That’s not what this is about. Few people expect to actually move mountains or swim seas, and we usually understand what is going on with such references. They certainly have their place and can make for wonderful and expressive art. What I’m talking about here are the rare instances where that expression crosses the line into genuinely unhealthy versions of itself, where we may actually be glorifying things that really do not have any business being glorified.

In the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein stated that, “Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” It’s the basic idea that seeing you smile makes me smile, your happiness adds to my happiness. If you’ve been in love, you know the feeling because I do think this is a perfect description. This is love, distilled down to its most basic essence. The trouble only comes, if it comes, based on how we express this condition.

If the expression is entirely one-sided, it will lead to pain. That is unavoidable. Unrequited love may make for romantic fiction, but it tends to make for broken hearts and shattered lives in the real world. That is not a recipe for healthy human interactions. That is not to say that there aren’t times when it could still be appropriate - unconditional love, after all, is the ideal, and unconditional would have to include whether requited or not - but one-sided love must also include active restrictions if it is to remain healthy. As a parent, I will love my children no matter what, but there are times when that expression of love is best exemplified by the word, “No.” Love is wanting someone else to smile, but it isn’t always about making someone else smile.

That’s the piece that is usually missing from songs of this type. They will go into great detail about what the singer will do to make the recipient smile but, by the end of the song, they sound more like a recipe for abuse than a declaration of feeling. “You can do all of these things to me, and I will keep giving you the world.” Well, okay, but what happens when you have no world left to give? In a healthy relationship, you are each supporting the other, so the more you give the more you have to give. In the relationships described in these songs, there is no support. Only one side is giving, and that side must run out eventually. The human capacity to give is enormous, but it is not infinite. You can’t pour from an empty cup. If you are not taking care of each other, and no one is taking care of you, your cup will run out and you will end up depriving two people because you tried to do too much for one. Balance is necessary in all things, and that includes love.

I’ll let you in on a secret, though: You’ll never have to actually think about that balance in a healthy relationship. It’s automatic. That’s what makes it a healthy relationship. In a healthy relationship, when you say, “I will do anything,” it is balanced out by the other person also saying, “I will do anything,” and neither of you would ever let the other one go too far. “I will give you anything, but I will never ask for more than you can give.” Love is nurturing and healing and building, but even more importantly, love is all of those things with open honesty. It’s not just that your smile makes me smile. Because I know that we love each other, I also know that my smile makes you smile, so a key part of keeping you smiling is to keep me smiling, and vice versa. See how that works? We build up each other, and we’re both better for it. We’re both offering the same world, so neither of us need ever run out.

Love is not two teenagers who kill each other in a fit of dramatic pique. There’s a reason that play is called a tragedy. Love is making each other better. If you’re ever using the word “love” and you’re not making each other better, maybe consider whether or not you’re using the right word. If nothing else, remember that you have to love yourself as well. Love is not a tragedy. Love is love.

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