L’VIV, Ukraine, February 13, 2012—What does it mean when you say, “I love you?” From five-thousand miles away, my wife sent me an e-mail that starts, “I love you.” Those words bring a smile to my face and joy to my heart, but I find myself wondering, why does she love me?
I love my wife. I don’t write that just because she’ll read this column, but as a simple statement of fact. I love her, and that love is a part of me, built into my personality and character and without which I wouldn’t be myself. I can’t imagine not loving her. But why do I love her? In spite of my many glaring flaws and failures, she loves me, too. You’re probably as imperfect as I am, but the odds are also good that someone besides your mother loves you. Why?
Love isn’t rational. Like music, it seems to serve no evolutionary purpose and convey no survival benefits to besotted lovers. Unlike music, it leaves us vulnerable to hurt and can make our lives miserable. Who can hurt you as badly as someone you love? But again like music, without it our lives would be unimaginably impoverished. So why do we love?
We’re attracted to each other for all sorts of reasons. Physical appearance isn’t the least of them, but another’s laugh, intelligence, and grace on the dance floor attract us as well. There’s nothing wrong with these things as catalysts for love, but they don’t serve on their own as a basis for love. Looks fade. If they’re the reason you love your valentine, your love will fade as well. If you love her for her qualities, someone else who has those qualities in greater abundance can steal your heart. There also seems to be something selfish about loving another for possessing qualities that you value. As a colleague likes to say, “I value your qualities; they satisfy my wants,” makes a lousy Valentine’s card.
“Te pure, non tua, concupiscens.” Heloise wrote those words to Abelard eight centuries ago, and they stand as one of the most beautiful expressions of love in Western literature. She loved him for himself, not for anything he possessed. Her love for him made his character precious to her even though it was riddled with flaws. Heloise wasn’t blind to his flaws - they were on full display in his letters to her - but they were a part of the man she loved entire, not just for his good parts.
Some people expect their beloved to somehow pay them back; they want their love to be earned. If they don’t get what they’re looking for, they move on to someone else. They’ve forgotten that love is selfless. It hopes for everything but expects nothing. Love transforms those we love into people precious to us, warts and all. Love is freely given, never earned. I can earn your admiration and your respect, but not your love.
Even if love can’t be earned, though, it can be cast away. If love expects nothing, it can still be killed by indifference and neglect.
Love has been devalued in our society as it’s been sentimentalized into something easy and cheap. You find your soul-mate and move on to bliss, just like that. A box of chocolates, a flourish of roses, and we’re good to go until the next event. Couples and families disintegrate because they fail to maintain that freely-given glue that binds them together. It’s as if they’ve been given a beautiful house and then pay no attention to leaks, rot and the tree-roots undermining the foundation. They throw on occasional coats of paint and are surprised when the whole thing comes down around them.
On that note I’d like to suggest that if you (most of “you” being men, I’m afraid) have forgotten to buy your beloved gifts of chocolate and flowers or jewelry for Valentine’s day, all is not lost. Those who love you don’t really want chocolates and roses. They “want you, only you (te pure), not that which is yours (non tua).” If they’ve been getting it, your display of loving contrition will be better than candy because it’s real. If they haven’t been getting it, the candy is just paint on a rotting wall. The day is symbolic of the love you’ve built, not a sentimental substitute for it.
Of course, the symbolism of chocolate rarely goes unappreciated.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. Like most men, he doesn’t say “I love you” often enough. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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