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Sociability • Social Virtues

What Love Really Is – and Why It Matters

There is so much talk of love in our societies, it would be natural to think that we must by now know what it is and why it counts. Love is the excited feeling we get in the presence of someone of unusual accomplishment and talent – great intelligence or beauty for the most part – whom we hope will reciprocate our interest and whom we badly want to touch, caress and one day share our lives with.

This definition sounds so plausible and enjoys such powerful cultural endorsement, we are apt to miss another vision of love altogether, this one focused not so much on the appreciation of strength as on a tolerance of, and kindness towards, what is weak and misshapen. 

According to this vision, we display love when, on the way home, we come across an itinerant drunk – weather-beaten and dishevelled, beer addled and ranting – and do not, for once, turn away and instead make the momentous internal step (with all the eventual outward actions that might follow) of considering them as a version of ourselves, prey to the same passions and distempers, visited by the same longings, upset by similar losses and worthy of their own share of compassion and tolerance.

We show love too when we see a well dressed person shouting grandly and imperiously at an airport, filled with self-righteousness, apparently bloated on their own self-regard, and do not dismiss them immediately as insane or entitled, but instead, take the trouble to see the frightened vulnerable self beneath the bluster, when we grow curious as to the sickness of the soul that might be operating just below the surface and are able to wonder what has hurt them – and why they might be so scared.

We show love when we see a small child throwing themselves on the floor in the aisles of a supermarket, shouting that they want ‘it’ again and again, and do not focus only on how inconvenient it is to steer our trolley around them and how piercing and maddening their screams are, but also feel how much we understand their frustration – and would want to tell them that their pain is in its general form ours too and that we would also like to rest against a kindly adult’s chest and hear ‘I know, I know’  until the pain ebbs.

It is love too, the proper and most serious variety in the universe, when our partner is – on this occasion – being plainly irrational, unfair, mean-spirited and maddening, and yet we do not, as we so easily might, direct back a full dose of righteous anger their way, but instead hold back a little and wonder why this formerly sane and interesting adult should have fallen apart in this manner and hold open the idea that they are not merely awful and vicious but might not have slept very well last night, are perhaps panicked by what the future might bring them and might inside be dealing with feelings of lacerating self-contempt they hardly understand or know how to master. It would be love to go up to them at precisely the juncture when we would have so many reasons to slam the door on them and extend our arms.

However many songs celebrate the act, it is no particular feat to love someone who is on their best behaviour, who looks beautiful and moves with grace through the world. What really cries out for our attention is the love of what is crooked and gnarled, damaged and self-disgusted. In this definition, love is the effort required to imagine oneself more accurately into the life of another human who has not made it in way easy to admire or even like them. 

It is love when a novelist spends three hundred pages detailing the interior life of a violent criminal – and allows us to see the innocent child within the guilty adult. In the Western tradition, it was the man from Nazareth who gave us the most memorable demonstrations of this sort of love, who made it seem glamorous to love differently from the Romans and the Greeks, to love the prostitute, the prisoner and the sinner, to show love to a wretch, a catastrophe and an enemy. To extrapolate from the approach, a truly Christian dating app would not merely highlight the beautiful and the dazzling, it wouldn’t allow us to swipe away every slightly displeasing person at a stroke but would instead stop us arbitrarily at photographs of hugely challenging figures – malodorous lepers, shocking reprobates – and would command, with all the authority of divine intonation, ‘Love! Here where it would feel so natural and so easy to hate, your duty is to love…’

It’s a measure of how we far forgotten everything to do with this sort of love, how committed we are to love-as-admiration, that such a command would sound so peculiar and so laughable. Yet we might say that nothing is more important than this love, that this is the love that rescues nations from intolerance, that pauses wars, that halts recriminations, that calms furies, that prevents murders – and that allows civilisation to continue. True love involves precisely not giving someone what is their due, but giving them what they need in order to survive instead.

Not least, the spirit of love demands that we acknowledge how much we ourselves may one day stand in need of this form of love-as-forgiveness. We cannot rely on always having justice on our side, in always being able to make a claim on others based on our own unsullied righteousness and goodness. At some point, we may well be have to cry our for mercy. We may have no leg to stand on. We may have behaved foolishly and might reasonably be in line for the worst sort of punishment from a judge who was closely following the letter of the law. 

At this point, we need to hope that there will be a few people around who still remember what true love is, someone who will undertake the heroic effort of not giving us what we deserve, who will recall that there must be a sweet and distinctly blameless child beneath the horrible and difficult adult we have become, someone who can bypass the jeering mob and offer us counsel and reassurance, knowing that every human has a claim upon forgiveness and imagination.

And perhaps, by this example, we will in turn become people who know how to love properly – and after our particular crisis has passed, we may make the effort to extend love to others who have themselves failed and transgressed – perhaps in ways similar but also different from our own – so that society can through this enriching mutuality of imagination become a less frightening and less harried place for all, one in which we will know how to treat one another like naughty children who can be redeemed, rather than felonious wrongdoers who must be loathed and forgotten.

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