For weeks, the stores have been full of hearts, candy, flowers, jewelry, perfumes and pretty much anything that can be connected to telling someone they are loved. (There is no mention, however, of simply telling them, as often as possible, that they are loved.) Today, schoolchildren will be exchanging “penny valentines” that no longer cost a penny, and having class parties with pink drinks and cookies in heart shapes. Tonight, some couples, at least, will go on special outings. And, some people who are not a couple will feel left out. It is the commercial celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, a celebration which St. Valentine would most likely not recognize.
Is it wrong, then, to celebrate love? Certainly not, though the commercialization of it may be held in question. Love is the underpinning of all that exists, and it is also perhaps the most misunderstood concept defined by a single word in our language. The great Persian poet Rumi equated love with God. His poems are filled with references to the beloved; while on the surface they may be confused for romantic poetry, careful reading reveals that for Rumi, the beloved was God. In Christian literature, both Old and New Testaments, love as God and love as the behavior of the God-loving is a recurring theme. Certainly, the entirety of God is a concept beyond human capacity to fully understand. Since I cannot fully understand God, it is reasonable to assume that neither can I fully grasp the totality of love.
And yet, people over the ages have not ceased to pursue this understanding. The topic is endlessly fascinating, and is pursued on different levels, among which may be falling in love, sexuality as love, getting and having love, being love, a warm fuzzy feeling, altruism – the list seems endless, and so does the confusion.
On one level, if God is Love and God is All and Everywhere, then there is nothing that cannot be called non-love. That said, people do recognize some things as non-loving. Violence and what are classified as sins are among those things. Attachment is another, expecting the object of affection to fill one’s individual needs or emptiness. Scholars classify as non-loving those thoughts and actions that tend to separate one from God, as one sees God.
One of the best definitions of love I have found (and I am paraphrasing here) comes from the book The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. There, love is defined as “the extending of one’s boundaries for one’s own growth or the growth of another.” Mr. Peck classifies “falling in love” as non-love, because, as he posits, falling in love is not the extending of one’s boundaries; it is the breaking of them. The topic of boundaries in loving relationships is an extensive one, subject to much discussion.
In my opinion, romantic love falls into the category of attachment, depending on another to fill one’s needs, often one’s unrealized needs. However, romantic love, celebrated now on Valentine’s Day, is certainly capable of developing into a lasting bond, given the willingness of couples to engage in deeper understanding and participate in the changes of growth. Similarly, sexual love is often classified as non-love, a simple physical coupling. And yet, such coupling can certainly be surrounded by a nourishing aura of love, encompassing both partners and including in that love any life that may thereby be created. Then, how can it be classified as non-love, even though many examples can be given of when it is engaged in without love? Comprehended as simply life calling to itself to grow and preserve itself, it is difficult to brand as non-loving.
From another perspective, it can be said that love is simply genuinely wishing well-being for oneself and others. That would imply a suspension of judgment, of classifying as good or bad. Whoever the other, friend or foe, in love they are wished well. If that is focus on loving the other, what of focus on non-judgment of self, and wishing oneself well? That can be a trickier bag, yet we are told by psychologists and spiritual teachers that we cannot fully love others until we love ourselves.
Gandhi, the Indian spiritual leader whose teachings inspired Martin Luther King, Jr, is credited with the saying, “Be the change you wish to see.” (Again, paraphrased) If what we wish to see is a peaceful world motivated by love, then it would follow that what we need to do is strive without ceasing to understand love and follow in those ways. Perhaps that is the next step in the growth of humanity.
Let us, then, pray for peace and ponder love. Diane