This brave—and foolish—new world we are living in certainly keeps us on our toes. It is always new, every day. Meeting it head on, heart to heart, toe to toe is daunting because each day we awake to a new, literally new, world. And unless we stay in bed all day we have to readjust to it. Thank goodness our habits (of thought and behavior) and automatic responses do most of the work for us—yes, to a degree we are human computers—but there is no guarantee they will always do the job we want them to do.
The newer and scarier the world becomes, the less we can rely on what we thought and how we met a similar exigency yesterday. Every day life requires more vigilance than it did yesterday. Enter stage left that old stand-by, love. But even it seems constantly to get redefined, reconfigured, and unless we are living in a world of abstracts we find ourselves always examining and adjusting to new paradigms of love.
I’m not complaining about this; no doubt it’s a good thing we are constantly forced to readjust to new or revised definitions of love. Realizing that love beats out all other answers and responses to life’s exigencies is a big step in the right direction, but it’s not the whole journey. In fact, it’s only the beginning, though a great beginning—and if it is a constant beginning, so much the better. I cant help repeating one of my favorite quotes: the secret of the arts, said Shunryu Suzuki, is always be a beginner. He might have added it is also the secret of life.
Defining love goes against the grain. However, I think we can name its components, realizing they may be a sort of synecdoche but not the entire thing. They do not, each taken in and of itself, encompass the total meaning and reality of love. It occurs to me that for purposes of examination, love has three subheadings, none of which is love entire. Although, as I say, they are often mistakenly taken for it. Nor is one spiritually higher than another; love hates the concept of hierarchy.
The three I’m thinking of are erotic love, comradeship and compassion. I think we would find that all instances of love fit into one of these categories, which may or may not be mutually exclusive.
It would seem I have made a glaring omission in leaving out love of God and love of one’s nation or humanity itself—what might be called mystical love. First of all, I think all love is mystical, or has a more or less mystical component to it. And secondly, love of God, being subject to faith, is more properly called faith. Likewise, love of one’s nation is more properly called patriotism, to which it is subject—and which history shows can be a slap in the face to pure love. Without meaning to sound moral about it, pure love is subject to nothing. It does not depend upon or devolve from dogma, ideology or any system of thought.
Since I dont believe in God I find it hard to speak to that kind of love (though for many it is the most important kind), so I will not even try except to say that it depends on how you define and relate to the particular god you believe in. As for love of one’s country, inasmuch as patriotism approaches pure love, I’d say it falls under the category of comradeship. As does love of one’s family and that exceedingly nebulous love known as love of humanity, which has the earmarks of compassion.
Erotic love can contain elements of comradeship and compassion, but is obviously quite other than those two in essence. Love of one’s comrades (not to be confused with love of humanity) might contain erotic elements, though will probably have stronger elements of compassion. Speaking of compassion, I think it would be very unusual for it to contain any degree of pure eroticism.
As a sidebar, I’d like to say that it appears, upon this brief examination, that these three categories or subsets of love (and, again, I mean pure love) have within them more points of intersection than of mutual exclusivity, though what they have of the latter is of that category’s essence and does not tend toward intersecting with another’s.
Finally, since I said these are not hierarchical categories, I want to reiterate that compassion is not better or purer than erotic love (contrary to puritanical mumbo jumbo), any more than comradeship is superior to compassion, or erotic love to comradeship. Each has its appropriate time and situation, none of which is, in essence, to be confused with the other (since it would not only be absurd but destructive to do so), and each of which may indeed be pure love—love that requires no explanation—but does not, as I say, exhaust the meaning and reality of love. And perhaps at the end of the day nothing ever will, even though love in one form or another will always be our purest and most intense response to life.