I spent the majority of my summers in grade school with the neighborhood boy who lived two houses down. We played Nintendo and sat on his mother’s porch swing, giggling and talking. Sometimes we watched movies together, and other times we encouraged another neighborhood boy to do silly things like ride his bike down my parent’s front porch so we could get him in trouble. Then, when the sun set, my neighborhood boy’s mother would stand outside and call him home with a cow bell. During this time I came to understand what it meant to “like” someone. Our last summer culminated in an awkward kiss that accidentally landed right near my eyelid, and after that we started to grow up and go our separate ways: he to private school, I to public. Counting this period of my life and everything thereafter, it has taken me more than 20 years to understand love.
Like most people, I understand that words take on meaning within a context. I love my family, and I tell them so. But were I to tell your family that I love them, I would most likely be looked at with hard suspicion. I love pizza—Neapolitan style, the kind from a brick oven. I love my pets. I’ve also loved a few men, and there has only ever been one way for me to determine whether or not it was actual love that I was feeling at the time. It didn’t have anything to do with the way he looked, or even the way I felt when I was with him—these things fluctuate. In fact, I think that loving someone includes disliking them from time to time. But it’s not always easy to know if what we’re feeling is love in it’s purest, most unconditional form, something else we call lust, or that space in between.
Right names depend on right relationships, a fact so basic to human speech that without it, human language might well collapse. So how do I know that I am feeling what should be labeled real, emotional love? I can, without a doubt, be sure that it is love if I am capable of making the conscious choice to do something for someone that I don’t actually want to do. That something has ranged from being as small as a chore, to breaking up. Love meant the strength to do the right thing at the right time for the right person and the right reasons, even if it was annoying, painful or upsetting.
Let me tell you exactly what I mean.
Philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch wrote, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”
This seems heavy. But it just means that love is when we stop being selfish. It is never a guarantee, and so it also suggests exposure (vulnerability) without warranty. Because of this we often neglect to show the one we love that we love them, for fear that they may not feel the same or be as invested as we are. But I think we should show it and say it more when we feel it and mean it.
A wise person once told me that out of friendship comes love, because love is the culmination of experiences you’ve shared together. So then, in many ways love is also what people have been through together. Love can’t blossom unless the foundation of friendship and shared experience has been put in place.
In the past year I have felt more of the word love than at any point before, but I have not said it and I did not show it in the traditional way. If one were to look deeply into actions and behaviors it would be clear that my way of showing it was to remove myself from certain situations, stay away from certain people, and give the ones I love space because that is what I knew would be best. In this way, love is mature because it knows when to sacrifice itself—when to back off. Lust, in contrast, will do anything to break down walls and beat down doors. But were the people on the receiving end of my love asked, they would certainly tell you that surely I must not love them.
Love is not uncomplicated. And if it were a language I would most likely be illiterate. I am just now taking steps to fix this. Lately I've been fascinated with change. True change is just as complicated as true love. You can't design it and there's not an app for it. The best you can do is create the right atmosphere for it to occur. The first step toward fixing something—toward change and self actualization—is realization and acceptance of the thing that needs changing. So if I'm checking off boxes on the path to becoming love literate, this essay marks check number one.
What comes next, I don't know. But I do know that there are many more boxes to check off. If I stop here I am fooling myself. I won’t stop here. I won’t go down so easy.