What I Mean When I Say “Love”

The word “love” is not used carefully in English.

  1. It is used to refer to the emotion that new parents have for their newborn.
  2. It is used to refer to the filial emotion that children have for their parents, and that siblings have for each other.
  3. It is used to refer to the potency of aesthetic preference (e.g., I love Beethoven’s music).
  4. It is used to refer to a general benevolence one has for all mankind.
  5. It is both something that many people say you have to do (love your family) and something that is voluntary (pursue someone you like and make them your spouse).
  6. And it is used to refer to the emotional state that is the end result of deliberate choices made by an individual to cultivate a relationship with another human they like, in both platonic and romantic forms.

I don’t think the above things (and there are more than those) are the same emotion, but they all receive the same label, “love.” This isn’t to say that each emotion isn’t significant, or that several of them can’t apply to the same relationship, but that each is sufficiently distinct to warrant either its own word, or adjectival clarification.

The English philosopher J.S. Mill had a similar grievance with the word “natural” in his time that could equally be applied to “love” now:

“…but it is unfortunate that a set of terms which play so great a part in moral and metaphysical speculation should have acquired many meanings different from the primary one, yet sufficiently allied to it to admit of confusion. The words have thus become entangled in so many foreign associations, mostly of a very powerful and tenacious character, that they have come to excite, and to be the symbols of, feelings which their original meaning will by no means justify, and which have made them one of the most copious sources of false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law.”

Because it’s Valentine’s Day, I’ve had an atypically large amount of conversations about love—I’m not mad about this, it’s an interesting concept. One of the most interesting.

But the conversations easily become derailed because the term “love” is so ill-defined and vaguely used. I’m always upfront about what I mean when I say the word “love.” This essay isn’t an argument about what “love” should mean, it’s just an explanation of what I mean when I say it. If you don’t like what you read, that’s OK. I generally don’t insist that someone define words the same way that I do, but I do generally insist that they define the words they choose to use. Maybe you mean something different when you say “love.” Fine. But here’s what I mean.

What follows is a summary explanation of what I mean when I say the word “love.”

The verb “to love” means the emotional state resultant from sustained interactions with another person who embodies your values. This also means that love is conditional. For example, if I were to ever marry, I would only marry a man that I loved, which means he would act with integrity, courage, discipline, ambition, and some other things (or maybe he’ll surprise me with a combination of virtues and actions I didn’t anticipate I’d like—either way, he will be the embodiment of things I value). If he started to change in a permanent way that I couldn’t reverse, such that he no longer embodied those things, I would eventually stop loving him.

I think when I say “love is conditional” many people think that I’m talking about a quid-pro-quo situation, or that I mean love flits on and off like an electrical circuit. Based on the above paragraph, clearly that is not the case.

For me, love is something to be earned from you, and that you have to earn from someone else. It is very much an exchange of value for value, and something you have to live up to. Here again, a common response is: “you shouldn’t have to earn love. Always having to prove yourself is a toxic thing.” This response conflates “earning” with “always having to prove yourself.” When I say “earn love,” I mean that you should generally act with virtue, which makes you worthy of the affections of someone else who also acts with those virtues. This doesn’t mean constantly proving yourself, which would be toxic (I imagine demanding to go through a partner’s cellphone to “prove their honesty” as a scarecrow of my explanation here). It just means: live out your values. Do your best to uphold them, and to make sure they’re the right ones. Don’t expect that you can not do that and still earn the love of someone who does.

For me, love is something that I do on a voluntary basis. The emotion isn’t under direct rational control (what emotions are), but it is directly tied to—and provoked by—the things I consciously adopt and practice as my values, so it’s far from random. Love does not come automatically, it is not given out of duty, it is conditional, and it is a prize to be earned by others and for you to earn from others.

As I’ve given it, my explanation of “love” does not cover most of the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Again, the purpose of this particular essay isn’t to argue that those things are or are not love (although I do have thoughts on that). It’s just to explain what I mean when I use that word.

I love some former strangers who I’ve since adopted as my friends. I love my mother, not simply because she is my parent, but because she embodies the values and virtues I prize. I admire (another word needing definition, but take it here as a less potent form of love) several colleagues at work. If I ever have a child, I would say that I have a hopeful love for it—this doesn’t mean that that particular emotion isn’t potent and powerful, just that it is different than the love I exchange with another adult. And I have a general benevolence for mankind, which I frequently extend to strangers, and extend in even more potency to those who I know a little, but not a lot.

To everyone, Happy Valentine’s Day.

I listened to this song as I wrote, which, for me, has an aural sweetness I associate with my fondest loves:

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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