A student of mine wrote an essay defining “love.” Actually, a number of my students wrote essays defining “love,” because my assignment was to give a concrete definition of an abstract term, and “love” is a term I suggested as a possibility, and which a number of them felt like they had a reasonable grasp on and good cause to want to define. I don’t think most of them did a great job on it, though, for one simple reason: they’ve never been in love. I have – I am – and because of that, I believe that I have a better understanding of love than anyone who has never felt something like what I feel. I’ve always been one of those people who argues against the casual use of the word “love,” always been annoyed by my teenaged students yelling “I love you!” to their friends, often grumbled to myself – generally out loud, though not loudly – “No, you don’t,” when I hear one of them do that. I have always wanted “love” to be a word we reserved for the strongest connections, the most meaningful bonds. I still think that, and so after reading so many essays explaining that love could be used in any circumstance to describe anything at all pleasant, which was the prevailing view, I wanted to write my own to try to clarify what they all are getting wrong, and what I am getting right when I hold my wife in my arms and tell her, “I love you.”
I’ll tell you, though: this one student – one of my best, one of the brightest young people I’ve taught in 20 years – made me think harder about this. Because she said, “If words were seasonings, love would be garlic. Fits well in almost any dish, easily peppered in, improves whatever its included in.” And, well – I love that. I love this, too:
I don’t know if I’ve gone one day since I started speaking without saying the word “love.” If it is able to be overused, I overused it. I still do. I hang up the phone “I love you!” regardless of who I’m calling. I sign professional emails with it. I yell it at random strangers when I try to compliment them. When people who I hardly know share any opinion with me, I usually sum up my feelings towards them with: “Dude! I love you!” I use the word so much because it’s a great word. It means exactly what I’m trying to say. And what I’m usually trying to say is: “this thing or person or idea makes me feel happy and good.” That takes too long to say when someone my age on the street is wearing a Bikini Kill shirt and walking by me and I want them to know that i also like Bikini Kill but I can’t muster up a coherent statement. “I love you (or your shirt, or your outfit or that thing you’re holding)” works just fine. Perfectly non-specific. Perfectly over-intimate.
It felt very much like she was speaking directly to this prejudice of mine against the casual overuse of “love,” but in this opening paragraph, and in the rest of the essay, I was confronted with a simple fact: I overuse “love,” too. Because love is not just what I say to my wife; love is also what I say when I think about Cheez-Its, or coffee, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I say it when I see something that makes me feel happy and good. And that makes me a hypocrite.
Now, I don’t really mind being a hypocrite, if by “hypocrite” we mean someone who changes their standards from day to day. This is how my students frequently use the word; they apply it to, for instance, parents who partied in their youth and then tell their kids they shouldn’t party in theirs. (This is a new meaning of the word, I think, and a bad one; if what we mean by “hypocrite” is what I understand the word to really mean, that is someone who betrays their own standard while still holding other people to it, a liar who castigates people for lying, a thief who punishes thieves, then I do not want to be that thing.) Another sentiment I love, this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.
People can change. We can learn new things, we can have new ideas, and if those ideas contradict everything we said today, then so be it. This applies to the current subject of love in two ways: one, my understanding of love can change – and change frequently, and then change back again – and two, the meaning of the word “love” can change as society’s general understanding of the word changes. And that is also fine: I don’t feel the need to have one and only one understanding of the word “love.” The meaning of the word doesn’t have to be consistent; it can change according to the circumstances. Context changes the meaning of many words, as it changes the connotations and associations; that’s what makes language so beautiful and so complex. It’s kind of why I still have a job.
I can be inconsistent in my understanding of “love.” It can change according to the circumstances. And within that, there can still be a right and wrong meaning of the word, because someone could use the wrong meaning in the wrong context. So I can happily tell my wife I love her and only her, and then shout to a crowd that I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then throw dirty looks at students who say “Goodbye, I love you!” to their friends – but only if I can be clear in my understanding of these three contexts, and say that my students are misusing it in theirs.
Spoiler: they’re probably not. I am writing this to show myself why I am wrong, much more than I mean to show my students why they are wrong. But they’re wrong, too, and I’m right; I’ll get to that.
My instinct is that there are two feelings here. They are two different feelings, though related; we use the same word for them, though perhaps we shouldn’t. This is where language gets tangled (Which is better, tanguage? Or langled? Mmmmmm – neither.), and though that tanguage (See? That’s awful.), that langling (That’s not better! SO WHY DO I KEEP DOING IT! Because I love portmanteaus, that’s why. Love ’em.), means I still have a job, it’s not worth the pain it causes. This is my objection to English as a language: it has so many words, and so many shades of meaning for those words, and because the meanings of words can change according to context, we can’t all agree on what the words mean; because of that, I think, we avoid the words that are ambiguous, or the ones that are complex. We lose the nuances of our language, and force each other to create and learn new meanings of old words, instead. Honestly, I don’t know if that’s a problem with English exclusively, but I know that English could avoid most of these issues if we’d just take advantage of what English can offer, and that is: many, many words.
Look up “love” in a thesaurus. Mine has multiple columns of synonyms for love because love falls into at least four categories, desire, courtesy, affection, and favorite; and that’s not including God’s love, make love, love affair, and love of country, each of which has its own entry, as well. Even the Great Democratizer Google offers these:
an intense feeling of deep affection.
|synonyms:||deep affection, fondness, tenderness, warmth, intimacy, attachment, endearment;
devotion, adoration, doting, idolization, worship;
passion, ardor, desire, lust, yearning, infatuation, besottedness
compassion, care, caring, regard, solicitude, concern, friendliness, friendship, kindness, charity, goodwill, sympathy, kindliness, altruism, unselfishness, philanthropy, benevolence, fellow feeling, humanity
relationship, love affair, romance, liaison, affair of the heart, amour
* a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone.
|synonyms:||become infatuated with, give/lose one’s heart to;
fall for, be bowled over by, be swept off one’s feet by, develop a crush on
infatuated with, besotted with, enamored of, smitten with, consumed with desire for;
captivated by, bewitched by, enthralled by, entranced by, moonstruck by;
devoted to, doting on;
informal mad/crazy/nuts/wild about
If we could just use these words, and agree on specific words in specific situations, and not change them all the damn time, then this would all be solved: I adore my dogs, I am besotted with my wife – my inamorata – I am devoted to my mother, I care for my students, I am wild about Cheez-Its. See how easy that is?
But nooooooo, no, that’s too many words to remember, and too many meanings to negotiate and agree on. We’d rather use one word for every one of those feelings, and then try to figure out what someone means when they say “I love you.”
That’s actually where my concern lies, with regards to how my students use the word, with how my bright essayist defined it:
The proper definition of love is supremely vague and exists on a spectrum. Love can be intense or delicate, long-lived or fleeting, romantic or platonic, emotional or physical. It is possible to love so many things in so many ways and for so many reasons, that it’s stupid and almost impossible to pinpoint the specifics. It thrives when left as a nebulous idea or concept. It doesn’t hurt anyone to love things. Why force someone to determine if something is worthy of the title of love? I think it can and should be thrown around as much as possible. It doesn’t need boundaries.
I agree with this; love can be all of these things. I don’t agree that the inconstant, ever-changing nature of love means that it’s “stupid and almost impossible to pinpoint the specifics.” I believe it is quite important: because there is one situation, and only one, where saying “love” and meaning it, and knowing that you mean it, and ensuring that the one who hears you say it knows that you mean it, is absolutely necessary. That is romance.
When I tell my wife that I love her, I mean something different than what I mean when I say it to anyone else, in any other situation whatsoever. This relationship is unlike every other connection I have in my life: this one, and only this one, is unique. I love my mother just like I love my father; I love my students (some of them) just like I love my coworkers (some of them); I love my dog Samwise just like I love my dog Roxie. I love Cheez-Its like I love Boston creme doughnuts.
But I love my wife like nobody else.
I want to explain, because this is the root of this essay, of this discussion for me; this is why I don’t like it when people use the word “love” for something other than what I feel for my wife. But at the same time, I don’t want to explain, because the life we have together is ours and nobody else’s, and I don’t want to share. Let me see if I can thread this needle at least a little bit.
I trust my wife. Completely, and absolutely. There is no one else to whom I would share as much as I share with her. I can’t say I share everything, as there are some parts of me that can’t ever be expressed, as there are with every human being; but everything that I can share, is hers. No question, no doubt. She is the only person whom I would trust to do anything as well if not better than I can. That’s not meant to sound arrogant, there are lots and lots and LOTS of things that I can’t do well; but the things I can do well, I want to do myself so that I can be sure they will be done the way I think they should be done, the way I can do them. Call me a control freak, if you will; it’s not true for everything, but it is true with, say, my teaching. I’d trust my wife to teach my class over anyone else, as much as my fellow English teachers (And more than some of them), even though she’s not an English teacher: I know that she could do it, and do it well. I’d trust her with my paperwork, with filling out, say, arrest forms or hospital forms. I’d trust her with my medical decisions, I’d trust her with my legacy, I’d trust her with my life. It’s not only the big things, either: I’d trust her to take care of our pets, to lock up the house when we leave on vacation, to drive – which she does better than I do, anyway. When I trust her to do something, I don’t worry about it, I don’t have to double check: I know that she did it right, at least as rightly as I could do it.
(Exceptions: I write better than she does. And she doesn’t really do the dishes right. Mmmmmm – that’s it. She could do anything else for me, if she wished.)
Along with that complete trust comes understanding. Because we have shared so much with each other, and experienced so much together, I know exactly how she thinks. I went to get a snack while she was reading this (It’s about her and us, so she gets veto power), and as I was coming back to my office, I thought, “She’s going to get hung up on that dishes comment.” As soon as she heard me coming down the hall, she called out, “What do you mean, I don’t do the dishes right?” This is not a first: we frequently find ourselves having the same thought, and though we don’t finish each other’s sentences, it’s only because we don’t interrupt each other. We don’t think the same way: she’s more liberal, more spiritual, and has a better sense of propriety (One of my most frequent questions to her is, “Too much? Does that joke go too far?” She frequently says, “A little.” And I take it out.), but I understand how she thinks, and she understands how I think. As well as anyone can understand anyone, that is.
My wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. I don’t mean that her features are flawless or perfect – whatever the hell that means – because they’re not; simply that the feeling that one gets when one looks at something beautiful, the feeling of calm joy, a warm spread of soothing happiness and a desire to lose time in looking at it: that’s what I feel when I look at her. Watching her expression is the best: the slow smile, the way her eyes widen when she sees something interesting, the way they focus like lasers when she is working on something. It’s beautiful. I could watch her all day, forever. I’ve never seen another woman whom I could watch the same way. Partly, yes, because it would be creepy; my wife may think I’m creepy when I stare at her, but she lets me do it, anyway, without calling me out, without making me feel uncomfortable – without tearing down that warm calm that comes with looking at beauty. It’s that allowance, that permission to enjoy her, that is part of this; her walls are – not gone, but lower, or farther back, with me than they are with anyone else. That’s part of the privilege of love. Part of the honor of it is how I try to be worthy of that permission, of that trust.
Along with that – and not to get too graphic – my wife is the sexiest woman in the world. All the feelings of attraction and excitement, different and more intense and more fleeting and more addictive than the feelings that come with looking at beauty: I get all of those from being around my wife. Nobody else has ever, or could ever, have the same overwhelming effect on me so often, so immediately; all it takes is one glance in just the right way, and nothing else exists. Only she has that power over me. And it is a power, make no mistake: whatever I may want to say to hedge this topic, to moralize it, to objectify and reduce the feeling of sexual attraction, and the feelings of ecstasy, of connection, and of bliss that come with sex, the truth is, whether I can explain it or not, whether it needs explanation or not, sex is as powerful a part of love as any other.
It’s not necessary: I will say that. My relationship with my wife, our connection, our affection, our trust; none of that is built on sex, none of it relies on sex. I could not imagine, however, having the same relationship with her while having a sexual relationship with someone else. I don’t see how that would work. We could still be friends, even the best of friends; but she would not be my love. I know there are people who have polyamorous relationships, and I have to assume they care for their partners, and are excited by their partners, in the same way as I and my wife; but I can’t understand it. Suffice it to say that if everyone could share all parts of the relationship together, I can at least see how it could work; if people have separate intimate relationships in common, as in my understanding (based exclusively on televised fiction, which is why I don’t pretend to have an answer here) of religious polygamy, where a husband moves from wife to wife to wife on different nights – I can’t see that as the same kind of love that I have with my wife.
But then, I don’t think anyone else on Earth has the same kind of love that I have with my wife: I am unique, and she is unique, and thus what we have together is unique. So on some level, there is no word for what I feel for her, or at least no word that anyone else could ever know or understand or use. It is essentially uncommunicable.
Dang. Maybe my student was right. Maybe there is no point in defining love.
No: I still think it matters. My love for my wife is this way because it has grown and strengthened and become more for better than twenty years. When we met, when we started dating, and when we fell in love, there were all the same flaws and problems that other people have; maybe not as many, maybe not as serious, as there are for some relationships – after all, we stayed together – but love becomes unique and undefinable; I don’t think it starts that way. I think the feeling is, at first, recognizable, similar to what each of us had felt for other people in the past, similar to what other people feel in those circumstances. Knowing that, recognizing it, is what allowed us to first say to each other, “I love you,” and mean it. And I think it’s important that people recognize that phrase, and mean it when they say it, as something distinct from what people mean when they shout “I love you!” as they drive by the McDonald’s where their friends are at work. Because in a romantic situation, when someone says, “I love you,” and the other person says, “I love you too! You’re my best friend!” then there is at least a potential for serious and terrible heartbreak. There are countless dramatic moments in books, films, TV shows, based on this precise miscommunication, because it is one we can understand, relate to, maybe remember. That is the problem with using the exact same word for both very different feelings. And they are different feelings: I will use the phrase “romantic love” to separate them, but that doesn’t work in the moment, because you can’t say “I love you romantically” and mean it. When you tell someone that you love them in the way that I say it to my wife, then the word cannot be qualified and modified: it has to be everything, all in one, because that’s what the word represents: that’s the love I mean when I say it to her. Everything. All that I am, and all that I have, with her, forever. That’s love.
When I was thinking about this essay, I had an idea that I would end up defining two different meanings of the word “love:” one for the happy warm feelings that my student speaks of – call it the garlic love, in her honor – and one for the feelings I share with my wife, which I cannot truly express, not with all my words. I even had the idea that the garlic love, the one I feel for pirates or warm socks or the music of Weird Al Yankovic – and believe me, I do not discount and do not demean that love; I love that love – could be distinguished as the one that allows people to extend the word the way they do on social media, by adding more “e’s” at the end of it – “I LOVEEEEEEEE that movie!” I freely admit that bugs the crap out of me: because IT’S A SILENT LETTER! What the hell does it mean when you say it more, a long pause? But I also admit, just as freely, that this is my humbuggishness talking, that I have no grounds to be annoyed by that; I understand that people are trying to intensify the word within the limitations of the medium: you can’t do bold or italic or oversized font in a Tweet. You can repeat the word – “I love love love that movie” – but that’s neither better nor worse. In both cases, it’s clear communication of intensified feeling, and it does it the same way, by dedicating more characters to the idea.
I can distinguish that from what I feel for my wife, however, because when I tell her I love her, I don’t ever extend it. I don’t ever say, “I LOOOOOOOVVVVVEEEEE you!” I don’t say “I LOVE LOVE LOVE you!” But I would do either of those things – okay, not the second one, which strikes me as insincere, though again, no real reason for that, just prejudice and humbuggishness, the same as how I hate it when people use the word “impactful” – if I was trying to express how I feel about Weird Al. I LOOOOOOVVVVEEE Weird Al.
I love my wife.
Two different feelings, two different terms, even if they are sort of spelled the same. Even if they do both have the same positive, happy-making, basic feeling underlying them. And if I had my druthers, I’d insist that people distinguish: when they talk to their friends about their favorite breakfast cereals, they use the extendable one: maybe spell it “loveee” to be clear. When they talk about the person they want to kiss, they use only “love.” Spelled, and said, the right way.
But there’s no point in trying to do that. Language doesn’t change because people think others are using it wrong; language changes with people’s whims, with fashions, with the ease and quickness of flipping a switch, but never because people say that word there is the wrong word. I suppose I could try to make it unfashionable to use the word “love” in a casual context, but people want to say it. They want to express feelings, want to be open, and they want to be positive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If saying “I love you” makes two friends happy, then who the hell am I to step in and say, “Actually, that’s not love; you should say you are fond of each other.” I mean, I can be a prick sometimes, but I’m not that bad. And while I said above that I wished we would take advantage of the richness of the language – and I still wish that, all the time and in many contexts – I could never say to my wife, with a straight face, “I am besotted with you.” (Note: I tried. Didn’t work.)
I think it’s okay, though. Because context changes meaning. So what we need to be aware of is the context we are creating when we use the word “love.” When we want to use it differently, when you’ve just been saying, “Man, I love Buffalo wings!” and you have the sudden urge to tell your date, “I love you,” don’t do it one after the other. (Though do picture that, just for a minute. “Man, I love Buffalo wings! I love you, sweetie!” Don’t even give the guy a pause; picture him licking sauce off of his fingers the whole time he says this. Nice.) Change the context. Surround the declarations of romantic everything-love with a situation that expresses what you mean: and if you want to clearly show the difference between uses of the word, then make sure the contexts are different.
What I really want to say, I suppose, is that love is a perfect thing for me. I don’t want to rename it. I also don’t want to keep it from having a name, from saying it is indefinable and indescribable, because I don’t want to keep other people from it – I want other people to feel what I feel. I think it has made me a better person, and given me a better life, than I could possibly have had without it. My wife is my everything, and she has given me – everything. If other people could know what I mean, this would be a better, happier world. But while my love is unique, my experience is not, because I know there are other people who have an everything love as much as I do. They have understood everything I have said here. (I hope.) That common experience is what allows us to communicate at all; and here, it allows us to understand what I mean by the word “love.” But even for those who don’t know, who haven’t felt, what I know and feel, and thus don’t quite know what I mean by “love,” at least understand this: when you say it, make sure the other person understands just what you mean.
I would love that.