There’s an epidemic of cynicism about love these days. Whether it’s people disappointed by the notion of a Happily Ever After; those who have dealt with the anguish of being objectified in an asymmetric relationship; or even those whose family environment has endowed them with a skewed ideal of romance – there are many who dismiss “love” these days.
For one, the 21st century definition of love has become very shallow – the first thought that comes to one’s mind when the word “love” is uttered, is the magical, intense, hormone-driven teenage infatuation that is held up as the ideal emotional state of a romantic relationship. Few remember that love exists in multiple forms, and each is healing and fulfilling in its own way, and has the power to give one joy, purpose, and meaning.
Whenever I hear of people saying something like “Love Hurts” or “Love is not worth the effort”, I try to get to the root of it, and in 100 per cent of the cases thus far, it stems from an early romantic relationship that ended poorly. This is tragic, and I usually respond with the most sensitive and articulate defence of love that I have ever heard – the below lines from the Yugoslav novelist Mesa Selimovic:
“Everyone says love hurts, but that is not true. Loneliness hurts. Rejection hurts. Losing someone hurts. Envy hurts. Everyone gets these things confused with love, but in reality love is the only thing in this world that covers up all pain and makes someone feel wonderful again. Love is the only thing in this world that does not hurt.”
When we think of love in the narrow superficial terms that Hallmark and Hollywood have been blasting our lives with, we lose sight of the possibilities that love, in all its forms, can offer.
A good place to start is to expand our definition of love, because our use of this word is deficient in context. While the word itself has become synonymous with romance, lacking context, this word is applied to everything from a deep sexual attraction to a tepid affection for baby animals. To add some depth to this, let’s take a page from ancient Greeks, who spoke of certain key emotions:
Eros: A deep emotional and sexual connection that is at the core of romantic relationships.
Agape: An unconditional love that is a part of religious or spiritual experiences.
Philia: A deep emotional non-sexual love such as that between close friends and comrades.
Storge: A sense of community that is the backbone of filial or fraternal ties; and in some measure – patriotism, religion, political identity etc.
Philautia: Love for one’s own self.
The “love” that most people speak of, that when not reciprocated, descends into hatred, anger, and vengeance – is not love by any definition. It’s covetousness – the desire to possess – that stems from ego, jealousy, or a sense of entitlement – not positive emotions, and certainly not love.
For those seeking “true love” the 21st century tosses up innumerable hurdles: Eros? With dating apps offering seemingly unlimited sexual opportunities, how do two people invest time, attention, energy, and emotion to grow together as lovers, confidants, and companions? In my days on Tinder, I remember meeting with an interesting woman who exhorted Tinderillos to be her “reason to delete this app”. However, she was swiping on the app while we lunched together for the first time.
Agape is fading too, as divine duties are declining with the (desirable) drop in religiosity. However, the flagbearers of humanism and those who consider the improvement of the Human Condition to be a priority, are rarely infused with a spiritual passion in their beliefs.
Philia? Same sex friendships are weakening, male bonding activities are increasingly being labelled as displays of toxic masculinity, while traditionally female hobbies are being criticised as conforming to gender stereotypes. In a world where education is handled by a school system; jobs are found on LinkedIn; an insurance company is supposed to support you when you’re dangerously ill; and there are pills and potions for melancholia – who needs friends anymore?
The fragmenting of identity is killing storge – while traumatic public events such as terror attacks and followed by calls for pulling together as one nation, one faith, or one political stripe, in mere hours we revert to our favourite divisions – natives vs children of immigrants; Catholics who consider Protestants unworthy of taking communion in their churches; monogamous gays who dislike the promiscuous gays; career women who are scornful of stay-at-home mothers; and so forth. Filial and fraternal relationships have become transactional under pressure from consumerism. Children in the West are being “cut loose” to fend for themselves as soon as they finish school. Children in the Orient are humiliated if they fail to get into a certain college or obtain a professional degree. Siblings who work in different cities often drift away, consumed by their material lives, and sometimes are not on talking terms as they advance in years.
Philautia, by far is the biggest casualty – each day, advertising tells us that we have defective bodies and deficient lives; social media tells us that we’re missing certain essential experiences; the muddling of the difference between “fun” and “happiness” means that some people abuse their bodies with unhealthy quantities of alcohol, caffeine, or psychoactive substances. Even the fitness conscious flagbearers of a perverse brand of self-love are constantly reminded that their bodies benefit from absurd punishment – running 26 miles at a stretch or lifting twice one’s body weight for instance. Remember what happened to Philippides – the first guy who finished a marathon? Thank you.
So no, love doesn’t hurt. The lack of love hurts, and we experience this hurt in our lives because our emotional experiences are being limited by consumerist tendencies, transactional relationships, and decision paralysis. There’s also the fact that exposing one’s vulnerabilities has become a bad thing, and there is no intimacy without vulnerability.