We Need a New Word for “Love”
By John S. Cohoat
The problem? The word “love” gets used in so many trite ways…people have such low expectations or understanding of how to love.
In fact, the word gets thrown around so much that I don’t know if it really means anything to most of the people who claim to “love”.
I might step on a few toes because some of you do really know how to love. I’ve seen some of you in action. But I’d say most of us think we know how to love, and we don’t really have a clue.
And, before we get started, let me say, I’m mostly in that second category. If anyone who knows me is reading this, they will say that guy is such a hypocrite. Guilty as charged. Crucify me. Please.
We’re made for loving and we all search for it. Most of us think we do a pretty good job at it. Many of us see examples that we think are loving and we try to emulate them. And, we’re also quick to point out to others when they haven’t loved us to our expectations.
The kind of love that I see mostly is what I’d call “easy” love. It’s really more about kindness or affection. Some of us are much better at this than others. If we have really kind parents or have been exposed to a lot of kindness in our lives, we tend to be kind.
Who doesn’t love to cuddle a little baby or hold hands with that one person who really lights up our world? We enjoy having family around, making a home, fixing a good meal, teaching our children, appropriate sexual intimacy, propping up a friend in need and so many other truly good, loving activities.
And, yes, all of these can make us feel good. Feel loving. Because, for the most part, these can be and are part of what love is.
The feelings of love? What’s that about? Why do we want these feelings? Because we all deep down want the love to give us “happiness”.
So, that’s what happens. We’re mostly on a quest for our own happiness and the feelings that gives us. We say we “love” another person. I’ve heard teenage girls talk about how they “love” each other. That hormonal young man “loves” that girlfriend who might give him sex. We “love” a great meal or wine or golf or music. We “love” our sports teams.
All these types of love get mixed up with what should be real love. It becomes all about us, our feelings and our own search for happiness. I can see that is the way I thought about love and myself over so many years.
Yes, it’s easy to love your beautiful, devoted wife. It’s easy to love the hard-working, great providing and affirming husband. It’s easy to love your cute little children and grandchildren. It’s easy to love your family when they are there to support you.
Even when some of these situations get tough or challenge us, the primary reason we might still choose “love” is that we want a good relationship or to feel some love in return. But, if that other person is not being loving or kind or doing what we think he or she should do, we find it easy to withdraw the love and make a list of things in our mind that he or she must do to be back in our field of love.
That is conditional love. It’s love that feels good. Then we withdraw love, because it’s not meeting our needs or expectations. The conditions you impose are, frankly, all about you.
What I’ve found is that love is supposed to be completely unconditional. It has nothing to do with what the other person has done or might do for us, how fun they are, how beautiful they are, or how compliant they are with our spoken or unspoken expectations.
Love is mostly something that comes from you and not necessarily comes to you. So, if you were keeping score (and you really shouldn’t), you should rack up love points like there’s no tomorrow and not worry about whether that other person or group is scoring any love points coming your way.
Our ability and willingness to score in the arena of love should be limitless.
If we are going to love like God, which is what we’re supposed to do, then we realize that His love is limitless. He gets so little in return. Like us, He wants our love. But He doesn’t require it.
This is the same way Jesus showed us Love. Sure, He had much love from Our Lady and St. Joseph and I’m sure others in His family. The Apostles and a few others loved Him. But, when it all got tough, there was major betrayal and hate rather than love.
But Jesus just kept loving with His sacrifice on the Cross and the Church He gave us. He forgives us time and again for the mountain of daily sins that counter His love.
If you start loving like Jesus, you will surprise yourself and those around you. It is a whole new way of living, and it is the Christian way. Very few people really live this way. But we’re supposed to.
So, where does that leave us? I said we need a new word for love, because the way we use it now often seems so cheap.
Well here are some words, or four levels of love, which come from CS Lewis’ book, The Four Loves:
- Storge—empathy bond
- Philia—friend bond
- Eros—erotic bond
- Agape—unconditional love
What is notice here is that the first three are called “bonds” and the top level is “love” or agape. Bonds are just that and much more about feelings or reactions. The Bible talks about agape and that top level is what real, full love is.
So, what do you think? Should we start saying “I agape you” when we think we mean real love?
Somehow, I don’t think my article here is going to make that happen. Nor do I really think it’s necessary. Because empathy, kindness, friendship, affection, and Eros can all really be love.
Never stop loving in the best ways you can, but just be clear that much of what we call “love” falls short of full, God-type love.
We’ve seen countless examples of agape love in our lives. I’m sure of that. And, we can recognize it when we see it in well-known saints and in commonplace saints who live among us. Some of us may even occasionally engage in such agape love.
But, know that love can be tested. And, your expectations that a friend or spouse or pastor is going to be fully there for you in the agape sense, may not be true.
Some part of our lives demand that we are agape lovers. if we are going to live up to what the role truly requires. Marriage and parenthood are the two best examples for most of us. If we’re entering into a true God blessed marriage, we need to be clear with ourselves and our spouse about what that means. Priests and religious are also called to love unconditionally, but in different ways.
And, we shouldn’t cheapen such relationships by Eros or living relationships which are more about convenience and pleasure versus the fullness of what we really claim the relationship to be. Whatever sacrifices or accommodations are necessary to live the way that God has shown us should not be a deal breaker for us. The “easy love” I spoke of before shouldn’t be mistaken for the supposed goal of unconditional love, which is what the relationship ultimately demands.
If a relationship is a friendship, there are many wonderful acts of love inherent there. But, we can’t really expect it to be agape. Someone may act in an unconditional loving way to us, but we can’t demand it.
Similarly, for any relationship, even with our spouse; we can’t demand that they love us unconditionally. We should discuss it with them and probably renew the commitment to love through continued prayer, acts and communication. But, we can’t demand it. And, even if we’re able to love unconditionally ourselves, the other person may not reciprocate. Our response should only be to keep on keeping on, no matter how hard it gets.
Back to the question of the right word for true love. What does the Bible say?
“God is Love.” The word for Love is God.
What we can do is keep God in us by staying in touch with Him and renewing our commitment to Him each day. God, through us, will let us love others His way. That way may not be easy and may not be fully appreciated or returned by others.
But, God will appreciate it.
© John S. Cohoat, 2017