All we need is love. Simple and hippy as it may sound, it is true. But what is love? The word is thrown around a lot without a clear definition. This lack of clarity has consequences – and can lead to real societal and personal problems. That’s why I believe we need to revisit “love” and understand how changing definitions can confuse our good intentions.
The English language comes up short-handed on love. We have one word where other languages have many. But the “love” we desire, give and appeal to must be defined using our limited language. We turn to great minds to help us: Thomas Aquinas defined love as a verb, “To will the good of the other.” As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” These definitions are in line with the “love” described by generations of philosophers, theologians, butchers, and bakers. Love, so defined, is more than just a feeling; it requires some concern, or care, for the long-term welfare of the beloved.
But this is a different love than the one we hear declared today. “I love you; I just want you to be happy [right now]!” This declaration requires no will, no action or investment. You get to be kind, but aren’t tied to any responsibility.
These two “loves” – purposeful love and affirmation love – are in great conflict with each other. One says, “I want you on a good path.” The other says, “Choose whatever path you want – as long as it seems to make you happy right now.” In the friction between these loves, we see the origin of many of our modern battles.
The Battle of -isms
One of the original wars is Subjectivism vs Objectivism. Subjectivism, common to so much of modern philosophy, rejects the existence of a supreme truth we should all seek. Rather, all truth is relative, virtue is socially-constructed, and even logic and reason are suspect. This outlook would lead us to love through approval (affirmation) of whatever choice the beloved makes. When “good choices” are in the eyes of the beholder and consequences are largely random, desires and feelings are what matter most.
Objective truth, by contrast, holds that goodness, truth, and beauty are real and the pursuit of these may lead us down different paths, but they all ascend to ultimate truth. Objectivism has real substance, and is inherently tethered to truth. The love that grows from this outlook seeks goodness, even at the expense of the beloved’s own desires or “feelings.”
In a world that questions the very idea of truth, those who hold firm to objective truth are often accused of being “unloving.” But is real love possible when it is untethered to truth? When we analyze statements about love, or our own “love” for others, let’s ask:
Is this “love” purposeful encouragement, or blanket affirmation? This introspection can lead us to recognize the underlying philosophy that informs this view of love.
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Romans 12:9
Purposeful Love and Affirmation
For example, I care about my daughter. I care about her health. I want to start her out with healthy eating habits, because these will help her down the road. I try to ensure she has nutritious food and understands proper portion size. I do this because I care about her future; I love her and I know the pitfalls of unhealthy eating.
On the other hand, if I use the affirming definition of love – “I want her to be happy” – then I would let her eat whatever she wants. She has made it perfectly clear that candy, not vegetables, makes her happy.
Now, most parents would say that, of course, the purposeful love is the love that drives their parenting. They want to ensure their children are on the road to a stable and fulfilling future. But this isn’t an easy love, as any mother attempting to get her toddler into a car seat knows – it requires discipline and action and is often in opposition to what the child wants right now. Nonetheless, they are our children, and it is our role to care for them and seek their long-term good.
Of course, there is also a place for saying ‘I want you to be happy”. For example, if I had my daughter’s friend over for dinner and she didn’t want to eat her vegetables but wanted to eat candy instead, I certainly wouldn’t force the issue. Her immediate happiness being with my daughter is more important to me in this case than her long-term happiness (and hey, I don’t have to be around for the sugar-crash). Simply put, I don’t want to “mother” her; it is not my job. I want to be kind, and for her to have a fun time. But I shouldn’t deceive myself into thinking that I am “loving” her in any deeply virtuous sense by allowing her to eat candy.
Stay in our Lane
Today our culture is free and loose with the “be happy” kind of love and not so much with the “will your good” kind. If we ever stop short of total acceptance of any behavior, no matter how self-defeating it may be in the long-term, then we are seen as lacking love and compassion.
“Societies are far gone in depravity when toleration is seen as a good in itself, without regard to the thing being tolerated.”GK Chesterton
We see much concern for the group – less for the individual. The desire to see others live ‘the life they want’ is often made in broad terms -without much concern for the consequences which may descend upon the individual in said group. This apathy towards the one will lead to an unstable and disjointed society.
“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.”Fyodor Dostoyevsky
While many shout the evils of intolerance, we see a heightened judgmentalness in daily interactions. We share our every action on Social Media, seeking approval or praise. Then when we see others acting “inappropriately” or “unwoke” – we quickly condemn them. I think a lot of this conflict could be alleviated by going back to the good old days of “minding our own business” – and unplugging from the twisted reality online.
It is none of my business if the guy in front of me at the gas station buys cigarettes, but I am not going to encourage my children to. Often it is best to keep our concern geared towards those we have purposeful love for. I have no right to judge the cigarette smoker ahead of me- I don’t know anything about him. Let’s live and let live. If we find ourselves overly bothered by strangers actions, we are likely ignoring our own. It’s tough enough acting virtuously ourselves; who has the energy to try and get random people to do it.
When dealing with people outside our “charge”, kindness should kick in, through polite thoughtfulness or withholding judgment.
Validating the Wrong: When Not to Affirm
If we do hold responsibility over a person, and we love them, we should not allow affirmation to block them on their path to joy. We should not support that which we feel is wrong or will lead to sorrow. Perhaps it is not our place to say anything – but let’s not lean into the default of “whatever makes you happy”. Kindness does not always equal validation.
“If I am forced into a position where I have to validate your identity… What if your identity is wrong? What if it’s pathological? What if it doesn’t serve you well?…and if I start validating you, do you think I am your friend? I am not your friend at all, I am a mirror for your narcissism.”Jordan Peterson
I remember in high school my friend “fell in love” with a guy a year older than her. She was obsessed with him. I hate to be blunt, but he was a loser. He did drugs; he was a jerk to her; he was heading down a dark road. Despite these well-known facts, some of my friends decided to just be happy for her. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to ruin my friendship because I could see she adored him but I knew she was being naive. I decided to subtly express my doubts about his character and hope that would be enough for her to start doubting him. After his true colors were shown, it was me she clung to, not her ‘supportive” friends’.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Romans 12:9
There may be times when we may need to let go of our will and lean into “live and let live”, even with members of our family, or close friends. We need to have the humility to realize we may not know the best way to show love, or what the proper path for another may be.
We should accept that people’s choices are their own and we cannot control someone into choosing virtue. Yet, when it becomes apparent that our striving is not helpful or desired, we need not retreat to affirmation of behavior we know to be unwise or unvirtuous. We can disagree with someone’s choices and still love them. We maintain our love and hand the situation over to God. He will never stop striving with His child.
The Love Dilemma
I am currently reading the Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and he skillfully unravels this conflict between affirmation and purposeful love. He uses the analogy of the “progressive” Grandfather-God and a traditional Father-God. His statement is worth pondering:
“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. But by Love, most of us mean kindness (affirmation) – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.
“…Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.”
The Father-God does not shrug off wasted potential, for He sees all possibilities.
A society that has adopted a warped love will produce children we aren’t too concerned about “turning out”. This form of love is quite dangerous for it encourages behaviors, not based on their virtue or merit, but on the emotions they produce – happiness. But if we know one thing about ourselves, it is that we don’t have any idea what will really make us happy. We just go from pleasure to pleasure – seeking one that will stick.
“Remember our words, then, and whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonorable and evil.”Plato
We Have No Clue About Happiness
In Leo Tolstoy’s tragic novel, Anna Karenina, Anna left her husband and went after passion – a passion which faded and left her in a state of misery and torment – ending in her suicide. Would Anna Karanina’s friends have been right had they affirmed her desire to “seek happiness” and leave her husband and follow her passion? No, she didn’t know the first thing about her own happiness. But she did know, down to her soul, the difference between deceit and honesty. She knew selfishness was evil and loyalty righteous – and these truths and consequences came back to haunt her long after her “happiness” faded.
“He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.”Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina- speaking of Vronsky, Anna’s lover
The Danger of Loving Without Caring
When we throw around affirmation to any and all we meet, we may be doing a lot more damage than good. We suffer no consequences for such “loving” – but the “loved” one may be validated to continue down paths that lead to misery.
We may honestly desire to ease the burden of the drug-addicted young man, or the unfaithful woman. Yet too often, we go about it in the wrong way. Our modern solution is not changing behavior- but changing society’s perception of that behavior. Affirming their path. If we could only take the shame away from all actions, then all would be free to be happy. But Anna and her lover’s happiness faded when their passion did and society’s endorsement of adultery would not have prevented it. Emotions are fleeting; right and wrong endures. There are bad paths. There are also many good paths. Not everyone’s path must be the same, for we all have unique gifts and purposes. But stepping into unknown lives without understanding and attempting to make their paths easy, can lead to great suffering.
This piece focuses largely on love’s counterfeits, or what love is not. However, there is a whole world of love open to us, and it will change the world. God wants us to love our neighbor, and the methods we may utilize are varied, and often unexpected. I hope to do another piece soon on what great thinkers have said about accessing Agape, or unconquerable benevolence. This love has no limits – it is for the man in front of us in line, our friend, and our enemy.
“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them.”C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Essay on the Buddhist Idea of Idiot Compassion: