This year, it came out in an essay.
To “Love,” or not to “Love”?
by Judith Cullen (c) 2014
The Greeks got it right. The language has four distinct words to distinguish the different types of “love”. We American-English speakers don’t manage it quite so well. We get confused.
It’s easy to get confused! Depending on your nature depends on how confused you are, or how much confusion you create. Let’s not delve into suppositions of what is inside individual hearts, that only makes the conflict more complicated.
The Greeks identify Agape – a spiritual, unconditional love that gives and expects nothing; Eros – the physical, passionate, sensual longing that is the source of so many romantic misadventures; Philia – a mental love applied to affectionate regard or friendship; and Storge – possibly the least “love-like” sounding of the lot, it refers to simple “affection” and is usually applied to family or just acceptance of a relational situation.
One can reason that there is an evolution inherent in these words, while each type is capable of standing on its own. One might move from philia to eros, though in my experience eros tends to flare up without preamble most of the time. The next step might be from either philia or eros to agape. While modern Christians like to use the word agape to describe their relationship with the divine, amongst the more mundane creatures agape takes time, and shared history to build. I use the term "build" because, unlike the popular use of the word “grow,” building agape takes personal commitment, engagement, and plain old-fashioned hard work. You can’t just water it and pray.
In English, we don’t fare as well. We have one word – “love.” We dress it up for every possibility, and trot it out for everything from casual meetings to formal occasions. If you are a cuddly person, you use it liberally in everyday conversation, tossing it about like so many candy sprinkles. The very casualness of it identifies it as philia, you hope.
I am just this sort of “sprinkly” person, and I sometimes pause to wonder if I am doing damage with my liberality. Except, I do actually mean it. I love people. I want to love people. I like to love people. People are endlessly fascinating, marvelously diverse, and I learn so much from them.
I also get into trouble this way. Relating to people in a loving way does not always mean they reciprocate, and we all do tend to default to assuming everyone views through the same life lens as we do. Most frequently they don’t share your particular view, and admittedly there are some less worthy of love than others. Still, I like who I am far better when I am loving people. So, while an occasional “proceed with caution” message may flash up in front of my eyes, continuing to fully embrace philia is simply who I am.
There’s more trouble lurking, and I have gone through more of that in the past few years than I would have anticipated. It involves eros. There’s a whole lot of emphasis put on eros in our 21st century society. I’ll confess, as a cuddly person, eros provides certain tactile rewards that I need – scratches certain sensual itches that are part of being human. Being snuggly and functioning at a snuggle deficit does not make for the sanest of mind sets. There’s no denying the romantic aspects of eros, because they excite: make your head spin with the thrill of it, and your whole being seems to tingle. The rush of dopamine when you see or connect with your lover can be incredibly addictive. It is exhilarating, and dangerous. You want to feel that way all the time - forever!
Eros can be deceiving. There is a desire to blur the lines and assume that eros and agape are one, or that the shift from one to the other is a given. After all, in English it is the same word – love: “I love you,” “My love.” These easily lead one to believe in something that is more lasting and enduring than eros can typically deliver, and that it is possible to float on that sizzling romantic high always. We think it is “love” when it is really “desire,” “want," or “like an awful lot.” But we still call it by the name of “love.”
I have been in several relationships, in the past few years, that were eros driven only to become heartbroken when they fizzled. You feel stupid, because you feel like somehow you should have known better. Every time I ask myself, "am being smart, putting my heart out there so easily like that?" I even went into one relationship carefully, cautious to not let myself believe it was the wrong kind of love. I failed. Up went my head over my heels at some point, and I was lost in the thrill again.
I keep hoping somehow I’ll become wise, even going so far as to write this essay. But the truth? The real truth? The heart has the incredible ability to endure, overcome, and to heal: it doesn’t matter whether it is philia, eros, or agape. The ability of our hearts to recover and fight another day - to charge back out into the fray again and make messes and mistakes just as big as the ones we made before - are part of what makes us uniquely human. It is not a weakness, as some popular punditry suggests, but ennoblement. Our capacity for loving, of all kinds, is endless.
So, as with my “huggy philia,” will I accept that I am who I am, and keep on falling in love? Yes. Am I foolish not to learn from previous misadventures? Probably. But love is like so many human conditions: it can’t be learned academically, intellectually, or from writing essays. You have to go out there and do it: fieldwork, hands-on learning, engagement that might require copious amounts of soap and hot water. So, I am going to keep smashing my nose, making a mess, and generally tripping over my own feet in the quest to learn to accurately identify the different types of love.
Or maybe, I’ll just start learning Greek.