Friday, September 17, 2010

The Meaning of Love

I recently spent a week trying to figure out "the meaning of love". Not quite as cliché a phrase as "the meaning of life", but one I wanted to understand nonetheless. Rather, I needed to understand. I found myself in a situation where I needed to take a long, hard look at myself and make sense of my thoughts and feelings. This was very difficult for me, as those thoughts and feelings were flying around and zigzagging inside of me - colliding and sometimes conflicting to the point of "analysis paralysis". This is where the practice of meditation could have prepared me in dealing with it, had I been a faithful practitioner. Understandably, focus was hard for me to sustain. But I persisted. How do I know if I’m really, truly "in love" if I don’t have a firm grasp of what love is?

I think I was like most people, who go about their lives thinking love is that hard-to-describe feeling which we interpret as love. But being an engineer, I needed to dissect that feeling into solid assertions. This methodical approach, BTW, is common to all serious engineers (and I would assume scientists as well) - often to the annoyance of those close to them. Sometimes I can can come across as detached or distant, maybe even a bit callous. But really, I am just trying to make sense of things in the only way I know how. So, applying this methodology, I started thinking of the people in my life whom I profess to love. There were certainly commonalities, but for each of them there was also something different.

First, the commonalities. These are the things that I had for each person in my list.
  1. Responsibility: I feel the need to "do the right thing" for that person. I strive to live up to reasonable expectations and be true to my word. If I say I’m gonna do something, I try my best to follow through.
  2. Support: I want to "be there" for that person during his/her hard times. That person should be able to depend on me when they need it.
  3. Dedication: I have made the decision to invest my time and energy in that person, through thick and thin. I want to be loyal. I want to be committed.
  4. Forgiveness: Everyone fucks up. I sure have, and always feel greatly humbled when someone forgives me. I want to extend that grace as well.
  5. Sacrifice: I am ready and willing to give up things for myself so that person can have what they need. For some of my closest people, I would even be willing to sacrifice my life, without hesitation.
  6. Honesty: This one has been very difficult for me, as I grew up being taught how to keep secrets. I want to break that cycle, which begets nothing but pain and resentment.
  7. Trust: This one builds on Honesty, but also includes a mutual sense of stability. I want that person to know that their investment in me is reciprocal, and that we are working together to make our bond stronger.
  8. Companionship: I want to share my life experiences with that person, to provision for and spend quality time together.
  9. Respect: I value that person and their beliefs, even if I don’t agree with all of them. I appreciate and validate their contributions not just to our relationship, but to others as well.
  10. Admiration: I value that person’s qualities, even while acknowledging their faults. I accept that person for who and what they are, and see all the good inside.
  11. Affection: I have a tenderness I want to express to that person, although the method of expression varies among types of relationships.
Now for the differences. When people say "there are different kinds of love", these are the things I bet they’re thinking of. For me, each relationship below builds on the commonalities listed above, so I won’t repeat those things here.
  1. Love for a partner: I truly want to be a partner with this person, to the fullest extent of the term. We are on a shared path (at least with regard to our relationship), to which we have similar goals. There is a real feeling of connectedness. This connectedness can be so heightened at times that I feel our hearts are merging. This reminds me of the sexual component, which is also beautiful. For this part to be fulfilling, there has to be compatibility, but more importantly, a strong foundation of Trust, so you can feel safe to explore and express and give. It can also be very intense, for example when climaxing at the same time together while staring into each other’s eyes.
  2. Love for a child: In my experience, there is nothing so beautiful and powerful in the entirety of human experience than to create life, hopefully conceived with a loving partner. The fact that this new being has grown from the parents - literally - and whose very DNA is fashioned from the parents is absolutely amazing. For those who adopt, there is equal gratification in the process of raising a child, teaching him/her how to be the best person he/she can be (hopefully by example). I want to do everything I possibly can to support my children. To give them whatever I can so they have the best lives they can have. To sacrifice my selfish desires to fulfill my unselfish desire for them to thrive. They are a form of reincarnation, if you think about it. We live on through them, and their children, and their children...
  3. Love for a relative: The definition of "family" varies among people, but for each definition there is the basic notion that there is a special bond or responsibility that we are given - without asking for it. I just chuckled as that sounded pretty funny (the whole "you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family"). But in all seriousness, it brings up a very unique challenge. These (usually genetic) ties that put us together - are they binding? What investment do I really have with them? What is my contribution? What is my level of responsibility? What happens if the relationship is taken for granted or abused? Well, I have to say my standing with my relatives varies quite a bit from person to person. Some (actually, most) I’m not close with at all, others I have a strong feeling of commitment to.
  4. Love for a friend: I count myself lucky to have what I believe to be some of the best friends in the world. They accept me for who I am, and I accept them. Of my friends, there are a couple who really stand out as true comrades. In fact, they feel like a cherished member of my family, like a sibling. I share more with them, I drop my guard with them, I let them get closer and know the real me. I feel safe to be myself.
  5. Love for a deity: I used to think I knew what this was, but it’s been quite some time since I have felt dedicated to a metaphysical entity. I do not - and will not - deny the profound importance this has for many people, though. But I cannot express what I do not understand, so I won’t even try. I will say, however, that I have had love for some teachers in my life. For example, certain Tibetan lamas who have been able to skilfully jump-start spiritual attention and improvement in my life.
  6. Love for self: Another cliché statement is "you can’t love others if you can’t love yourself." I always downplayed this, but it hasn’t been until recent months that I’ve come to realize the truth in this. I’ve been carrying around so much guilt for my past mistakes, not forgiving myself so I can move on. I haven’t felt that I’ve deserved others’ love, and sometimes even questioned if anybody really "deserves" anything. Through time, effort, therapy, medication and the support of others, I think I’m finally making progress here. At least that’s what I’m told. I'm still having a hard time feeling it, but at least I recognize the problem and am on a path of healing.
Well, that’s the meaning of love (at least as I understand it so far) in it’s different forms, with their commonalities and differences. Oh - there is one thing I’ve skipped over. That thing I first mentioned that goes beyond words and can’t be contained or controlled. It boggles my engineering mind, for I can’t analyze it, dissect it, put it in a petri dish and observe it, derive quantitative data from it - nothing. It is intangible and elusive, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. In fact, I’ve personally never met anyone who denies its existence. It’s that hard-to-describe feeling we have in our hearts. That invisible bond. That thing I have yet to understand, and maybe never will. What should I do about it? What can I do about it?

I think I just need to accept it, gratefully. And yes, I am in love.


  1. Ben Bundy - Professional LuxiteOctober 27, 2010 at 5:30 PM

    Our results and analyses are consistent with evolutionary approaches
    to romantic relationships. They support the existence of
    Darwinian sexual selection in humans, because people attain good
    levels of tracking accuracy on traits that are central to mate
    selection and retention. They are consistent with the argument that
    biases in relationship perception are adaptive, because such biases
    seem to be linked to differences in the costs and rewards involved
    in different outcomes. And they square elegantly with the proposal
    that romantic love is an evolved commitment device designed to
    lead men and women to substantially invest for long periods in one
    another and their offspring. The optimistic spin that individuals put
    on their relationship judgments is, on this account, a product of
    ancient, evolved adaptations.

    (Through the Eyes of Love: Reality and Illusion in Intimate Relationships
    Garth J. O. Fletcher and Patrick S. G. Kerr
    University of Canterbury)

  2. That is great. Love is not about finding the perfect person. Rather, its all about finding what is perfect in the imperfect person.