This Thing Called Love, Essay Example
What love actually is has been a source of perpetual study and conjecture from the onset of humanity itself, and it remains so today. Debate, either academic or personal, rages as efforts are made to definitively identify just what this concept is. Some definitions do exist, and are generally accepted as properly expressing certain forms of love, as in the affectionate variety. Nonetheless, the inherently subjective and symbolic essence of the subject still eludes definition. The following will attempt to better delineate certain aspects of love. All that may be safely expressed, however, is that love is typically regarded as present when deep feeling is between people, when it is marked by a level of reciprocity of giving and taking, and when the love itself goes to creating positive, or life-affirming, consequences.
It is entirely possible that nothing has been the object of scrutiny by humanity to the extent that love has been. In ancient times as well as modern, men and women persist in both seeking to explain and define it, just as the common understanding of what it is, if vague, promotes endless aspirations toward it. Love is variously described as an emotional state, a capacity for intense caring within an individual, all-consuming passion, physical infatuation, and deep-seated affection. The quality or concept is also casually attached to ordinary behaviors and items, as when people assert that they “love” a dress, a film, or a song. Love is, in no uncertain terms, a quality that resists definition because it is inherently subjective, and definition occurs as identification of the feeling is present. It is, moreover, highly symbolic because it exists through attachments to what is loved. This being the case, there are many definitions of love that rely on symbolic focus, and nearing a true definition of the essential nature of the quality is inevitably difficult. It is, however, consistently seen as a life-affirming quality, so the most precise definition may be: “The forms and structures in which love embodies itself are the forms and structures in which life overcomes its self-destructive forces” (Sorokin, 2002, p. 3). More exactly, as love is known only by what it produces, its definition is intrinsically descriptive. Nonetheless, as noted, love is manifested in an immense array of human perceptions and actions, and the following attempts to more clearly categorize the most common, and indicate issues arising from the concept itself.
No examination of love may be conducted without an understanding of how it is usually perceived by an individual, and this typically takes the form of emotion. Love, most people will agree, is a feeling, no matter the exact shape it takes or the degree of the feeling. It stimulates the individual on a visceral level, and generally creates a sense of happiness or fulfillment. This aspect may be most clearly seen in what may be termed affectionate love, which is likely the most “comfortable” form the quality takes. In deep affection, there is a sense of a trusted relationship at play, and one almost always reciprocal. The love between a parent and child is affectionate because the bond is based on mutual, emotional needs being met. When affection is so strong that it is felt to be love, it is marked by a sense of satisfaction so profound as to defy classification. It is the least demanding of loves, and the most casual. It is also the least discriminating of all loves, and affection makes it possible to love the unattractive and the “unlovable” (Edwards, 2007, p. 62). Affectionate love, in simple terms, is the potent emotional bond between relations and close friends, and it is evident as well in love relationships of more intense natures. This is the love that is nearest to liking, even as the depth of it places it in the range of human loves.
As love is inherently subjective, however, other forms of the concept frequently give rise to debate. This may be most pronounced in terms of physical love, or when physical attraction is so intense that it is believed by the individuals to be a type of real love. This is a form easily criticized; since the beginnings of recorded history, men and women both resist believing that sexual passion is love, even as they endow it with all the characteristics of love. The ancient Greeks, comprehending the varieties intrinsic to love itself, sought to separate the concepts and, in regard to physical love, defined it as eros. Similarly, agape is the converse, or more mature and emotionally-based, love. Unfortunately, love itself is not so accommodating as to be so neatly compartmentalized, and centuries of study and philosophy have been devoted to expanding what are believed to be misconceptions in these regards. Eros, for instance, is not merely physical longing taken to be love; rather, it is love in its acquisitive, needing form (Singer, 2009, p. 313). This then points to emotional longing as triggering the physical, or erotic, needs. Conversely, agape is usually defined as a contrary state, one in which love prompts sacrifice and giving, and it is the love most commonly associated with Christianity. God’s love for humanity is agape because it is unconditional and giving (Marcus, 2009, p. 11). What becomes evident even in these definitions, however, is that motivations and activities of even physical love are not mutually exclusive. The need to possess the other, for example, appears to be wholly acquisitive, yet the need to love in such cases may also translate to the need to give of the self to the other. Similarly, a form of agape is likely to satisfy the needs of the one offering the giving, as there must be something in that individual that can only be satisfied in the process. As in the admittedly open-ended definition of love presented earlier, then, it seems that the life-affirming processes within love persistently defy specific motives.
Not unexpectedly, humanity has long sought to identify actual, biological factors that either create or contribute to what is seen as love. Certainly, there is no discounting of biological processes as influencing love, and this is most frequently observed in regard to romantic love, or the state of love wherein individuals feel profound needs to be intimate, emotionally and physically, with one another. In literature as in life, people in the grip of romantic love express feelings of rapture when with the beloved; it is usually described as a sense of completeness so fulfilling, it creates a feeling of ecstasy. This brings into play dopamine. Elevated levels of this naturally produced chemical in the brain inevitably are seen when people are in such conditions, and dopamine also accounts for the many “symptoms” of intense, romantic love: inability to eat, sleeplessness, restlessness, and sometimes great anxiety (Fisher, 2005, p. 52). Dopamine is very much a reward system created by the brain, and this process in itself may fuel the graduation of romantic love into obsessive love (Roberts, 2011, p. 82). A kind of addiction occurs, as the gratification of the love increases the dopamine levels, which in turn generate greater cravings for it. When romantic love becomes obsessive, it is usually believed that it ceases to be “authentic” love, because it has disregarded the concern for the other, and such a concern remains in the common mind a critical component of real love.
Psychologists as well have looked for behavioral processes that may better explain the enigma of love. This sense that love is a programmed mechanism of a kind, or at least one dictated by primal systems in place in the mind and body, is perhaps most exemplified in the thinking of Freud. While it necessarily reduces his ideologies somewhat narrowly, Freud’s contribution to love, and one that remains powerfully influential, is his conviction that people create love to satisfy basic cravings for pleasure. This is not “pleasure” in the limited sense of physical gratification, but of the entire being, in that the pleasure satisfies the individual in socially responsible, emotional, and intellectual ways (Smelser, 1980, p. 30). According to Freud, and supported by schools of psychology in place today, all love is essentially a self-centered quality because the self orchestrates the feelings required to obtain the satisfactions it must have. Psychology is unconcerned with glamorizing love, or enhancing it as the deeply spiritual entity most individuals perceive it to be; rather, they are inclined to view it as a natural consequence of the human being’s means of optimal survival.
As has been made clear, love is a concept or entity virtually indistinguishable as such, because its existence inevitably relies on whatever form it takes. On the more “tame” side, affectionate love presents the most easily defined and isolated variety, perhaps because its nature is not urgent, but based on mutual comfort and ease. On the other extreme, physical passion tends to create skepticism where love is concerned, chiefly because it is widely believed that real love should transcend desire. At the same time, the same belief systems usually hold that desire is an essential attribute of love. In the midst of all this, there are legions of scientists and psychologists determined to identify processes generating love. In such an arena, no definition can ever serve to answer all concerns and circumstances. Nonetheless, and with the necessary exception of when love becomes damaging and/or obsessive, all of its manifestations tend to share basic characteristics; namely, love is a concept or quality in which reciprocity of need and/or feeling is present, and in a life-affirming, positive way.
Edwards, B. L. (2007). C. S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy, Vol. IV. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Fisher, H. (2005). Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. New York: Macmillan.
Marcus, J. (2009). Agape: What Is It?: Learning to Love. Mustang: Tate Publishing.
Roberts, S. C. (2011). Applied Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Singer, I. (2009). The Nature of Love: Plato to Luther. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Smelser, N. J. (1980). Themes of Work and Love in Adulthood. Boston: Harvard University Press.
Sorokin, P. A. (2002). The Ways and Power of Love: Types, Factors, and Techniques of Moral Transformation. Radnor: Templeton Foundation Press.
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