Love, for Overthinkers

I've had a very confusing time trying to understand the L word and I get the impression that I'm not alone. You've probably heard some of this before, so I'll keep it brief. Love is a difficult topic for multiple reasons:

  • We use it to refer to everything (friends, family, pets, lovers, clothing, music)

  • We are desperate for it

  • We are scared to admit that we want it

I used to regard the many use cases of the word as the most challenging aspect. How can we equate the process of caring about our parents with that of a romantic relationship? The exact nature of your feelings in each context is quite distinct from another. Now I think the most confusing part of our attitude to love is our collective deification of it. We focus intently on the romantic aspect of love in Western culture, not that I know for sure any other cultures get it right, I'm speaking from the experience of growing up in Australia and the UK.

As I'm sure is the case for many of you, my education on love was almost entirely through movies and books. I saw over and over again the template for real love™ spelled out. Two people meet, they have an immediate and profound connection, they overcome mild adversity then they effortlessly continue to revel in their undying love. This love is so powerful that it transcends reason or explanation, you "just know" when you've found it. This is the worst part of our attitude to love, it's an entirely unrealistic representation.

I spent a long time terrified that I'd never experience this feeling. I had been made to feel like it was the best experience possible in this life. I questioned every feeling I had for a girl (please note this obviously applies to any sexual orientation, I am speaking personally) to see if there were traces of the magic feeling. I found myself in my first serious relationship trying to work out if the deep adoration I felt was real love™ or something lesser. Let that sink in, I was too preoccupied trying to work out if this was reaching some imaginary standard to actually appreciate what I had. As our relationship continued my feelings began to fluctuate, in what I now know are very expected ways, and I began to fear that I was somehow broken, that I wasn't capable of loving.

I repeated this pattern for quite some time. Thinking each new relationship would be real love™ and probing it endlessly to try and work out if it was.

Nothing supernatural about it

This took me years to unravel and realise how completely ass-backwards my understanding was. I'm a logical and skeptical person, I gravitate towards beliefs based on evidence. Somehow this one snuck in early before I understood how to question anything. I do not believe in destiny (at least not in the cosmic sense, I'm fond of determinism), but somehow I'd let the idea of love sit at that mystical level in my mind. If you loved someone then that was it, you just knew and everything would be fine. The scariest aspect of this part of culture is that it teaches you that your feelings should directly control your actions. "Follow your heart" and all that. This is exactly the opposite lesson we learn from mindfulness.

I chipped away at these ideas for a while. I could see my experience didn't match up to the fantasy I'd been sold, but I could not understand what a better approach was. The breakthrough came from a combination of meditation and philosophy. Through meditation I glimpsed first-hand the feeling of pure, undirected love. I felt compassion for every living thing at once and I understood that love doesn't "come from" other people. It's just always there. Not in the sense that it's some fundamental phenomenon, like gravity or electromagnetism (though some would argue that is the case), but that you can find a way to cultivate compassion in almost any situation if you know what to look for.

From an educational perspective I would thoroughly recommend the work of Alain de Botton, especially this talk. He does an excellent job of dismantling our frustrations around love and dispelling our many misconceptions.

Practical Love

Love is the process of genuinely admiring and/or fostering the growth of another entity without any expectation of reciprocation. When defining it on these terms I realised that I'd been loving all along without even knowing. I'd never understood where to look before. I remind myself of this principle through a quote that is often falsely attributed to Buddha, though Hitler could have said it and it would still be true.

When you like a flower, you pluck it and it withers. When you love a flower you admire it, you water it regularly and you watch it grow.

From this perspective the same love you feel for family does apply to the meal you just ate. Sure, you're hopefully only digesting one of them but the core sensation of love is common to both: a deep appreciation for the exact qualities something possesses. This model even allowed me to finally understand the idea of "loving myself". I could see that I could accept and nurture myself without being narcissistic or self-centred.

When it comes to our own relationships, rather than waiting for love to appear or searching for it we should realise that love is in the giving rather than receiving. If you want to feel love then you must act lovingly, accept others and foster their growth, marvel at their uniqueness and in turn you will be rewarded with quite possibly the best feeling imaginable.

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