What is love?
Romantic love is difficult to define, so we turned to some experts for help
It’s one of those “know it when you feel it” things, right? If someone asks you point blank, “What is love?” it is hard to put your feelings into words. Everyone from Shakespeare to Howard Jones has tried, and still thousands more will be trying (with some help from greeting-card writers) this Valentine’s Day to find just the right words to convey their love for another person.
But the fact that the answer isn’t easy to come by is what makes the question so fun to ask. While romantic love might be universal, our individual experiences are unique, and every person’s answer to the question provides insight into what is meant by being in love.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’ve thrust five locals into the spotlight, asking a rabbi; a marriage and family therapist; a Buddhist author, teacher and peace activist; a theater actor and director; and a professor/spiritual therapist/author to answer the question from their points of view.
So, what is love?
What is love? In some sense the question is either impossible to answer or simply unnecessary. If you’re in love, you know what it is. If you’re not in love, no one can adequately explain it to you. The reason for this lies in the reality that love is a felt experience of the moment, as immediate for example as the fragrance of orange blossoms or the touch of a hand. If you’re asking what love is, check it out for yourself.
But a lasting love will of its own accord mature into caring, a state of being in which the loved one matters in such a way that the lover is virtually compelled to respond to the loved one’s well-being, safety and happiness. I think of care-giver in this context, bringing to mind images of nurse and patient, teacher and student, parent and child, and yes, boyfriend and girlfriend, partner and partner, husband and wife as well. Caring in this way isn’t necessarily of our own willing, but rather a gift of love that wills itself into being.
Lin Jensen is a Soto Zen teacher and author who lives in Chico, where he writes and works on behalf of nonviolence and in defense of the Earth.
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
There is a stereotype that Judaism is not a religion of love, but it’s the Hebrew Bible where you first find the great commandments to love the stranger, love your companion, and to love God with your heart, soul and might.
My dear mother’s favorite saying was from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “We are commanded to love our neighbor as we love ourselves; this must mean that we can.” Mom lived that every day in her family life and work as a hospital chaplain. She had it pasted on her filing cabinet and heading her blog, and when she passed away we decided to put it on her headstone.
Judaism also values the intimate love between committed partners. Celibacy was never an ideal in Judaism; marriage and family life are. Just read the biblical “Song of Songs” (or “Song of Solomon”) for some of the most beautiful and tenderly erotic love poetry ever written. Based on this book, the love of a couple was seen as a reflection of the divine love between God and humanity. At each wedding, we bless the couple to be as “re’im ahuvim,” or “passionate friends,” rejoicing together like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
But the most important way to express love in our tradition is through caring—compassionate actions. Our sages taught that to love someone as yourself means to recognize your common humanity and treat them as you would wish to be treated. They also had a great saying: that any love dependent on something (such as beauty, lust or gain) would never endure, but love that is not dependent on anything will endure forever.Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel and a lecturer at Chico State, loves Avraham, her husband of 32 years, and their five grown children.
Terrence Hoffman, MFT
While there is a difference between “falling in love” and a more matured, active, shared loving experienced over time, both are catalyzed and fueled by a sense of being seen and deeply known.
Even the briefest encounter can trigger the feeling that we are now being viewed in an exceptionally accurate light, one that seems to be reflecting back to us our own best qualities. It is as if this other person “gets us” in a way no one ever has before, or ever will again. We experience an irresistible desire to get this person as physically close to us as possible, while simultaneously drifting into a trancelike state of amnesia regarding our usual daily responsibilities. Yes, we are in love.
And then something eventually happens, and … hopefully, we graduate into another stage of coupledom, best described as one of engaged, active loving. Now the work begins as we become more familiar with the one who is fast becoming our partner. Do we feel safe with each other? Do I feel deeply valued for who I am? Do we share respect for one another?
A shared sense of being deeply and intimately known as someone having exceptional worth—as well as a legitimate need for the security to be found through connection with a trustworthy partner—readies our hearts for the pleasurable celebrations of romantic love.
Terrence Hoffman is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has lived and worked in Chico for 35 years.
El-Love-Ant: A Play
The curtain rises on Person A and Person B sitting on a rock by a stream in Bidwell Park. Silence for 20 seconds, and then:
A: What is love?
B: Excuse me?
A: What is love? I want to know.
B: Oh god! Let’s see, love is … crap!
A: Love is crap? Hmm. Well that is disappointing, I was hoping it would be much more than that.
B: No, no. I mean this is difficult—what aspect? What does it look like? Feel like? Sound Like? What does it do?
A: Yes. All of those.
B: It’s all together—you can’t take it apart without losing it—it is trying to describe an elephant when you have only its tail. It is beyond explanation, it can only be experienced—and the experience itself is the explanation. No more, no less. And when you experience it you see the whole elephant.
A: Even the pancreas?
B: Absolutely. All of the internal organs, in fact.
A: Thank you. A concise explanation of why it is unexplainable.
B: Do I get a prize?
A takes B’s hand as the park fades and transitions into a glorious red and orange and purple Chico sunset. Ray Charles’ “Come Rain or Come Shine” is heard. A and B start to rise off the stage, slowly, and float into the source of the light as the music rises and the curtain closes.
End of Play.
Joe Hilsee has been making theater in Chico for 12 years. He has been in love most of his adult life, which should make him an expert.
Gayle Kimball, Ph.D.
We start with adrenalin-like excitement and then endorphins kick in for comfortable bonding. Scientists discovered we’re attracted to individuals who are like our parents and ourselves, but whose pheromones are least like our own. Different immune systems ensure healthy babies.
Love based on deep caring, interest, respect and common values lasts over time, while the half-life of romantic love is often 90 days. We can be infatuated with someone we don’t even like—“bad boys/girls.” It’s easy to confuse love with the intensity of sexual chemistry or of being anxious about whether the other person likes you, when it’s just sexual chemistry or tension.
Couples I interviewed for my books on equal relationships talk about working at their relationship. This means hanging in through the difficult times, like illness or having a baby. The work also means regularly scheduling in time for communication and fun to maintain the spark of romantic love. These two areas are problematic for people who write into my column. Romantic love can grow into deep intimacy and joy if it’s tended like a garden needs attention; otherwise its intensity dissipates into boredom or disappointment.
Gayle Kimball writes the “Ask Dr. Gayle” column for Lotus Guide and is the author of 15 books, including Your Questions About Love and Family: Ask Dr. Gayle (available at www.gaylekimball.info/bookstore.html).