Friday, July 22, 2016

Love Misunderstood

We don’t get love.

It’s something that’s easy to say and has been said enough that it’s almost kind of clichéd. I grant that point. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any less true. Love is one of those commonly overused words. We sort of intuitively have this understanding that the English language’s limitation to this single word “love” is somewhat insufficient to denote the depth of meaning behind it. Some of us may also know that other languages, such as Greek, have different words for different types of love. Sure, that makes sense. However, that knowledge does not necessarily mean that we have no idea what we’re actually saying when we use the word.

Yet as much as we don’t get the word “love”, we have this sort of understanding that it’s something universal. Which is why even some unmarried, childless, 30 year old man can write something about it, because hey, if it’s universal, then even I should get it. Modern society wants to sell us this idea of love being some sort of mysterious, intangible emotion that makes people do stupid, but endearing, things. Yet, despite the attempt to distill something as innately complex as love into little more than a chemical reaction, society generally still clings to the idea that love is generally a good thing. We are willing to excuse all manner of behavior and nonsense when it is done “in the name of love”.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment. The Bible tells us very clearly that “Love never fails…” (1 Corinthians 13:8). We also have this idea that “love conquers all” (as sonorously sung by Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight), be it from history or from pop culture. Even if we aren’t familiar with the specific context behind these references, we certainly have heard these references before. And even if we don’t have specific references to point to we have an innate understanding that this idea of love is something important. If we consider the slew of romantic comedies and sit-coms that saturate the media world today, we see this commonly repeated trope. In any pre-marriage dating relationship, the biggest thing short of a marriage proposal is not meeting the parents, it’s not sex, it’s not taking a romantic dream vacation somewhere, it’s uttering the three words, “I love you.” You’ve seen shows where men are unable to say it and women throw a party (or freak out) because a man said it (I’m generalizing but you get the point). This word “love” is kind of a big deal. Yet as much as we’d like to affirm this general idea as a universal truth, it’s hard for us to do so without actually understanding what exactly love is.

Dallas Willard points out a rather chilling anecdote from our media saturated society, the Oscar Mayer Weiner theme song. If you don’t know what it is, go look it up, now. I’m certain a large number of us have previously at the very least, heard this in a commercial before. Let’s consider, as Willard so aptly points out, the lyrics of that song:

“I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener
That is what I truly wish to be
Cause if I were a Oscar Mayer Wiener
Everyone would be in love
Oh everyone would be in love
Everyone would be in love with me”

Granted this commercial probably stopped running due to the derogatory and adolescent colloquialization of the word “wiener”, but the point remains poignant. Corporate America wants us to believe that the way to get people to love you is to be a hot dog. I mean, seriously, parents shoved their children and themselves into large embarrassing hot dog mascot costumes to sing this song on national television. It’s a catchy tune, but as with all music, the lyrics are important, otherwise don’t add singing. While they may not have been intended this way, or perhaps just not well thought out, the message sent is quite clear, and frankly, if we really sat down to think about it, kind of disturbing.

Another example I’d like to bring is a commercial I remember seeing on Saturday mornings when I was a child. While it played off of a rather childish trope, the message that it conveyed (now reviewed with the benefit of age and retrospect) was equally chilling. It was a commercial depicting a boy sitting at a table eating his favorite cereal (Cap’n Crunch) and having breakfast with his little sister. As he eats his cereal, he expresses his sentiments regarding his cereal by proclaiming, “I love my Cap’n Crunch!” to which his sister, being the prototypical contrary younger sibling, tritely retorts, “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” The boy then asks to himself (you can tell because his voice has that weird ringing, reverb effect that indicates thought or dream-sequences) “Why don’t I marry it?” and subsequently fades into a fantasy of how wonderful things would be if he married his breakfast cereal.

Yes, these examples are silly, but they prove an important point. It points at our general lack of understanding as to what we mean when we say the word “love”. Let’s take the Oscar Mayer song and consider this question: what do I mean when I say I love a hot dog? Maybe you don’t like hot dogs, so replace that with sushi or steak or pizza or ice cream or anything. When I say that, what do I mean? From my observation it means that my consumption of said item (food, music, art, some activity), be it through eating, participating, watching, etc. brings me some sort of pleasure. In short, I eat hot dogs (or pizza or sushi) because it tastes good and when things taste good it makes me feel good. Another way of saying it is, I love things that give me a “warm and fuzzy” feeling inside (warm and fuzzy may not be that actual things you feel but I think you get the sentiment). Now if we take this idea and extend it to a relational level (as the Cap’n Crunch commercial did with marriage), then we start to understand a growing issue. We love people like our hot dogs and breakfast cereal.

If we were to consider the command of Christ in the context of this definition of love, then it seems rather ludicrous and downright impossible. In reading the command “love one another” (John 13:34) it would certainly make little to no sense to understand it as “feel warm and fuzzy about one another”. If love were simply just another emotion, the idea of commanding it of someone would make it an exercise in futility. If we are to hold that love is something that's inherently important (and I do hold that position) then somehow we need to move forward with some sort of functional, working definition of what love is.

Certainly, there is an aspect of love that is emotionally driven, but I would argue that intuitively a simple emotional response will not suffice for our definition of what love actually is. It needs to be something objectively defined. A part of why that is the case is simply that making love nothing more than an emotion makes it utilitarian, innately we understand one of the most appealing and beautiful aspects of love is that it's not about the person who expresses love but rather the object of the love. I think today we make too much of the expression of love itself, but we must understand that what makes love what it is is the object not the mere expression of it or the emotional reaction it might elicit.

So then what exactly is love?  I think we've gotten to a point where we need to address this question head-on. That's a pretty tall order, but that's ultimately what we've been circling around hasn't it? What is love? Pastor Chip Ingram defines love as, "Giving someone the thing he/she needs the most when he/she deserves it the least at great personal cost." I think that is a great definition. I'm going to go with something slightly more succinct. Love is wanting what is best for the object of our love. This to me, is the intuitive definition of love. With this definition then, how do we go about loving other people?

Inherently, this definition has two prerequisites and one implication. The first of the two prerequisites is the very explicitly stated desire. Do I really want what is best for the other person? This is the most innate and intuitive of the two. The second, more implicit aspect of love, that we often overlook, is knowledge. Do I know what is best for the other person? This is difficult because sometimes we don't really know what we don't know. We may think we know what is best but ultimately, if we're honest with ourselves, we really don't have a lot of basis to say that we always know what is best.

Ultimately, I believe that the greatest gauge of love is the focus of the love. It's not about me, it's about what/who I love. Certainly we have to place certain value assumptions on that object, my love for my mother far surpasses (or is "better") than my love for say hamburgers or pizza. I think when we specifically are talking about love for another person we must ask ourselves these questions: do I want what's best for him/her? do I know what's best for him/her? While there is sort of a greater importance in the first question over the second, we ought not disregard the second. Maybe this is being overly analytical about the idea of love. I'm killing the romance. However, without adequate examination, what we often define as love today, really isn't love.

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