With Valentine’s Day approaching, some thoughts on love.
1. The love relationship between a man and a woman is unique. There is no love like it for two primary reasons: First, it is the love of equals — all other love relationships (except same-sex friends) are between unequals. Second, it is sexual.
2. Because it is the only love relationship between equals (again except for friends), it is the only relationship in which it is a good thing to seek to be loved. In other relationships, it is bad to seek to be loved. Parents who seek to be loved by their children will inevitably do a poor job as a parent. They may even damage their child. Leaders who seek to be loved by the public will be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. One can only lead if he does not yearn to be loved. A teacher who tries to be loved by her students will likewise fail. Parents, leaders, teachers have jobs to do, and seeking to be loved compromises their ability to do those jobs properly. They should seek to do the right thing, and doing the right thing often means being not loved, even hated. If they seek any response from those they lead, it should be respect, not love.
But in the love of equals — i.e., the love between a man and a woman and the love of friends — it is not only all right to seek to be loved, it is a good thing. Taking the love of a spouse or friend for granted is perhaps the single greatest cause of marital divorce and the breakup of friendships. “What can I do to ensure his/her continuing love?” is a wonderful thing to keep in mind.
3. That is one reason the notion of “unconditional love” is foolish. The fact is, we all earn love, and it is a good thing to have to do so. What possible good purpose can the belief that your spouse loves you unconditionally — i.e., no matter how you act — serve? If we believe our spouse loves us no matter what we do, what would motivate us to be on our best behavior at all times? Why be kind even when we are in a foul mood? Why work to stay attractive if he will love me no matter how much I neglect how I look? Why continue to pay attention to her — like regularly calling her from work — if I know that even if I ignore her, she will continue to love me?
Unconditional love is not a good idea. I don’t know where it originated, but I am quite certain it’s relatively recent, a product of an age that has put primary importance on feelings. With the possible exception of a parent’s love for a young child, unconditional love is not a good idea among people, and it’s probably not a good idea concerning God’s love for us. I am familiar with no biblical basis for the notion that God loves us no matter how much cruelty and evil we engage in (God’s love of His Chosen People, Israel, is specifically depicted as conditional upon Israel’s behavior), or for the notion that God loved Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa equally. Frankly, I would be disappointed in such a God. It renders Him a love machine whose love cannot be affected by our behavior, not a loving being who is affected by how we act. It renders His love amoral. And it prevents us from growing up.
4. “God is love” is a half-truth. God is many things, and love is only one of them. One can just as accurately say “God is punishment” or “God is justice” or “God is truth.”
5. We show love to those we love by doing what they consider loving, not necessarily by what we consider loving. A young man once called my radio show and told me he was not planning to give his girlfriend flowers or even a card, or to do anything special for her on Valentine’s Day. His reason was that he considered Valentine’s Day a creation of American capitalism — just another way to sell cards, flowers and gift items and increase companies’ profits. I asked him if his girlfriend agreed with him about the insignificance of Valentine’s Day. He said she didn’t, that, in fact, she thought it important that he do something special for her on Valentine’s Day.
I then asked him if he considered birthdays special and expected his girlfriend to do or get something special for him on his birthday. He said he did. How would he react, I then asked, if his girlfriend dismissed the significance of birthdays the way he dismissed the importance of Valentine’s Day and ignored his birthday? He acknowledged that he would be hurt.
Just as his girlfriend should make his birthday special whether or not she believes in the importance of birthdays, he should make Valentine’s Day special for her whether or not he deems the day special. We show love to the other in the way he or she understands it, not the way we do.
6. Finally, to the extent that emotions can be measured, it may be difficult to say whether love or hate is the stronger emotion. But this can be said with certainty: Among the psychologically healthy and morally decent, there is no comparison. Love is the most powerful force in our life. And the more the merrier.