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What is Love?


Throughout my journey, a question I return to again and again is, “What is Love?” How to encapsulate the concept, the experience, in a way that rises to the challenge of our complex humanity. Every definition I have come across left me with a sense of underwhelm, oversimplicity and a bitter aftertaste.

1.    an intense feeling of deep affection. 2.    a great interest and pleasure in something. — Oxford Dictionary

It certainly seems true that Love includes an intense feeling of deep affection or interest or pleasure in something.  But it feels a bit anemic for an experience as complex as “Love.” It does not feel like a reasonable expectation of the beginning to end of a loving experience or relationship.  Isn’t it possible to both Love someone and not have an experience of deep affection? In moments of hurt and betrayal, or even annoyance? I may hold the memory of affection, but it is not a present experience.   Usually, that moment passes, birthing the next. Would it not be an abandonment of Love to lose hope of an affectionate return?


Maybe a root of our intolerance for each other and ourselves, our quickness to turn our backs, disappear, separate, vilify, shame, lies in this oversimplified idea.  If I am required to always maintain this intense feeling of affection in order to Love, then I have certainly failed on all fronts.


Certainly, true Love must expand beyond the idea of affection or interest.  Maybe it whets our whistle, is icing on the cake, but is hardly enough sustain the winds of life on this earth.

The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. — Erich Fromm

Okay Erich, we just might be starting to get somewhere. 


This definition moves beyond the idea of a stagnant noun, a single feeling, and introduces the complexity of energy in motion. There is desire, determination, expansion.  A self and an other.


But what happens when one is paralyzed by the fear of growth or change? When their death grip on life serves to freeze time and hibernate growth? To preserve us all in a moment of perceived safety, lacking undo threat?  Expansion is impossible in the case that sameness is the goal. But if I were to assert that this person was incapable of Love, would it feel true to their experience?


And who defines “spiritual growth,” what it looks like and in which direction? I imagine in order to nurture growth, you must also be curious and accepting of what is. To be known and seen, raw and bare. To be willing to know and to see without judgement or projection. That takes tremendous courage, tolerance of pain, resiliency, honesty, grace…


What happens when trauma and fear and societal anesthetization denies or blocks the possibility of curiosity and acceptance? Does Love lie lifeless, untouchable, decomposing in its grave?

Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust. — bell hooks

When I first read this definition, I thought Snaps Gloria, snaps.  Love is work. Love is power. Love is grit.  Love is not limp; it is not feckless. It is fire.


But the next thought: Who in my life demonstrates all of these moves? Consistently? The answer is absolutely no one. Not a single soul.  By that definition my life, this world, is filled to the brim with lovelessness.  With this definition, tears of rage began to fall. The world under my feet shook, rippling betrayal through my bones.


Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. — Brené Brown



Brené, clearly building on the work of bell hooks and Erich Fromm, reiterating the necessary components of verbiness, nurturing, implied caretaking and growth. She adds in an idea of unearthing, of maintenance. A sense of expansion and contraction. Brené differentiates her definition by adding a ceiling, can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them - we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.   




Something about this idea intuitively makes sense to me. If I hate the pimply parts of myself, how could I possibly Love them in someone else? If it is true that my judgement of another is a mirror for the places I am vulnerable to shame, and I keep my shame shielded from the curative light, how could I truly Love another more than I Love myself?


But something still bothers me. Still feels unfinished. First, bell hooks and Brené Brown both exclude the idea of Love as an emotion. An energy. A sensation.  They lean into the action but out of the sensory. Can’t it be both? Mustn’t it be both?


Second, what about the Love we experience for an infant? That moment of reveal when our breaths are taken away by the purity and vulnerability of the being that lies in our arms. A purity we would kill for, die for before it is tarnished by the harsh self-narration of our waking moments. Does that sensation truly need to exist within us first in order for it to exist for another?


Or the spark of awe fueled connectedness at the feet of mother nature’s majestic creations?


Or the oneness with that which is greater within the experience of collective effervesce in ceremony, celebration or musical attunement?


Can’t flickering sensation of Love far beyond our current understanding or experience exist without a self-Love of equal proportion?  


Do we truly need to have the self-belief of purity, godliness, miraculousness, in order to see it in another?  That is simply not my lived experience.


Finally, something about Brené’s definition intonates to me that Love is man-made. It does not simply exist and is capped by our own human limits. We do not simply come out of the womb Loved and loving.


In a world that teaches us to hate ourselves, tells us we are unlovable, in a million different overt and insidious ways, it is difficult for me to accept that our capacity for experiencing a loving connection is predicated on our capability to Love ourselves.  


In some ways, this inadvertently bolsters a misogynistic positioning. While we are all targets of shaming, women and mothers are specially targeted, separating us from our power, in order to maintain the existing systems. Our self-hatred is not simply an inside job, it is the water we swim in.  For decades even the profession of psychology pinned the blame of pediatric psychological disorders squarely on our mothers’ shoulders, referring to us as “refrigerator mom’s.”   But that framing denies us the spark of possibility that flickers in us at some point in our journey. How often do we find instruction to love ourselves through loving our own children?  Sure, it does not always ignite, may be dim, it frequently does not immediately follow birthing process, but I am hard pressed to believe it does not exist on its own accord.


Further, what about those of us who found our salvation in moments of pure suffering, self-loathing, complete lovelessness, rock bottoms and cold bathroom floors?  Where the surrender allows for the peeling back of crusty rotted wallpapers to reveal a soul saving ember of lifeforce. Where did that come from? Is it self-created or found?


Perhaps, without the cultivation of self-Love, we are only allowed glimpses. Sensations. Tiny gulps of air. Trail heads.  Without self-Love, perhaps we’re holey vessels, unable contain, unable to reliably access the sturdy steady stream of the Love experience.  Our ability to connect in an expansive restorative way becomes capped by our leaky containers. But it seems impossible to me that our limitations have the ability to snuff Love out entirely.


In the terrestrial world, Love begins with the desire to be witnessed and witness as a passenger and caretaker of a life’s true essence. Love is propelled by the exaltation of our oneness alongside the imperfect discernment of the separate precious lights and paths possessed. And is satiated as the mirror for the beloved’s fundamental truths and beauty and power, tending the embers of potential aglow. Spiritually, Love feels like a low guttural longing pumping into the pulsating heart until it gives way to the crescendoing pressure. A surrender. A breaking. A relief. An explosive lifeforce through which the purest of lights radiate, enveloping our own with ancestorial spirits.  Baptismal tears of pain are cooled with the ever-expanding calm, peace, awe and wonder. Each breath, each micro moment committed to a return for more. A volcanic eruption leaving vulnerably fertile foundation, eager for cultivation, in its wake. — Laura C. Kane-Punyon


Pithy my definition is not. But, in my estimation, pith’s place is not here.


In this framing, Love is a sensation and an action, neither and both. It begins with a desire to see and be seen. It is a yearning that lies at the fundamental core of survival for all social beings. To be seen and known.


While often obfuscated, it is not created or destroyed. It is the force that without, life would cease to exist.


This definition allows for degrees, incompleteness, a place to reach. Grace to dip in and out.  Reciprocity is helpful but not necessary. Attachment and detachment, both included.  The peak Love experience is a symphony in perfect harmony, thunderous and rich. All consuming. But leaves room for the discordant process of rehearsal.  The craving and frustration for more and better, without dismissal of its existence.


It includes room for the oscillation between oneness and separateness. The self and other.  Co-dependence and staunch independence, opportunity for fleeting moments to hold the tension of both, achieving the prized interdependence.


For me, the most glaring omission of other definitions is the lack of discomfort and pain within the Love experience. The image of Love that is oft presented to us, as goal to achieve, is one that avoids at all costs struggle, schism, rupture. Anything short of oneness, sameness, perpetual harmony is a failure.


Pema Chödrön explains,

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.


This is the womb of heat where Love lies.  Pain and discomfort are inextricable to the human experience. Inextricable to growth and change. Fear holds us still. Stagnation snuffs us out.


Pain, when accepted and surrendered to, felt to its peak capacity, is the crucible of Love. Sands alchemized to glass. It is not to be avoided but dove into. Blinded by the sun and telling the truth, that is the nectar that feeds our souls.


At this stage in the telling, I hear the voices insisting that my positioning is masochistic. I am not sure they are totally wrong. But then I turn to souls that have touched mine, fueled my own. Saw me through the worst of it. The bravest of us. The safest of us. The fiercest compassionate warriors. 


They never tell me that a life well lived is pain-free. They tell me a whole life is chock-full of it. Unavoidable if I resist it or not. The twinkle lights they hung for me, were not forged in their happiest contented moments. They were forged in their darkest depths and hung by the brazen retelling.


Love is an entire ecosystem, self-sustaining and renewing.  We can embolden the negative feedback loops or gracefully repurpose. We can tap in and resource this ecosystem or turn our backs for another to discover. It’s our own Brigadoon, existing and transcending with or without our acknowledgement. Regardless, offering a perpetual toehold within the sensations of longing, yearning, desire.


Inspired by the re-agitation of this question within my work with Shannon Dean Stedman, illuminated by the twinkle lights strung by Know My Name by Chanel Miller.  Thank you to you both.

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