As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us think about love – but what exactly is it?
Ask someone and they’ll quite likely utter “hmm… well… uh… gee…”… The essence of love is rather tough to capture, because we experience it in so many ways!
There’s the love shared by men and women… by pets and their owners… by parents and children… by siblings… and by the betrothed (and hopefully their in-laws, although that can be a stretch!)
Love isn’t just interpersonal: Architects love drawings, and chefs love pastries… writers love words, and actors love characters… physicists love formulae, and cellists love music… athletes love sweat… people love nature… soldiers love their country… and of course, God loves us all.
Love’s life cycle is well-known: It can begin as an infatuation that fills us with endorphins, or as a friendship that hoodwinks us into something deeper… it matures as a comforting, strengthening unity… and it can end as an incapacitating, all-consuming grief.
Having an infinite wardrobe, love refuses to wear a nice, concise, precise description. However, as William Shakespeare would have said:
Enter the metaphor!
Love is a chameleon we that doggedly pursue, sometimes catch, and often lose from our grasp.
Love is the wild card of existence (Rita Mae Brown)
Love is friendship that has caught fire (Ann Landers)
Love is a single soul inhabiting two bodies (Aristotle)
Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand (Mother Teresa)
Love is an exploding cigar we knowingly smoke (Lynda Barry)
(That last one made me think “love is a runaway train we knowingly board”.)
Shakespeare had an amazing ability for illustrating love, using metaphors such as a star:
[Love] is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
(Sonnet 116, 1609)
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.
(Hamlet, circa 1600)
a form of insanity:
Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish’d and cured is, that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too.
(As You Like It, circa 1599)
and (perhaps most eloquently) as a blend of smoke, fire, tears, and madness, as here in the most famous tale of tragic love:
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears;
What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.
(Romeo and Juliet, 1597)
Many other writers besides Shakespeare have described love as something delicious (ever-present fruit, multi-flavoured spice), risky (banana peel, thorny rose); delicate (plant, garden); strong (truck, tree); destructive yet renewing (fire, lightning); a journey (pilgrimage) and in countless other ways. In the following, somewhat pessimistic verse, Oliver Wendell Holmes brilliantly depicts love as a path into the unknown:
Love is the master key that unlocks the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and most easily of all, the gate of fear.
(A Moral Antipathy, 1885)
Two of my own favourite descriptions of love (by Neil Young and Pablo Neruda) are more contemporary:
Love is a rose but you better not pick it.
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
A handful of thorns and you’ll know you’ve missed it.
You lose your love when you say the word “mine.”
(Neil Young, Love Is a Rose, 1977)
Oh, love is a journey with water and stars,
with drowning air and storms of flour;
love is a clash of lightnings,
two bodies subdued by one honey.
(Pablo Neruda, Sonnet 12, 1960)
Instead of using metaphors, you can also describe love directly – which is what the Apostle Paul (Christianity’s most prolific author) did around the year 55 AD in one of love’s most famous eulogies. In the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Greeks in Corinth, Paul portrays love in three ways:
First, he describes it as the only meaningful basis for sharing gifts, and for expressing mental and spiritual powers:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Second, he describes love using personification:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And at the chapter’s end, Paul describes love as the greatest enduring emotion:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Paul himself clearly had an abundance of love – enough to sustain him through persecution and incarceration during his heroic journeys across the Mediterranean Sea to spread the word of Christ.
So do metaphors really bring us any closer to knowing the TRUE meaning of love? That is a subjective question, for love lives in the heart of the beholder. But if we pause to reflect on those metaphors – savouring their delicious buffet of imagery – we can appreciate, just a little more, how love’s complexity makes it infinitely beautiful and powerful.