What is love? We can get some initial sense of the root meaning from the expression “to do something for love”. When we do something for love, we mean that we do it with no extrinsic aim or gain in view. Love is “for nothing”. Thus, love is the abandonment of selfishness.
I used to play tennis when I was younger. In the scoring of tennis, when one has no points it is called “love”, so if the score is love-forty, then one player has forty and the other has nothing. Love is thus strongly associated with emptiness or nothingness. It is a void, a blank sheet. Traditionally, a bride wore white to symbolise that she was willing to take on whatever colour her new husband and his family required. Love is open.
Love thus has much to do with availability and willingness. I am talking here about the original and traditional sense of it. Nowadays people talk about loving themselves and protecting themselves, but this is a reversal of the original meaning. The modern person thinks in terms of rights and entitlements, sometimes in terms of personal profit and sometimes in terms of equality. All these modern ideas, however, are derived from the needs of mass society, not from the intimacy of family and community. As our lives have become more and more public we have started to lose the distinction, and increasingly our supposedly intimate lives are governed by rules and principles that were originally designed for the courts, both legal and political.
A century ago, the sociologist Tonnies made a useful distinction between “gemeinschaft” and “gesellschaft”. Gesellschaft refers to social relations based on impersonal ties, usually regulated by explicit rules, such as participation in a contract, society or organization whereas gemeinschaft refers to those based on close personal and family ties or a sense of community, largely formed by implicit bonds and sentiments. Gemeinschaft is, for its participants, an end in itself and they see themselves as the means to that end, whereas, in the case of gesellschaft, it is the gesselschaft that is the means and the aim is personal gain and achievement. In the modern world gessellschaft has, for a long time now, been gradually displacing gemeinschaft and people become correspondingly more self-seeking. The world becomes more rational and in the process less centred on love.
The original sense of love was connected with joy. When one does something that is intrinsically satisfying one feels joy. When one loves something or somebody one takes joy in them. Their happiness and successes are directly satisfying to ourselves. In their failures and disasters we experience distress, but, more than that, we experience the need to be strong for them. This is the sense of the “four immeasurable qualities” in Buddhism: love (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita) and equanimity (upeksha). Love wishes the other all success and happiness. Compassion wishes them freedom from failure and woe. Joy arises when this happens. Equanimity is what is demanded when it does not. These four, therefore, spell out the anatomy of love through the vicissitudes of life.
These four are sometimes called “the four immeasurables” and sometimes “the four divine dwellings”. These two terms also tell us important things about love. Firstly, that it is not measurable. In essence, love has no limits or bounds and cannot be measured out. Secondly, love is divine, the divine is love; by loving we participate in the divine and dwell with the gods.
Of course, a person - a mother, say - may have to divide her time between her children, her husband, her parents, and so on, but this does not mean that she measures out her love. Her love for all, if it is real love, is not limited. Only her physical being is limited. There is a phenomenon in which this woman might wear herself out trying to make her bodily ability match the supposed limitlessness of her love, but when we look at this syndrome carefully we generally find that the woman in question is more concerned with sustaining the appearance of being a loving person than with the reality. For sure, there are times when love will drive us to the limit in trying to serve our loved one, but these occasions, when the loved one is truly in extreme jeopardy, are rare. We can see, therefore, that there are any number of “games” and manipulations that can go on, motivated by the challenge to demonstrate love, yet in all of these the real love has been compromised by a desire for appearances. When people are wedded to appearances, as in the case of King Lear, they do not see where love really lies and tragedy lies in wait.
True love is limitless, measureless and divine, yet we are limited, conditioned mortals. Thus true love may touch us from time to time, like an angel, but between times we go on living our mundane lives, struggling to balance inner impulses with outer realities, juggling diverse imperatives and often falling short. Love, therefore, is the object of our worship. When occasionally it fills our heart and being we celebrate and remember those times. Though they may fade or become occluded by the mists of multiple follies, still, somehow, the love remains, perhaps distant, perhaps barely glimpsed, yet somehow an undying flame.
The paradox here is that if we were not such vulnerable and fragile beings, love could actually have but little expression. It is in feeling for one another’s frailty that the beauty of our most divine sentiment appears.