Wednesday, October 31, 2012
What up, NIP?
Have you ever heard Peter Gabriel’s song, “Love to Be Loved”? If you haven’t you should check it out, it’s a great tune. He sings, quite simply, “I love to be loved.” I do too. Who doesn’t? Who wouldn’t? I love to give love as well. Why is this? Why does love / loving feel so natural to human beings? Is it because we are inherently social creatures? Survival instinct? I know some who claim it’s biologically related to neural networks and chemical transmitters. Whatever the case may be, we’ve been discussing this idea a lot in philosophy class and we keep coming up with different answers to the same question—what is love?
I must admit that I have an issue with the word itself. I think part of the difficulty of discussing “love” lay in the fact that the English word is far too broad in scope. People will tell you that they love ice cream, but they in no way mean the same thing when those same people are talking about family or friends. I’ve always gravitated to Greek myself, which has three different words for what love in English entails. The first is philos, what we might think of as a strong, affectionate bond between friends, or the deep, blood bond of family. The other relevant one is agape (pronounced a-GAH-pay), which would be akin to altruism in the sense that we are to help others without the expectation of anything in return. Most of the time when “love” is mentioned in the New Testament translations, for instance, the corresponding koine Greek word in the original text is agape. They may appear dissimilar, but in reality are inextricably linked.
After my yoga this morning, while doing my mindfulness practice as I lay in savasana, I kept focused on these two aspects of love, philos and agape. To keep my mind trained on these ideas, I began mentally saying philos on the inhalation, and agape on the exhalation. I also noticed my mind began conjuring up images of what these types of love look like in action. Very often I kept coming back to an image of Erin when I thought about philos and the faces of an entire classroom full of students when I thought about agape. While I tried not to think too much in the moment as to why those images popped into my mind’s eye, I did reflect on it after I had finished and began eating breakfast.
It makes perfect sense as to why the word philos would conjure up the face of my beloved. While I will always love my family very much for all that they have done for me, the bond I share with my wife (and I would imagine this to be the case for most marriages) will always be slightly stronger. My parents’, brothers’, and extended family’s love all helped mold me into who I am to a certain degree, but that love only pushed me up to a certain point in my personal progress. Before I met Erin that growth certainly stagnated a bit due to my increasingly cynical worldview; after meeting my wife, however, I began to see two critical components of love—that I was worthy of love, and that I was capable of loving in return.
Erin in some sense untied the knot that my parents’ divorce and its residual emotional effects had created. In my early 20s, I thought I would never get married mainly because—as I mentioned in La Familia Es Todo—I had doubted my capacity to love, especially that certain someone with whom I would potentially spend the rest of my life. Meeting Erin—the beautiful, excellent woman that she is—acted like a sunrise in my life, dissipating the clouds that had gathered on the horizon before the dawn. Though I didn’t understand this immediately, I began to realize it more and more as time deepened and strengthened our bond. And precisely because Erin loved me, I wanted to be a better person in every way, whether that be as a husband, son, brother, friend, or even teacher. Being loved by her allowed me to realize what love is—service. There are several ways I can tell her how I love her, but an almost limitless number of ways I can show her. They may be little things like bringing her a cup of coffee when she wakes each morning, or trying to do house chores before she gets home so that she can relax upon arrival. I try my best to show her how much I love her in these simple ways throughout the day, and these little gifts of loving service bring me immense pleasure.
The more that I learned to cultivate my love for Erin, the more I realized how interrelated philos and agape truly were. In some sense my marriage to Erin taught me how to love well, how to sacrifice my own desires for those of another. And at some point along the way, it all hit me: to love someone allows us to focus on that person more than ourselves. This is first learned in the context of family as we all have the responsibility of taking care of those younger than us; parents must care for their children, older siblings must help younger, etc. Helping others in turn alleviates many of our egocentric issues, because once the focus is placed squarely on the other person many of our own seemingly large problems become rather small or disappear altogether. But why stop there? Why not love everyone as best you can? Sure it can be difficult at times, especially with those who reject our love and or help. But what else is agape other than a test of our humanity, of our ability to love?
Throughout antiquity, cultures constantly extolled the virtue of welcoming the other, as you never knew who that person potentially could be (an incarnate deity, for example). In the Torah alone, the most oft repeated commandment is to “welcome the stranger,” which is mentioned no fewer than 30 times in those first five books of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that loving (agape) one another should be our highest human aim. We see the same endorsement given in all of the world’s major religions, in fact. Love is an ancient and powerful feeling. To me, it is the human emotion from which all others emanate. If you find that you lack love in your life, NIP, why not try to cultivate it? Think about ways that you could give and receive more love. The more you make love your primary motivational force, the more you’ll have it returned to you. It may be cliché to say that we get what we give, but I think this couldn’t be more true when it comes to love.
Love yourself and others, NIP, it’s the first step toward true change.