The Beatles sang that All You Need Is Love. The Bible says to “abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And Virgil wrote: omnia vincit amor – love conquers all. We tend to believe that love is the most important thing we can bring to the table.
And love is a powerful force. It enables us to do more than we thought possible. A person in love can endure pain that others can’t. A lot of people think that life without love is merely surviving and not really living. And when you really love someone, you do things for them that you wouldn’t do for anyone else.
But how important is love really?
It can’t stop illness or death. It can’t prevent financial hardship. It can make those events more palatable, certainly. But however much you love someone, sometimes that’s not enough.
So while love may be important, it’s only an emotion. It’s the actions surrounding love that really matter. If love makes me assist someone in need (if thought propels deed), then perhaps love is the greatest feeling in the world.
But I think agapé (selfless love) is a better term and a better kind of love than the love we think of in songs and poems. The love of another is generally selfish. It reflects our desire to be closer to someone, to have that person want us in the same way we want that person.
Love implies a certain narrowness, the targeting of another, while agapé suggests goodwill toward an all-encompassing set of others. Love does not necessarily demand sacrifice from the giver, but agapé impliedly does because if you want what’s best for everyone, you have to stop to consider what that might be and then do so even if it’s not in your best interest.
There is no selfishness in agapé. Whereas, particularly in romantic love, it’s really all about selfishness. It’s about me and one other – just us against the world. Even in parental or familial love, it’s about us as a group. You love your family or your tribe. And the rest of the world takes second fiddle.
Of course love can mean agapé, but most people don’t understand it that way. They may make concessions to that position if asked, but they really mean love of their group. Or they mean love of all, but at a secondary level. Primary love for mine, secondary love for others.
So the nature of the love is less intense, less encompassing. Nitpicking, you say? Perhaps, but here’s why it matters. When we assign a lesser value to some kinds of love, we diminish those secondary and tertiary loves into something that really isn’t love at all, but rather fondness or collegiality.
When things get difficult, we’re going to side with ours and let you side with yours. And then the love we profess to have won’t be love at all, but the beginning of indifference. So we need to consider all people like our family and that’s a tough thing to ask.
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