Language reveals a great deal about a culture. Given the centrality of snow in their lives, it should not come as a surprise that for those natives living above the Arctic Circle, there are over 230 different words to describe the nature of this frozen precipitation. It is surprising, to me at least, that English, a language so rich in synonyms, has such a limited vocabulary for love. Think about the countless poems, books, movies and plays that have been written and produced on this topic, and I challenge you to come up with more than a dozen useful words for this feeling we all profess to share.
The couple, both in their mid-twenties, has been dating for a month. Valentine’s Day is approaching. One night, he tells her “I love you.” She whispers back, “I love you too.” How likely is it they both have the same understanding of the depth of their relationship? What kind of a commitment do you think he made to her? What kind of a commitment did she make to him? How likely do you think they share the same exact feeling?
The Greeks, those preeminent thinkers of the ideas on which we base much of our Western civilization, recognized seven different types of love, and had words that clearly applied to each. Eros denotes the passionate love we most commonly associate with romance. Philia is the feeling that forms the bonds between close friends. Philantia is self-love. We all need some of this to maintain our self-esteem. Storge is a natural fondness coming from familiarity or dependency, as is found in a family. Agape is selfless love manifested by altruism or charity. Ludus is a teasing, playful kind of love, as occurs in flirting. Pragma is the love that comes from having common goals; i.e. pragmatic love.
With all these different kinds of love in the world, it’s no wonder that the relative poverty of English in expressing the exact nature of this feeling we denote with one word “love” can and does lead to so much misunderstanding in relationships. Think about the couple I just described, and reflect on some of your own life experiences.
Let’s move on now beyond the case of just binary relationships. Mary Ruefle, an American award winning poet, wrote: “We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love – a connection between things.” As we reflect on the divisive nature of our current world, as we desperately strive to find the glue which will keep us from tearing our lives into irreparable shreds, there is a deep truth in her poem. We need to see the cosmic connection found in Carl Sagan’s words, “We are all stuff of which stars are made.” There exists a fundamental connection between every living thing, and recognition of that bond is basic to the requirement of love.
What has been the experience of “love” in whatever context in your life?