What is love? I asked.
Not that my therapist is levitating criss-cross-applesauce above a mountaintop, doling out answers to my pedestrian questions; but I wanted a professional opinion. I mean, she must’ve taken a class on it in college.
“It changes with the situation,” she replied with her usual diplomacy.
My therapist is like one of those friends who lets you vent and then gently nudges you to draw your own conclusions.
I wonder about “real love” the way a toddler stares at a balloon — there it is, hovering above my head making my hair staticky.
As a former women’s study leader and shepherdess of pliable children, I know the bible has three major categories for love: Eros, Philos and Agape.
Since I left religion, I’ve learned, largely due to youtube and conversations with my teens where I repeatedly ask ‘what does that mean?’ that there are also types of love that burst the dams of tradition and carve their own ways through our cultural landscape.
I was born in the 70s. We didn’t have cool words like polyamorous — people were swingers. It sounded like something you picked up at the hardware store. In midwest America, we learned about gender roles by watching Three’s Company.
Thus, while I am supportive of people blazing new trails, I am no expert on the fluidity of love in present-day society. Me speaking on modern love and gender roles is like taking dating advice from an ancient manual written by men in a society that put a price (and sometimes a nose-ring) on a woman as they would a cow.
So back to what the bible told me:
Eros, (which might be obvious to linguaphiles or sex-shop patrons), is when you look into someone’s eyes and realize you wouldn’t mind meshing your bodies until it brings one or both of you to the brink of suffocation. Some people see this as the most selfish type of love. For me, it is an excuse to spend way too much on cute underwear.
Philos: aka “Brotherly Love” (Philadelphia was whimsically derived from this). This is the type of love I feel for friends who let me sob mascara marks into their shoulders or who slip me sweet hard truths like peppermint candies, such as: “Are you truly happy with him?”
Let the ugly crying commence.
Agape is the highest form of love. It is divine and should be practiced regardless of how mushy or un-mushy you feel. It can be a somewhat distanced love that requires going through the motions. For example, rinsing your husband’s spit from the sink could be agape love. It is not eros.
Agape is definitely a more complex idea, and there are volumes published on this. It is easy to write out Agapes like chores, but when you can’t comprehend the tear-smudged list, (like when a husband takes you on date night only to berate you during the drive) it’s best to simply reply, “It’s from God, so don’t even try to understand it.”
And sometimes love is too complex to be defined. Despite my husband’s mental health issues and legalistic religious fervor, it’s secure to say that after twenty years and four children, we had some type of significant love buried in the pile of lost luggage.
I loved him. He loved me. Eros turned to Agape and then…well then everything bright became muddled like a Kindergartner’s watercolor painting.
About nine months after my husband and I separated, I tumbled head-over-heels for my new forever love. It was real. I knew it. I couldn’t imagine life without this person. That lasted about two and a half years before I walked away. My heart is still numb. I look back and ask, “What was all that about?”
Which bring me back to that age-old question: What is love?
I fear if it springs into my path, I’m going to run over it, glancing briefly at its writhing body through my rear-view mirror.
I don’t want anyone breaking another little piece of my heart right now, Janis.
Songwriters and philosophers and schoolchildren and film producers offer conflicting definitions of love.
Is it a highway? A river? A rose? Does it hurt? Can you keep it? Hold it? Stop it? Set it free? Is it at first sight? Does it grow? Can it be duplicated in further experiments? Does it make you crazy? Give you clarity? Is it forever? Does it die? Do you only get one shot at that Cinderella thing? Or was Sleepless in Seattle right all along?
Maybe love is the mashed-up Thanksgiving leftovers of all those things, where your turkey tastes like pumpkin pie, but you enjoy it anyway.
As I listen to Janis Joplin’s greatest hits and write to make intangibles concrete, I can’t help but feel that self-love has to come first.
I was taught self love is (obviously) selfish. As a Christian wife, I was mandated to give everything of myself, which meant sacrificing my goals, dreams and emotional well-being with the promise that god would reward me later for any injuries incurred during the ride.
These days, my focus is to pick through the burnt-out kiosk and rebuild. The kids and I are re-defining what a family looks like, how it operates, how it loves.
I’m also learning to be happy alone — to love being me.
As for storybook love.
Maybe I’ll see it from a mile away. Maybe it will dart into my path. Maybe it will grow from something I can’t even see yet, like a bacteria in a petri dish. Or maybe the soil of my heart is depleted from over-use and won’t grow crops again.
What I do know for sure is that I am living a life I love. I don’t have to give a little piece of my heart to anybody. Because the people who matter already have it.
You know you got it if it makes you feel good.