Love is a noun. It’s also a verb. So, when you say you love (fill in the blank), what do you mean? I’ll bet you mean something different almost every time you say it, because you’re defining love by what you do (or feel or think).
Many people believe in the concept of unconditional love. As a concept, love is a noun in this case. But as soon as you consider what to do as a result of that concept, things get complicated.
Is love something you can really do without condition? For example, how do you love someone who takes advantage of you or mistreats you or is just plain mean to you? Can you love someone you’ve never met?
A friend and I were talking about this the other day. I mentioned a few situations I’m aware of where a person has a toxic relationship with a family member and chooses to stay away from that family member despite “loving” them.
My friend seemed to suggest this isn’t possible. Or maybe she was just wondering how it’s possible. How can you say you love a person you don’t have much contact with? In other words, how can you love someone without doing anything?
Love Without Affection
I was on the other end of this, wondering about the value of a relationship with someone who loves you but doesn’t like you.
It’s interesting that whenever I look into what people mean by unconditional love, I almost always come up with ideas about committed relationships.
We have the hardest time loving people we’re bound to because of someone else’s commitment. They’re in our lives for reasons we basically had no part in, and we usually feel obligated to love them even though we didn’t choose them. Ideally, we like our family members and get along with them, but what happens when we don’t? How do we love these people then?
We’re less likely to agonize over how to love our friends. The reason is obvious. We almost always like our friends. We have things in common with them and enjoy being with them. And we’re not bound to them if something changes.
Sure, there are times where friendships are challenged, but in many cases, the friendship dissolves if it can’t be repaired. We don’t often try to figure out how to love a friend who has betrayed us, for example. I’m not saying we don’t love these people, but we’re probably less worried about how to prove we do. It’s a little easier to let go.
Sometimes people ponder what it means to love our neighbors or enemies, but now we’re talking about something entirely different than love for family or friends. We’re mostly talking about situations in which we don’t expect much in return.
While we can love all of these people, what we do (or don’t do) as a result of that love looks very different in each case.
When Love Is a Noun, We Know Where to Begin
So, back to this idea of love and like. What does it mean to love someone you don’t like? Or even someone you dislike? (They are different in my mind, but I won’t get into that now.)
To answer that question, you may need to decide what you mean by love, and since few people agree on what it means, the conversation might stop right there.
In most religious traditions, there’s an idea of being called to love everyone, even our enemies. In yoga, when we practice loving kindness meditation, we always include those we have a difficult time with.
But does that mean we need to hang out with those people? More to the point, should we expect them to want to be around us? (How do you feel when you’re with someone who doesn’t like you?)
When Love Is A Noun, You’ll Know What To Do
For the most part, I think when someone says they love someone they aren’t able to be with, what they mean is they don’t hate that person. And maybe that’s enough.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we see it’s not always possible to show love to all people. This could be because we don’t understand them or because they are resisting our efforts or for countless other reasons. But the point is, if you think of love as an action or a verb, you’ll see it’s not truly possible to love everyone, at least not unconditionally—not all the time.
So, what about this ideal of unconditional love our religious and spiritual traditions espouse? It still sounds like a good thing to me.
Ram Dass wrote a whole book about the idea of being love. He thought of love not as something we do but as something we are. Yes, we can do things out of love, but it’s virtually impossible to show love to all beings at all times.
Once we shift to the idea of being love, though, we can love people we’ve never even met. We can love creation. We can love those who are no longer here to interact with us. And we can love people we don’t like.
Psychotherapist M. Scott Peck delved into the concept of love in his best-selling book, “The Road Less Traveled.” Peck explains that to come closer to understanding what love is, we have to realize what it’s not. For example:
Love is not a feeling.
It’s not self-sacrifice.
It’s not self-serving.
And it’s not self-defeating.
Yes, we may feel good when we love someone, but love is not the feeling. Sure, we make sacrifices for people we love, but sacrifice is not love, especially if it means obliterating ourselves.
Love is A Noun
So, what is love? Peck’s definition is interesting. He says, “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
Will, in this case, is a noun. (And yes, it can also be a verb.)
Many times, we focus on the “extend one’s self” part of the definition, but notice there is more to love in Peck’s view. First, one’s self is included. And the purpose of love is spiritual growth—of both the lover and the beloved.
So, if someone is taking advantage of you, causing you to suffer because of loose boundaries, or if you’re doing too much to hold on to that person at the cost of your own spiritual growth or even sanity, something other than (or perhaps in addition to) love may be going on.
If you’re focusing on what’s wrong with a relationship or thinking badly of someone because they’re not living up to your expectations or desires, it’s possible that love is not your motivation.
So, what is your motivation?
Can We Love Everyone?
My friend said we often don’t want to say we don’t love someone, and I think that’s true when love is a verb. We’re also often not willing to accept that we can’t love everyone if we think of love as a verb.
But we can always be love. That is, we can always be willing to extend ourselves even though we may not be able to. So, when love is a noun, it becomes something bigger. We need something bigger if we want to be love.
This may sound like semantics or a clever way to get off the hook for having to do anything for the people we love. But look closer. Each of us has to decide what we can and can’t do and why we’re doing or not doing it. No one else can make that call for us, no matter how able they are to love the people in their lives. Our ability to love is not necessarily dictated by our capacity for love.
Mindfulness and The Experience of Love
The quest to understand love is one reason mindfulness practices are so effective. When we stop focusing on action (and definitions) and learn to tune into our connection with a higher power—the power behind love that’s based on spiritual growth—our relationships to ourselves and to others start to change.
The change may not be outward. It may simply be a shift in the way we view our roles as loving people. We may begin to understand that we can’t love others until we love ourselves, for instance. We may get clearer about healthy and unhealthy boundaries and what the goal of love is. And we may become less afraid of giving or receiving love and better able to distinguish acts of love from acts motivated by something else.
Whatever You Mean By Love, Is It What You Want?
Sometimes being loving is more about us than it is about the people we claim to love. We feel good knowing we’re loving people.
It’s nice when people say they love us, and we do need love despite being unlikable in some cases. But what most of us really want is connection. We want to be seen and heard, understood and liked. We want to share experiences that help us grow. In short, we want others to “get” us.
As another friend says, we don’t just want to think of ourselves as the kind of people “only a mother could love.” So, love without connection—especially without the kind of connection that affects spiritual growth—may be a noble thing, but for most of us it’s not enough. It’s really just the beginning.
Love Is Also The End, Because Love Is All There Is
When love is a noun, I can move toward knowing that I am love and you are love and everything is love, and love is all there is. Love, like God, can’t be defined. And love, like God, makes more sense as an experience than it does as something we can analyze or neatly define.
I know, so why am I trying to do it? 🙂
I believe love is a state of being. From that state, we can each decide how to act. Love is bigger than any one of us. And as Scott Peck says, it’s spiritual. And in that sense, we need to step out of ourselves to find it. We need to get a bit mystical.
What we need from the people who love us (and vice versa) is never static. What is static is the source. Once we tap into that connection with the spirituality of love—with its source—we’ll know what to do and what not to do, not just for others, but also for ourselves.
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Hi, I’m Maria. I created Yoga Circles for you if you want to delve more deeply into the philosophy, practice, and life-changing effects of yoga. I’m also a writer and editor who helps small business owners, wellness professionals, teachers, and authors publish books, develop marketing strategies, and connect with readers, clients, and students. Visit my website (link below) for more about that. I’d love to hear from you!