“Love is love. You can’t describe it. It’s an emotion that makes you want to be with a person,” was the reply I received when I asked an Eastern Michigan University student if she could tell me in a sentence or two what love is. When I was asked to write an article about love, I was inspired to approach different students in EMU’s library and ask them the same question in order to get a better idea of what people today understand love to be.
The second person I approached was a 22 year-old girl. When I asked her the question, she looked startled, and then surprised, and then distraught: “I have no idea…that’s so hard…I just have no idea” she told me, apologizing. The third person I approached was a 24 year-old male student, who said the same thing: “I really don’t know. Love is indescribable. You only can express it physically.” The forth person I asked was another male student, who responded: “Love is finding someone that you get along with and enjoy spending time with.”
My informal survey made me aware of the fact that our generation is growing up with a concept of love that is self-centered and based merely on feelings and the gratification of desires. With the exception of one person, everyone I talked to agreed that love was an emotion, and that, rather than being about giving yourself to another person, it was about how the other person made you feel. Even more surprising was the number of people who responded “I have no idea” when asked what love is. Yet I can’t help but wonder how many of those people gave a card to their boyfriend or girlfriend on Valentine’s Day saying “I love you” in it.
No doubt that Pope John Paul II was fully aware of this fact when he wrote his book Love and Responsibility. In it he writes, “The person finds in love the greatest possible fullness of being…It is not enough to long for a person as a good for oneself, one must also, and above all, long for that person’s good…Goodwill is the same as selflessness in love: not ‘I long for you as a good’ but ‘I long for your good’” (82-83).
The Pope’s analysis of love is nothing new. St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century, defined love as “to will the good of another”. If true love is always willing the good of the beloved, and we understand the ultimate good of every person to be union with God and eternal happiness in heaven, then every action towards the one we love must be ordered to helping them achieve this end.
This sounds nice in theory, yet is much harder to live out in practice. The implication that this understanding of love has for our relationships with others is profound: if we truly love someone, we will always be putting their good and the salvation of their soul before our own pleasure. In a dating relationship, we will do everything in our power to protect the purity of the one we love and lead them closer to God rather than distracting them by our careless words or actions. Indeed, to view love in light of the Pope and Aquinas’ teaching will radically change the way we treat the people in our lives, whether it be our friends, family, or even strangers.
In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II says that true love as we have defined it “does more than any other to perfect the person who experiences it, and brings both the subject and the object of that love the greatest fulfillment” (84). The crisis in our society today is that we do not know how to love, and thus, we search for fulfillment everywhere, and find it nowhere. The opposite of love is not hate, but selfishness. When our definition of love is “I enjoy spending time with you” or “you make me feel good” rather than, “I long for your good”, “I give myself to you” and “I would lay my life down for you”, we may be temporarily gratified, but we will never be satisfied.
The entire Christian life is built upon the mystifying and yet profoundly beautiful paradox that until one loses his life, he is not really living (Mt. 16:25). To truly understand love we need to look no further than the crucifix. With nails in his hands, a crown of thorns on his head, a body beaten and bruised, and a heart crushed with anguish, Jesus Christ is the perfect example of love: despite rejection, every action of his life truly spoke, “I long for your good”.
© 2004, Catherine Wood. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
Catherine Wood graduated with honors this month from Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She leads a campus Bible study for young women, and speaks to high school students about chastity and true love.