Of course I know what love is, you may be thinking. Puh-lease! I love loads of people in my life. My parents, siblings, close friends, girlfriend or boyfriend, I imagine there is a lengthy list of people each of us believes we love in our lives. "Obviously I know what love is and what it feels like. I dont misunderstand it at all," you might be thinking.
Am I mirroring anyones thoughts here?
I have interesting news for you though. Many of you, even in feeling confident that you know what love means, what it feels and looks like, might actually be wrong. More often then we like to think, feelings or actions that we frequently mistake for love, are in fact, not.
Let me explain. First I will offer the definition of love, then go on to describe both what love is/looks like, and what love most certainly is not (though a LOT of us think that in fact, this very unloving way of thinking/acting that I am going to describe actually is love).
People have been attempting to define, quantify and describe love for hundreds of years. To some degree, this is something we will never be able to do. Love, ultimately, is a mysterious thing. Its one of the most captivating and awesome aspects of the human experience. However in attempting to pinpoint its definition, love can be defined in this way:
The will to extend ones self for the purpose of nurturing ones own, or anothers, spiritual growth.
Lets explore that wording for a minute. Extend oneself. What does that mean exactly? It means to go out of your way. To sacrifice. To inconvenience yourself. Sometimes even, to make oneself uncomfortable. Does that sometimes entail confronting or being honest with someone you love, even though it makes you feel uneasy? Even though you worry about hurting them? Yes. It does. This is a loving act, believe it or not. Its extending oneself for the purpose of the others growth. In fact, the opposite is unloving. Avoiding being honest with someone you love out of fear. To love means to do the scarier but right thing.
Does "extending oneself" sometimes mean going out of your way to spend time with someone, when it might not be ideal for you? Yes. Can it mean spending time doing things that don't always please you, but that are immensely joyful for the person you love? Yup.
To be clear and to differentiate though, not to be confused with allowing oneself to be used or taken advantage of (because that is not love). Does love ever mean enduring toxic, abusive or unhealthy situations for yourself because you feel guilty or "bad" or too scared to do otherwise? And simply because you "love the person" so you tolerate their bad behavior? No. It does not. What I am describing in the paragraph above with regard to "extending oneself" is of course different from this.
Many people are actually quite confused as to what love looks like. What does that truly mean? Extending oneself for anothers (or your own) inner growth? I will tell you.
To provide a concrete example: someone might say, "my mother loved me so much that as a child, she wouldnt let me take the bus to school until my Senior year in High School. Even then, I had to beg her to let me go. I guess she was afraid I would get hurt, so she drove me each day, which was very hard on her. She really loved me."
This is not actually loving. His mother might have been motivated by something other than love. The action certainly wasnt fostering her sons growth. In fact, the action was serving to purposefully stunt his growth. Often, what seems to be love is actually not love at all.
In pushing on someone a nurturing they don't need and which actually causes a retardation in their growth, that which clearly prevents rather than furthers someones spiritual growth, this is not love. Some other examples include: mothers who push food on their already overweight children, fathers who buy their sons whole roomfuls of toys and their daughters whole closetfuls of clothes, parents who set no limits and deny no desires.
Love is not simply giving. It is judicious giving, as well as judicious withholding. Judicious meaning, to require judgement (and judgement often requires thought, instinct and sometimes even painful decision making and honesty). Love is judicious praising and judicious criticizing. (Again, judicious meaning with careful thought, consideration and judgement of when is the right time). It is judicious arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing and pulling, in addition to judicious comforting. That, is real love. Having the courage to set limits. To set boundaries. To tell the person you love when they might be wrong. When they are hurting themselves or others.
Real love requires a lot of effort, intent, careful thought, and yes, sometimes pain.
What Love is Not
One of the most common misconceptions about love is that dependency is love.
Dependency being defined as: the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainly that one is being actively cared for by another.
All of us have desires to be babied, to be nurtured and cared for by someone who has our best interests at heart. No matter how strong, responsible or adult you are, everyone has some of this yearning within them. This is part of being human. But for those that are psychologically healthy, these desires do not rule our lives.
When these emotions dictate the quality of our existance, then we have a real problem.
This is called being dependent. Dependent people are so busy seeking to be loved that they have no energy left to actually love. Like starving people, scrounging wherever they can for food, and with no food of their own to give to others. It is as if within them, they have an inner emptiness. A bottomless pit crying out to be filled but which can never be totally filled. They never actually feel "full-filled" or have a sense of completeness. They always feel like "a part of me is missing." They tolerate loneliness very poorly. Because of their lack of wholeness, they have no real sense of identity, and they define themselves solely by their relationships.
It doesnt really matter whom they are dependent upon, as long as there is someone. Consequently, their relationships, although seemingly dramatic in their intensity, are actually quite shallow. Because of the strength of their sense of inner emptiness and the hunger to fill it. Dependent peoples motives for doing things for others is to cement the attachment of others to them, so as to assure their own feelings of being cared for.
When the possibilty of garnering care from another isnt directly involved, dependent people have great difficulty in "doing things." They find it agonizingly difficult to do things such as buy a house, locate a job, leave a totally unsatisfactory old job, or even invest themselves in a hobby. Often aimless and feeling lost.
Dependent people are unwilling or unable to delay gratification of their hunger for attention. Meaning, in their desperation to form and preserve attachments, they throw true self honesty to the winds, instead often lying to themselves and failing to truly examine their actions or relationship choices with any real depth. They cling to expired or ill-fitting relationships when actually, they should give them up. They lack a sense of responsability for themselves. Passively looking to others as the source of their happiness and "full fillment" and therefore when they are not happy or fulfilled, they basically feel that others are responsible.
In summary, dependence can appear to be loving because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to others. But in actuality, it is not love. It is a form of anti-love. It seeks to receive rather than to give. It nourishes and encourages lack of growth and infantilism rather than independence and true growth. It works to trap and constrict rather than to liberate. Ultimately, it destroys relationships instead of building them. And it destroys, rather than builds people.
Hobbies and Self Love
Another interesting point. Hobbies are self-nurturing activities. In loving ourselves, that is, nurturing ourselves for the purpose of emotional growth and health, we need to provide ourselves with all kinds of things that are not directly spiritual. To nourish the spirit, the body must also be nourished. We need food and shelter. No matter how dedicated we are to spiritual and emotional development, we also need rest and relaxation, exercise and distraction. To sleep and to play. Thus, hobbies can be and are a means through which we love ourselves.
But. If a hobby becomes an end in itself, then it becomes a substitute for rather than a means to self development. (Some examples: People with exercise addictions. Those who use playing golf, or any other sport, in every moment of their spare time which serves in avoiding self growth, cultivation of close relationships, learning more and from further self introspection. People who shut themselves in their rooms painting/writing/drawing/reading every day, all day to avoid addressing life outside of that room). When hobbies are taken to the extreme and used this way, instead of aiding your emotional growth, it becomes a hindrance. A distraction. Stunting your inner development and taking away from the fullness of your life instead of adding to it.
When people love themselves more, they do not allow themselves to passionately settle for such shallow, short reaching goals and engulfing time fillers. There is a line that can be crossed when it comes to hobbies, moving from nourishing the spirit and being used for self growth into the other territory of taking away from and stunting it.
Real, genuine, mature love is not based out of need. Real love is not grabbing the nearest anyone, a quick fix, much like passing into the drive through at McDonalds and stuffing some food in your mouth because you are starving (but which is unlikely to provide any real nourishment or growth). Real love is not confining. Its not needy or desperate. Real love is not holding onto ill-fitting relationships. Love is not grasping. Its not pushing false nourishment on others when they dont need it but instead, fostering real growth where someone needs it (even when it might be hurtful or difficult for you).
Real love is not ignoring a real, significant problem you see in someone you care for and hoping it will just go away. Its having the bravery to tell them. Loving someone means risking the relationship because you care more about that persons actual wellbeing and their spiritual growth, being willing to show them in what way they are harming themselves.
Real love is allowing, its trusting, its flexible and open.
When one is able to not only learn this but to begin living their life in such a way (which for many, will take a LOT of practice and active effort at thought changing and self improvement), your life will improve dramatically. You yourself will feel far lighter, more joyful and healthier.
(Note: Many of my passages for this article come from the record breaking, international bestseller "The Road Less Traveled" by Scott Peck. This book has broken several records, remaining on the NY Times bestseller list for over a decade, having been translated into over 23 languages, and sold over 7 million in just the US and Cananda alone. MORE than worth the read. The insights in here absolutely have the power to change your life, big time, for the far better. A small book. Easily readable in a week. More than worth what you stand to gain from it. Really, it would be silly not to invest the time considering the payoff thats offered within. If you have any remote interest in self growth, learning, and in living your best, most fulfilled life possible while here on earth? Read this book).