How will you love? What does the word ‘love’ mean to you?

Seeing as how it is February, when everything from donuts to dog treats are heart shaped, and everywhere you look there are roses and chocolate or chocolate roses, I feel compelled to write about love. Simple enough, right, what with Valentine’s Day and all? But therein lies the root of the flaw in my reasoning — assuming that simple means easy. There is perhaps no better example of something so seemingly simple being anything but easy than love.

This single, four-letter word, throughout history, has provided inspiration for countless artists, philosophers, and scholars. Few themes, if any, have kindled more artistic and intellectual productivity than love. Yet, when asked what love is, no two people give exactly the same definition.

What I don’t know about love could probably fill several volumes. Nevertheless, I have spent most of my life, certainly my adult life, observing, studying, reading about, and yes, practicing love in human relationships, and I have drawn some basic conclusions. Whether or not there is empirical evidence to support them, I don’t know. I have not conducted research or collected data from a questionnaire. These are merely statements based on my 50-some odd years of experience noticing and thinking about love.

Love is both universal and personal. We are all hardwired with the capacity to receive and give love, but our ability to actually recognize, accept, and demonstrate it is largely determined by our interpersonal experience. Thus, the ability to love is learned. As parents, we are the primary teachers and models for what our children will come to believe about love.

Ours is an impoverished language when it comes to love. Unlike the advertising or marketing industry, the Greeks understood that what you feel for a stick of gum, household appliance, or car is not the same as what you feel for another person. They had seven different words to describe the types of love people experience. Since we have only one word, it is vital that we reserve its use for the most important people and relationships in our lives. The overuse of a word diminishes its significance.

Love is an action word. In the declarative sentence, “I love you,” love is the verb, the action word. The verbal expression of love can be powerful, but the failure to pair it with congruous action renders it meaningless.

Love changes. Change is not the same as growth. Growth suggests something that can be measured, like height, or counted, like money. Love exists as a quality, not a quantity. We are not endowed with a finite amount of love that can be used up, leaving us empty-handed. The capacity for love is immeasurable. It evolves to meet the changing needs of those involved in the relationship. Love takes many forms and is transformative. It changes everything.

Love is an act of courage. There are no guarantees when it comes to love. It takes tremendous courage to open oneself to the possibility that one’s love may not be reciprocated — to accept that, either way, one’s life will be changed.

Knowing what love isn’t is just as essential as knowing what love is. Mistakenly confusing love with sex, neediness, and material things can have devastating consequences, especially for the young and inexperienced. Providing our children with clear messages about appropriate expressions of love helps protect them against being exploited. Love is not an excuse for justifying unacceptable, abusive, or criminal behavior.

Love is an endless act of forgiveness. Love is strong enough to withstand disappointment, with ourselves and with others. Loving another means choosing not to punish them when they make a mistake. Love offers the transgressor an opportunity to redeem himself after exhibiting genuine remorse. However, love also recognizes when repeated offenses create a pattern and forgiveness becomes enabling, which is not in the best interest of either party.

Love requires empathy. Without the ability to imagine ourselves in another person’s place, it is impossible to know how to love him effectively. Taking the time to get to know, making the effort to understand, and communicating about expectations regarding love are necessary for a mutually satisfying relationship.

Love is a choice. Every day we participate in countless interactions that present us with the opportunity to demonstrate a loving response. Choosing love means choosing kindness, patience, and unselfishness. It means choosing not to be threatened by or resentful of another’s abilities and talents. Love delights in doing good and seeing others do good also. It offers honesty without cruelty and seeks the same. Love is safe, dependable, and hopeful. It inspires us to become the best version of ourselves.

Since love is a choice, each of us is faced with the question: how will we love?

As for me, I intend to love in a way that, like the small grain of sand in an oyster, over time, produces a pearl. Of all the things I might one day be remembered for, I hope it will be that I knew love and loved well. May we have the wisdom to recognize love when we witness it and surround ourselves with people to love, who will love us in return.

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman has been married for 29 years and has two sons. She spent 15 years as a family therapist and parent educator and has written extensively on the topic of parenting. To contact her, please e-mail parent4lif[email protected]

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