Let's be love
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Today is a Tuesday which means it’s ‘new episode day’ for The Silent Why (in the UK anyway, I know some of you lucky people in time zones behind us, get it early on a Monday - yeah, work that one out!), however, it’s also - Valentine’s Day, and originally I had one of our 101 loss episodes scheduled to go out, and even though it was the perfect example in many ways of love and loss, it didn’t seem right putting it out on Valentine’s Day, so It thought I’d do a My Why blog episode instead for all those out there that need something about love today that’s not all red hearts, chocolate, flowers and for those in countries that use this word - candy.
If you don’t have Valentine’s Day where you are, it’s celebrated on 14th February and its history is so complicated and muddy that I got fed up reading it. Basically, it’s named after Saint Valentine but they’re not sure which one exactly and it’s a day for sending gifts and usually anonymous cards to someone you love - although in marriages you’re better off signing your name, much safer. At school, children will pass around anonymous cards signed from ‘Your Valentine’ or will ask each other to ‘Be my Valentine’, but on the whole it’s a commercial day that dominates the card shops with the colour red, teddies holding hearts, and cards expressing extreme undying love, it hikes up the restaurant prices and their set menus, and makes anyone not in a fabulous, loved-up relationship feel like a failure. That's it in a very cynical nutshell.
With this topic I’m sort of talking about the other side of the loss coin really. Love. Do we all have it? What does it look like? How does it have anything to do with loss? And what are the differences when a life is defined by love, instead of loss?
The top five search phrases about love on Google are:
What is love?
How to love yourself
How do you know when you love someone?
What does love mean?
How long does it take to fall in love?
So, what does this tell us about people and love? People want it. They want to recognise love, know love, find love, feel love and understand love.
Very few of us have a life that has never known love. But there are people who haven’t known what it feels like for another human to show them any kind of love - whether family, friends, colleagues, strangers, acquaintances, pets or romantic encounters (not romantic encounters with pets - that’s not ok). And if you’ve never been shown it, you don’t really know what it looks like or how to find it.
Definitions of love range from ‘a deep feeling of affection’ through to ‘a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another’ and cover examples from a parent loving a child through to someone loving football or dancing. And there will be many books attempting to define and explain love, but ultimately, just like faith, it’s almost impossible to capture all sides and facets of it - because it’s so tightly linked to the individual human experience. It’s one of those ‘amazing has to be experienced to be understood and even then it doesn’t make sense’ things, like faith, hope, joy and wearing crocs.
I’m very blessed to have been loved and know love in my life, but a huge chunk of that is down to ‘there but for the grace of God’. If I had been born into another family, or at another time, or in another country, to different parents I’d have had a different experience. If I had been conceived into a situation where the mother didn’t want me I might have been extinguished before I even got to see the world, let alone have the opportunity for experiencing love or lack of it. We take for granted the fact that we even made it to draw breath on this planet, let alone the love we receive and experience along the way once we’re here. And it’s a shame because it’s hard to fully appreciate something when you take it for granted. I think that’s where a lot of hurt comes from in the world, it’s not that people dislike those that have what they don’t have; be it love, children, a partner, a spouse, a mother, a father, a family, siblings, a best friend, a career, a job - it’s often that it’s hard to watch those that have it take it for granted. And nothing really brings this home like loss. When what you take for granted is stripped away, it has a way of clarifying its true worth immediately. And this is the start of understanding the link between love, and loss.
I’m thinking we need to reframe Valentine’s Day, because let’s face it, it’s not going anywhere. Let the youngsters do their thing with the anonymous gifts and cards, after all, it’s part of growing up and it’s kind of fun. I remember the horror of going into work on Valentine’s Day on my year out of Uni (working in my first proper office) to find that my desk was strewn with a Valentine’s Day card and gifts, much to the amusement of my colleagues. I assumed it was Steve, the office prankster I sat next to, but no, he was just sat there gleeful he could mock me over something he had no part in, in fact he’d got in early, spotted my desk and been waiting for me just to see my blushes. Turned out it was a guy in the IT Department that had a thing for me and the first time he came up from the lower floor that day to fix something the whole office sat there smirking and winking at me. Embarrassed was not the word. Mortified starts to cover it. So I don’t want to take away the fun side of the day, but the day is ultimately about ‘love’ and love is like hope - we all need it in our life in one way or another.
However, it’s important you don’t let this one-off commercial day about a dead saint bully you into thinking there’s one perfect romantic relationship out there that you should be in and if you’re not you’re failing or you’ve missed it, because that’s dangerous. It’s also important not to assume everyone else has it and you don’t - just because someone is in a relationship doesn’t mean they’re happy or loved, just because someone is married, doesn’t mean they’re happy or loved, just because someone is rich and famous, doesn’t mean they are happy and loved. Don’t fall into that trap.
Valentine’s Day is about love, unfortunately it’s usually pitched towards the romantic kind, but there are many other types of love. The word is so much bigger than just falling in love romantically. For example, C. S. Lewis wrote a book called ‘The Four Loves’ where he breaks down four different types:
EROS - the romantic love. This is about being in love or loving someone, but not just raw sexuality. He talks about the difference being not just ‘wanting a women’ but ‘wanting one particular woman’. The basis from where reproduction would ideally come from. It’s literally the sexy version of all the loves, with passion, intensity and is something many crave, yet because it is intense it is also short-lived and exhausting.
But there are three other loves:
STORGE - the empathy bond. This comes through familiarity like with our family members and those we are bonded to by chance/fate/design (call it what you will), we don’t pick our families, it’s like the love between parents and children. It’s a natural sort of love, and also a very complicated one.
PHILIA - the friend bond. This is love between friends that are as close as siblings. It’s a strong bond between people with common interests. When you become close friends with someone you will always have something in common, no matter how different you may be in your personalities. This is a less ‘natural’ love because it is not needed to reproduce and it is freely chosen. I think that’s why we love the ‘chicken became friends with a donkey’ type videos - it’s not a normal thing for cross species in natural to hang out by choice.
AGAPE - this is a completely unconditional love, or ‘God’ love, or ‘Charity’ love. It is the highest form of love, a selfless love spread in any situation, even a destructive one. A Greek word, Wikipedia defines it like this ‘it embraces a deep and profound sacrificial love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance.’ And although in theory we might be capable of it, our selfish and broken minds and hearts are rarely able to act in such an altruistic way. It is the sacrificial, selfless love that Christian’s believe God has for all mankind, leading Him to sacrifice His own son for that love.
So that’s four types of love but the Ancient Greeks studied love and named them and have more than that. There’s also: Pragma (a love that matures over many years, like when a couple chooses to put effort into their relationship), Ludus (a playful love that is child-like and flirtatious like a honeymoon stage), Mania (an obsessive love that can lead to jealousy and co-dependency), Philautia (self love, knowing your self worth).
It would be nice to think that everyone who is born would experience at least one of these loves in their lifetime, and many would say that where humans let each other down in this respect, even if we never experience the other loves, Agape, Charity, God’s love is offered to every human life that comes into being; born or unborn. This offers every human being - love. A large part of the God C. S. Lewis and Christians believe in is described in the Bible like this:
The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. 1 John 4:8 (The Message Bible)
‘God is love’ - He can’t not be, Jesus, His son dying was an expression of that altruistic love, and therefore His followers are to show this love to others - something the church is not so amazing at all the times.
Lewis knew and experienced this Agape love, but he also experienced loss in many forms. C. S. Lewis was known as Jack for most of his life by friends and family and this stems from his dog being killed by a car when he was four years old, the dog was called Jacksie and so he went by that name for a while before moving to Jack. When he was ten his mother died of cancer and he was sent away from Ireland to school in England by his father (one of the schools he attended was actually 40 minutes from where we live now in Malvern). He was a strong atheist for a while before converting to Christianity, he fought in the First World War and was injured by a British shell falling short of its target and two of his colleagues were killed. He suffered depression and homesickness, he lost another friend in the war and fulfilled a promise to look after his mother when he was just 18. When he was in hospital his father didn’t visit him. He tried to fight in World War II but was declined. He married into a civil marriage contract with Joy Davidman so she could stay in the UK. An intellectual attraction at first, but he fell in love. She died of cancer in 1960 and Lewis looked after her two sons, one of which had paranoid schizophrenia. He died one week before his 65th birthday but his death was overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy which happened just 55 minutes after Lewis collapsed of a heart attack in his bedroom. He’s buried with his brother about an hour from where we live, in Oxford.
If C. S. Lewis had focused and defined his life on one type of love - eros, romantic love - he would never have left us with the wealth of literature we have now, the theology, the quotes, the war time messages, and most importantly of course - the Narnia books and Aslan. Plus, who knows how much of his friendship with Tolkien also meant we got Lord of the Rings?!
That being said, if there are many types of love, it stands to reason there are many types of loss (hence this podcast). Now I haven’t come across a list of lovely Greek words that describe all the types of losses they researched and named but there are lists of different types of grief according to psychology: chronic grief, absent grief, anticipatory grief, delayed grief, inhibited grief, disenfranchised grief, normal grief, masked grief, etc. And you can see how complicated this might get if you start to look at the types of love and how they might link to the types of grief - which is far too deep for what I’m wanting to explore here but probably fascinating.
But on a basic level, how do love and loss interact and work when you combine them?
Well, loss is love. Love is loss. Nothing we love on earth will last (except divine eternal beings). Everything we love will be separated from us at some point. To know love is to know loss. Hence the phrase - ‘it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all’ - if you don’t feel loss, you have not felt love. A life without loss is a life without love. That’s why it’s so complicated and confusing when someone dies that we didn’t love, but maybe felt we should love. We equate feeling loss with love, but just sometimes we might lose something we don’t love, something we maybe even hated and then it gets very difficult for us to process, because love and loss are inextricably linked, even when there is one without the other, we expect the other one. We expect to feel the loss of a death of someone we didn’t like, because surely that has to be sad, but if there’s no love, it isn’t. We fear losing someone we love a lot, because there’s love there, so surely at some point there will be loss. It’s a very complicated part of our human experience.
Love and loss are like an old stubborn married couple you'll never separate, sometimes they're beautiful together, sometimes they fight, but there's no separating them. You can’t face loss without love having been there, whether that’s the love of a person, a thing, a career, an ability, a sport or anything else. You might think, ‘well what’s the point of loving then if it ends in loss and pain?’ And that’s one of the questions I asked Mary Frances O’Connor on my podcast with her on Grieving Brains. So it’s not a case of having one or the other, you will always have both in your life in some way, but there is a stark difference between a life that is defined by love or defined by loss.
A life defined by loss is internally focused, with concerns for self taking priority, your view of life and others and situations is clouded by what you’ve lost, other things you experience and see are defined by your sadness and grief, and fear will play a large part in decisions, interactions and relationships.
A life defined by love will be more outward looking, you will look to others and have more love for them and yourself, your view of situations and relationships will be more open and inclusive, life will have possibilities and windows for new opportunities, and to quote the same Bible passage on love (1 John):
There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love. 1 John 4:17-18 (The Message Bible)
So, a life defined by love will not have fear dictating your path.
Now, I want to just point out that those early stages of grief and the immediate aftermath of loss, where everything is thrown out the window and you’re just trying to survive, are an exception to a lot of what I’m talking about. At this stage, of course your loss and grief will be all-consuming, that’s very natural. I’m mainly talking to those further down the road or not in extreme loss right now, and only you will know when that is because the timeframe for grief is as unique as we are as humans. That being said, even in those stages, if you’ve learnt all this before you encounter grief, it is possible to have (in the very back dusty corner of your mind) the knowledge that one day you will find a way to hope again, even if it’s not for days, weeks, months, years. My episode on Grieving Brains talked about the science and experience of this being helpful as a tool to have before we encounter grief. I know I’ve found it invaluable in my darkest times, to just cling to, in the back of my mind, the knowledge that one day, I’ll hope again. I’ll smile again. I’ll laugh again. All because I saw others go through grief and reach that point and I was determined I would too. In the right time.
So there’s a reason why you see statements like ‘choose love’, ‘choose joy’, ‘choose hope’ on t-shirts and shabby-chic bits of wood to hang in your house, it’s because;
It’s a better, more fulfilling, more enjoyable way to live your life
It’s a choice - it doesn’t just happen naturally.
And good things will always be harder to choose. Who chooses carrots over doughnuts? When is exercise ever as enjoyable as a great film and a box of popcorn? What child (or adult!) really likes that feeling of telling the truth over getting away with it? Is persisting with your tricky marriage really a better feeling than accepting the sexy affair in front of you? Doesn’t the feeling of giving into that addiction feel so much better than the exhausting daily fight to beat it? Having what you want is a juicier experience than sacrificing it for someone else’s happiness. Wallowing in your loss and grief forever feels more justified than being open to hope, joy and love again one day.
And you might be like - I’m tired, I’m fed up, I need to just be all about me, my pain is all I’ll ever know, I don’t want to be anything else, it’s other people’s job to help me, why should I be the one to help myself, the world owes me - which is your prerogative, but you then sort of turn into the person who refuses to be saved from drowning because a neighbour in a grubby boat has arrived when what you really wanted was the guy down the street with the super yacht. I hate to break it to you, but no one really wants to be around that guy and in the middle of the story he gets very lonely and at the end - he drowns.
And all those situations I just mentioned, they do offer an immediate gratification of feelings that are intense and enjoyable, but just like the eros romantic love, they don’t last, and what’s worse they actually hook you into something that’s far more damaging long term. The doughnuts tempt you into obesity and your body struggles to function, the great film and popcorn will not benefit your body or mental wellbeing long term like exercise can, getting away with something will haunt you forever but telling the truth will free you of guilt, embarking on an affair will hurt many people and will eventually land you in an even more miserable situation than trying at your marriage, giving into addiction will be a short-term high before the crash of shame -that daily battle gives you something to be proud of no matter how hard it is, seeing someone else happy and fulfilled because you helped them will always be a greater feeling than getting what you want selfishly and wallowing painfully in loss and grief will eventually rob you of hope, joy, and love, the three things that have the ability to heal, comfort, make you smile again.
This Valentine’s Day, you might not have eros love, but hopefully you have some of the other types, whether with other people, family, friendships, God, nature, something you love, or with yourself. These are all things worth appreciating and focusing on.
And don’t romanticise Valentine’s Day and believe everyone is loved-up and having a super sexy, ‘you’re amazing, no you’re amazing’ type day. After Chris rushes in from work and I’ve hastily just shoved some food in the oven, we’ll be hosting a Pre-Marriage course on Zoom for couples getting married at our local church this year, probably bickering about the best way to sort tech issues. Not super romantic. It strikes me that even on Love Island, the TV programme where singles go to find love, so often they make statements referring to the bond of friendship between the girls or the boys as being bigger, stronger and more of a priority than romantic connections. There is a beauty to friendships and that kind of love that people see value in, even over romantic relationships. And if you have that with friends, you are probably the envy of a lot of people in couples without it.
And let’s face it, today, many couples will be sad, fighting or separated. Many people will be alone. Many people will have no idea the day is happening at all. Many people are grieving. Many people will be hearing bad news from a doctor. Many people will be facing the death of someone they love. Many people will be focused on finding food and water for their family to keep them alive. Keep your perspective on life and the bigger picture, don’t let the idea of one day being all about romance be what shifts your mood or the overall view of your life.
And most of all ‘be love’. You be the love in someone else’s life, you be the love that brightens other people’s day, you be the love that appreciates yourself for all you are doing, achieving and battling through. Find a way to ‘be love’ whatever that looks like for you. Sometimes I say to Chris ‘let’s be love’ and we’ll hug in a moment when one of us needs it, or at a time of reconnecting after a fall out. If we all choose to ‘be love’ we all get to feel love too.
And if you are enjoying today with someone you love, eros style, be sensitive to how you share that, if at all. Do your single, divorced, sad or grieving friends need to see you boasting about that on social media? Is what you share something that alienates others and promotes self, or is it something that celebrates love and encourages others? There’s very different ways to do these things.
Since thinking about this blog I’ve been tuned into songs and words I’ve heard around me about love. One of them was from an advert for The Lion King musical, the song ‘The Circle of Life’ says:
It's the circle of life And it moves us all Through despair and hope Through faith and love 'Til we find our place On the path unwinding In the circle The circle of life. The Circle of Life, The Lion King, Tim Rice
We’re all on that circle, through despair and hope, faith and love. We all get our moments of feeling love and feeling despair, of feeling hopeless and feeling hope. Wherever you are on the circle, I’d encourage you to widen your view of love this Valentine’s Day, see it, find it, feel it, be it. Because one day it will be gone, so don’t wait for that day to appreciate what’s around you now.
I’m finishing with some snippets of lyrics from two songs I love by The Brilliance, one is called ‘See the love’ and the other is ‘The Gravity of Love’ (you can hear them on the videos below). They speak of love, the agape love that surrounds and chases us all.
Everyday We go to war again We assume we know so much more than them Before we hear what they have to say Headline breaks We start to hate again Calling them names again We give our peace away Hope fades away and then We know That there is pain within We cannot medicate Learn to feel Learn to begin again Open our eyes again To see our brother's pain I hope they see it Cause I wanna see it I hope we believe it I wanna see the love All around you I wanna know That love Is all around you See how it lights you up I wanna know That love Is all around you It's all around you. See the love, The Brilliance
We lift our eyes up to the hills Even as we run Hope is chasing us This is the gravity of love Just as the moon follows the sun You're all around me You're holding everything This is the hope of every land Just as the universe expands Your love is reaching You're holding everything. I see infinite stars One for every human heart And with all of these suns I know I am not alone. The Gravity of Love, The Brilliance