What Is Love? (from 2/8/11)


Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” – Erich Fromm

If you truly want to help revolutionize life on earth and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem, then in all likelihood you will have to learn what Love—Real Love—truly is.

And, what’s more, you will have to take up the learning of this like a task, like a burden and an apprenticeship. You will have to work harder on this—and thus inevitably on yourself—than you do on your other work or schooling.

And if you are to truly learn what love is, you will likely quickly come to the realization that Real Love is much more than a feeling. Rather it is an orientation of our being; a constant or near constant expression of who we are and the type of person we are intent on becoming. It is the foundation for making the vast majority of our daily decisions—What is the Loving thing to do? What will make me stronger, wiser, more courageous, more understanding, more compassionate, more Loving—in short, what decision can I make here and now in this situation or relationship that will help me to become my best and most Loving self?

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken
– William Shakespeare, sonnet 116

What most of us want is an emotion, a feeling, not another person. What most of us want when we’re in love is not the other person but the feelings that arise when we’re with the other person.

And the proof of this is that when the feeling leaves the marriage or relationship, we want out. Or when the feeling is reinvigorated by someone new, we want to be free to go in that direction.

Our primary relationship is with our feelings, and with others secondarily, incidentally.

If we truly loved another, if we truly cared, then we’d do without the feeling; we’d still be able to act lovingly and be a loving and warm and open person even when the feelings of love were absent, or even when feelings to the contrary were stirred up. (No easy task!)

But most of us do not really care. We only care provisionally—meaning providing the other person makes us happy, gratifies us, stimulates us, keeps us content, makes us feel safe and secure and cozy, provides for us emotionally, and doesn’t stir up too much negativity or garbage in us or challenge us too much.

“Now if we examine our life, our relationship with another, we will see that it is a process of isolation. We are really not concerned with another; though we talk a great deal about it, actually we are not concerned. We are related to someone only so long as that relationship gratifies us, so long as it gives us a refuge, so long as it satisfies us. But the moment there is a disturbance in the relationship which produces discomfort in ourselves, we discard that relationship. In other words, there is relationship only so long as we are gratified. This may sound harsh, but if you really examine your life very closely you will see it is a fact; and to avoid a fact is to live in ignorance, which can never produce right relationship.” (– Krishnamurti, from “The First and Last Freedom,” in chapter 14, “Relationship & Isolation”)

Our “love” is the sort that alters when it alteration finds, that bends with the remover to remove. It is an inconsistent, chaotic and ever-changing mark that runs from tempests and is easily shaken and withdrawn. Meaning, that whenever another person makes us feel unloved and stressed, we close down and then we act out on that and push the other way and self-protect.

“If we look into our lives and observe relationship, we see it is a process of building resistance against another, a wall over which we look and observe the other. We always retain the wall and remain behind it, whether it be a psychological wall, a material wall, an economic wall. So long as we live in isolation, behind a wall, there is no relationship with another. We try to live enclosed because it is much more gratifying, we think it is much more secure. The world is so disruptive, there is so much sorrow, so much pain, conflict, destruction, misery, that we want to escape and live within the cozy secure confines of our own psychological being. And so relationship with most of us is actually a process of isolation. And obviously such relationship builds a society which is also isolating, and that is exactly what is happening throughout the world: you remain in your isolation, clinging to your limitations, and you stretch your hand over the wall, calling it “love.” But that is not love. And as long as you cling to your own limitations, as long as you run, as long as there is division and self-protection, there is not love. Love is not the search for safety, love is not the search for comfort.” (– Krishnamurti, from “The First and Last Freedom,” in chapter 14, “Relationship & Isolation”)

So the question for each of us is: which do we really care about more—our feelings or the other person?

“If I love, then I care—that is, I am actively concerned with the other person’s growth and genuine happiness. I am not a spectator in this; I am a participant. If I love, then I am responsible, response-able—that is, I respond as best as I can to his or her needs—to those needs that he or she can express, and even more so to those needs that he or she cannot or does not express. And all the while I am continuing to develop and refine my understanding and insight and wisdom so that I can respond more and more accurately and productively. I also respect him or her—that is, I look at the other person objectively as he or she is, and not through the distorted lens of my own wishes and fears, my own transferences and projections. I come to know this other person as he or she is. I have penetrated through his or her surface to the core of their being and related myself to him or her from my core, from the center, as opposed to the periphery, of my being.” (– Erich Fromm, “The Sane Society,” pg. 33.)

We are all born narcissists. That’s how we come into this world—grasping, clutching, crying out, expecting the world to meet our needs, regarding everything and everyone as an extension of ourselves, not investing in things and treating others as ends in themselves, but using things, treating things and people as interchangeable and as disposable, expendable pleasures.

And it’s a condition many of us are very reluctant to outgrow and leave behind.

Yet the path of growth and genuine love requires that we choose the reality of other person over our momentary passing feelings.

The path of narcissism and avoiding growth is to choose our feelings over the reality of other person—and to never get to the point of seeing or treating the other person as a “real” person.

“Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible—not to have run away.” (– Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 4)

Narcissism means that we will consistently “choose” (or, what is more likely, opt unconsciously, reflexively, by default, out of fear and or past pains and or traumas) to stay small and self-protect whenever a tempest shakes us or the relationship, whenever the going gets tough, whenever negative feelings arise. We will forever run. And we will never be able to “choose” to act to the contrary of the negative emotions that flood or take us over—we will never learn instead how to self-soothe, insert some distance between us and our negative emotions, and instead stick nobly to our commitment and plug back into our best and most loving and compassionate version of our self. We will keep getting hijacked and derailed by our negative emotions.

Whenever we don’t truly “love” others and see them as being “real,” we use them. We treat them as props, triggers, as means and not ends-in-themselves, as ways of roundabout self-medicating ourselves and making ourselves feel better, more alive, less depressed, less anxious and insecure. We use and manipulate others; we don’t actually Love them because we never get outside of our fear and narcissism.

As we grow psychologically and spiritually as human beings, we learn to rely far less on depending on feeling loving in order to do what is truly loving and doing what is in the best interest of another and ourselves—what will help us and another to grow into more genuinely Loving, committed, virtuous, decent human beings who are not easily shaken and who don’t reflexively run from tempests.

Because that’s what it means to grow—to become more and more stable, integrated, and consistent, to become less and less easily shaken, to become less and less reactive and avoidant, to become less and less subject to being hijacked by our amygdala (emotions), to become less and less self-protective, and to become much less sensitive to difficulty and much less aversive to truth and discomfort.

“Life yields only to the conqueror. Never accept what can be gained by giving in. You will be living off stolen goods, and your muscles will atrophy.” (– Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 3.)

A person who is truly an adult psychologically challenges him- or herself constantly and consistently, stretches him-/herself, extends him-/herself, and does not automatically act out on or act in accordance with every feeling or emotion that he or she experiences—especially the negative and fearful ones.

Instead, they act with much more discernment, commitment, virtue; they act with much more facility, nobility, principle, goodness, and perspective; they act with much more purity of intention and much more genuine Love. They see the larger picture. They begin with the end in mind. They choose the difficult right over the easy wrong. They want to work for and earn things. They treat others with decency and respect and they don’t use them. They are consistently grateful, generous, and giving of themselves. They make amends when they do do wrong or when they err, and they make real and tangible changes within themselves as a result of this, and then they lock in those changes (meaning they don’t forever doom themselves to repeat the past). They consider deeply the best interests of another. They are very honest with themselves and others. They don’t lie. They work to establish/earn and maintain trust. They speak and act with integrity/integration. They live very transparently. They mean what they say and say what they mean. They don’t waffle and vacillate. They think win-win. They are not reactive people, playthings of circumstance or mere puppets of their emotions and their limbic system. Instead they are committed to becoming the best and most loving version of themselves possible, and starting now, now, now. . . .

What I know is that real love hurts; it costs; it takes effort. It’s not merely fun and games and good times; at times it’s difficult; thus it requires grit, courage, stamina, dedication, resilience, perseverance, commitment. It’s not for the faint of heart or the faint of psyche; it’s not for those who are perpetually skittish and flinchy and destined forever to break easily and sell out—to drop everything and run at the first or second sign of trouble, and throw others under the bus, and lie and make excuses. Real love is a process, an endurance race, not a series of short easy sprints. And so real love will push you far beyond your current self. It will open you, it will break you open, meaning at times it will shatter you, devastate you, and break you down—only so that you can learn to pick yourself up and put yourself together more wisely and courageously and lovingly. If the relationship you’re in isn’t doing this for you, then you do not know love. It’s just enabling you, helping you to pander to your emotions and protect your egoism and the hidden sickness in your heart.

And if you’re not preparing yourself to love and be loved like this—this wide open and with this much vulnerability—if you’re not working harder on yourself than you are on your job (or your schooling) in preparing yourself for this, then what are you living for? It’s certainly not Love.

And in the final analysis, what else is there really to live for? On your deathbed or when you get the cancer scare or when you have the car accident or brush with death, what will you be wishing for—aside from more time? Search your heart, sound out your depths, for the answer. And in all likelihood the answer will be more love. To have another who loves you deeply and truly, someone who knows you fully and fearlessly, someone who loves you with a lot of grit and strength and determination and understanding. And you will want to have those around you who you have loved similarly and deeply. What you will want is to love and be loved, to be surrounded by real love, and not the counterfeit stuff that is easily shaken.

And you may also find yourself regretting all of those times you protected yourself, shrank from life’s demands and the challenges that real love was offering, because now, at this moment, the veils have been stripped away, you can see clearly what is essential. No one gets out of here alive. The end comes no matter what. The only things that matters are how do you want to go out and how do you want to live in the meantime—courageously and lovingly, or cowardly and self-protectively?

That’s what it means to truly “begin with the end in mind.” And that’s what it means to live in Love. . . .

There is no safe investment. To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.” (C. S. Lewis, “The Four Loves,” pg. 121.)

What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

. Related articles:

19 Responses to What Is Love? (from 2/8/11)

  1. Love it…love it…love it!!!! Loved the book the four loves BTW!!

    • John says:

      Thank you Melissa for the kind words and for reading my post! And that whole section of “The Four Loves” is one of my all-time favorite passages in all that I’ve read!

  2. Your understanding leaves me speechless – a condition I rarely experience. What you have written describes everything I know about love and more and offers a wise guide to further growth. Thank you.

    • John says:

      Thank you so much, Georgeanne, for reading and for commenting and for the very kind words. I am happy that what I have written and shared resonates so deeply with you and still gives you more to ponder and grow on! I am honored.

      I hope you will continue reading and commenting 🙂

      Warmest regards,


  3. michelle says:

    Wow……. i so agree….. i am a skittish person learning how to stand strong in a storm….. what is there in life other than to experience real love, to be loved and to love……… real…… we cover up this with things, money drugs alcohol drugs…. wow….

    • John says:

      Welcome aboard, Michelle, to this crazy little thing called Real True Love. There are many great minds who have thought long and hard about what Love really is, and I try to pass that wisdom and food for thought onto others (along with my own insights and understanding) through this blog. I hope you will continue reading and commenting!

      Kindest regards, Michelle,


  4. k8 says:

    This is a truly refreshing approach to love. I believe I am just beginning to understand what to true love should be (not how the movies depict it). How wonderfully you write. Many thanks for the insights,


    • John says:

      Thank you, Kate, for reading and for taking the time to comment. You will definitely find a view of Love espoused here that is not the norm, but is, in the last analysis, perhaps much closer to the truth, than what is commonly assumed to be “love.” Best wishes on your journey, and thank you again for the kind words. 🙂

      Kindest regards,


  5. Pingback: Love (& a Whitman’s Sampler) | What Is Real True Love?

  6. Love this. It’s excellent.

  7. Pingback: What is Love? | What Is Real True Love?

  8. Pingback: He talks I listen | I Forget To Remember

  9. Pingback: What Is Love? (from 2/8/11) | ldbush21

  10. Soco says:

    Dear John,
    Thank you for sharing your reflexions on love. This is the most accurate, loving and humble writing I’ve read about it… I am so grateful for your insight and wisdom and your will to sharing it with the world. Only Silence and true presence are what I could offer to honor you and thank you. _/\_ Metta
    Lots of love for you 🙂

  11. Pingback: What Is Love? (from 2/8/11) | boundless

  12. Pingback: We are Not Each Other's Soulmates...But That's Okay - Two Drifters PhotographyTwo Drifters Photography

  13. Pingback: We Aren’t Each Other’s Soulmates, But That’s Okay | Thought Catalog

Comments (feel free to speak your mind and even to disagree!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s