“Except as we have loved,” writes Mary Oliver, “all news arrives as from a distant land.”
We can only know what we have loved, in other words. The sense of this — that without the act of opening we know nothing — is transcendent and true.
Love is seen then as a path to the sacred, the one true thing we can all agree matters, when we can’t seem to agree on much else.
Since ancient times, philosophers have suggested that love is an elemental force of nature, like gravity or electromagnetism. The power that drives the stars, they say, is the same force that compels the human heart. John Dewey, inventor of the Dewey decimal system, said as much in 1880s:
The spiritual life [gets] its surest and most ample guarantees when it is is learned that laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe; when it is found that man in his conscious struggles, in his doubts, temptations, and defeats, in his aspirations and successes, is moved on and buoyed up by the forces which have developed nature.
When we see ourselves through this cosmic lens, as upcroppings of nature obeying harmonious laws, something beams inside the brain. The eye of the heart is illuminated.
As St. Exupery reminds us, “It is with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Knowing that love is a force of nature, infinitely greater than the tiny self, we see that the electric resonance from heart to heart is the very pulse of what makes us human.
We’re humbled before this higher power, able to channel love but not create it, cultivate love without being able to kill it. If you block the growth of love in your life, it just finds another way to get where it’s going. Love is never harmed — but we are. We suffer endlessly from its absence. “The love that you withhold is the pain that you carry,” as Emerson knew. We lose everything when we close our hearts,
Love is a verb not a noun, after all. It is recognized through its evidence, its empirical impacts on our life and how it changes us. These impacts include:
Tenderness, which softens the heart and makes us permeable, connectable-with, available, empathic, intimate
Transparency, because love needs truth in order to be real. “Truth is handsomer than the affectation of love,” Emerson reminds us. Love has nothing to hide and no use whatever of pretense.
Love’s desire is to be shared; its nature is to link, to join, to unify. The root of the word yoga is to yoke together. The action of love is attraction.
Love doesn’t blame or victimize. It makes us vulnerable without making us victims. It’s not tit for tat or transactional; love doesn’t withhold itself when unreciprocated. It simply changes forms, changes channels, finds a more appropriate vehicle.
Love carries no expectations. Expectations are always connected to the future and love is only and always present tense. Of course, relationships can’t survive without plans but these have more to do with administration, logistics, practical form, than with the love itself. Think of relationship as a mode of transport and love as the gasoline. Both are needed but they’re not the same.
Love doesn’t seek to possess. This is a complex area because possessiveness has roots in biology. We are wired to latch onto things (including people) for our survival, but love doesn’t have much to do with that. You don’t love the food that keeps you alive, regardless of how much you need it. You can’t love with your survival instinct.
Love provides plenty of space, which only happens when we stop trying to own others. The nature of love is expansion not contraction. As Rilke put it, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.”
Love frees, it does not bind. It leans toward freedom and foregoes entrapment, allowing the other to be herself, to grow, change, reverse direction; to follow what is true in her nature. Love that appears to bind is not love. It’s the shadows of love: jealousy, fear, insecurity, control, aggression, narcissism. Confusing love’s shadows with love itself is a path to destruction.
Love is beyond reason. Even though we must apply rational thinking to the choices we make in love, love itself transcends rationalization. Reason applies to what we can parse with the mind, including our own behavior; it doesn’t apply to the holiness of the heart’s affections, which arise and disappear of their own accord. “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of,” Pascal said. Just try talking yourself out of love, or into it, if you don’t believe this.
Love transcends form. The battery is not the electricity. The shape of the relationship is not the love. They’re related but not equivalent. Love also transcends fear because its nature is to be uncontainable.
Love understands and accepts differences. It knows that relationships are deepened and enriched by diversity. There’s a reason that opposites attract. Love wants balance, not cloning, and leads to feelings of wholeness. Our crisis of belonging, in which many feel fragmented, disconnected, cut off, is nothing less than a crisis of love.
Love makes you feel good, not bad. It elevates and blesses what it touches. It heals divisions, provides meaning, reminds us that we are already whole.
Finally, love finds meaning in action. If we aren’t changed by love, it isn’t real. If loving doesn’t alter how we treat others, ourselves, and the planet, if it doesn’t reveal the web between us, the electric charge at the heart of things, the need to row together, the hard part of the heart that resists connection, and needs to be melted through exposure — that isn’t love.
We need to open outward, to stretch our limits and integrate the natural power of love into a new way of living. To see love in its elemental grandeur. The French paleontologist-priest Teilhard de Chardin put this beautifully:
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
This could be a new beginning.
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