In 1968, the Beatles released their single, “All you need is love”, a four chord pop song that would become the 20th century anthem for solving the world’s most complex dilemmas.
The problem with love however, is that everyone has a different definition of it.
Whether it’s god, coffee, sports teams, politics, or over/under toilet paper, there are multiple interpretations of the same thing, and no shortage of people willing to die maintaining their dogma, while denouncing yours.
The incessant news-feed posts, videos, memes, and so forth all attempt to highlight the apparent absence of love, and the need for us as a species, to embrace it in order to not only thrive, but to survive.
This week, I’ve watched returning military vets being licked by their dogs, animals of differing species helping each other out of trouble, and a baby rhino desperate for a cuddle from its carer. I watched a video about a guy who spent his life ignoring his beloved mother, only to realize in her death that he turned his back on the one person who stood by him. There was some really tear-jerking stuff. Love is a language that universally binds us, yet keeps us apart.
Interwoven with videos imploring us to give selflessly and to be vulnerable in the interest of preserving life, are articles about politicians going head-to-head, ISIS vs the rest of us, sports teams defeating other teams, and 20 things you must know about why my country/car/house/life/shirt is better than yours.
It’s a fascinating world of fabricated criteria and self-imposed rules, all designed to help us ‘identify’ and validate or de-validate our biases. Who wore it better? What are the Jones’s doing that you’re missing out on? What could your life be like if it wasn’t as shit as it was? When it all gets too much, we listen to some Gaga or Katy Perry who remind us that we’re good enough to be loved, clearing up just enough emotional room so we can consume more bullshit.
So what is love?
We tend to use the word love when it comes to describing a person, food, a place, or even a celebrity (who we don’t really know). A loose term that can encapsulate anything from your friend’s new red shoelaces, to becoming matryr for an ideology. It’s a pretty broad spectrum. At least with coffee or gods, there’s some clear guidelines.
Typically, love is seen as a linear process; a simple line that we can easily place ourselves (and others) to score accordingly.
At one end of the spectrum, there’s despise – the ultimate in hatred. A place where people don’t care what others think, and who dive in with assertive courage. People who will die to defend their hatred of something – or at least put themselves, their property, and/or their reputation in harm’s way. Growing up in a family of judges and family lawyers, I was regularly exposed to stories of people going to the ends of the earth to burn everything down, just so the other wouldn’t benefit – genuine blind anger. When we hate at this level, sacrificing our own pleasure to prevent the pleasure of those we hate is considered noble and gallant (by ourselves), and we believe we are strong, impervious, and convicted. Others would say we’re stupid and blind.
Moving along the spectrum, we have hate. Hate is not as intense as despise, for it isn’t self-sacrificing. It tends to be a bit more logical, but not free of distortion. Hate is still emotionally charged, but it defers to curious logic, rather than just feelings of unfettered righteousness. This is where people point to rules, dogma, and other pieces of evidence to support their view. Hate is also used from anything from labelling groups of people different from you, to biting into some unexpected egg-shell in your scramble. It’s an ambiguous and divisive word intended to state a strong negative position, and draw a firm line in the sand so those around you will back off. It’s usually pretty hard position to change without a lot of ‘revelation’ in the form of a TED talk.
Next we have dislike. This is used when we don’t want to do something unless we’re forced to, or perceive the benefit of short term pain for long term gain. Dislike is a curious one, because it’s arguably the most common position people take when they don’t understand something, have never tried before, or think that it’s hard – it’s the word of the skeptic; the fence sitter; the risk averse. Dislike affords people the chance to sit out but still observe. The benefit of disliking something is that it’s non-committal. It’s completely cool to dislike something one day, but like it the next. If you do something you dislike, you’re seen as brave. If you stand back, you’re seen as maintaining your integrity.
After disliking something, we have the neutral ground of tolerance where you aren’t particularly for or against – just tire kicking and taking what comes our way and contributing back only when there’s judgement. You’ve only gotta watch people at a party who aren’t really good friends with the host to see this one. They take a free drink, spill a bit, look around, and if no-one saw them, they walk away from the mess. Being neutral in life may be safest, but it’s also the most boring.
Perhaps the most famous word next to ‘love’ is ‘like’. Thanks to Facebook, liking can be used for genuinely liking something, to just being able to identifying something that temporarily resonates. Liking something suggests a form of emotional distance; an ease to be involved but not committed. Conveniently, liking means we don’t have to drop our guard to express affection that can be hard to take back, but still allow us to participate when we don’t want to miss out on the fun. Similar to its cousin ‘dislike, it’s also cool to like something one day, but dislike it the next. Liking means giving something a degree of investment, like waiting forty minutes for brunch, spending $200 on a jacket, or giving your Saturday afternoon to a new friend, but you don’t have to do it again if you don’t want to.
On the spectrum of affection, love is considered to be the holy grail. Brands, material items, Hollywood, musicians, you and me, pets, and experiences – all use to love to negotiate, reason, and cite as the ultimate answer to our problems. It’s tirelessly proposed that love will prevail, will transcend, and will overcome all.
For love is what dreams are made of – positivity, smiles, success, achievement, energy, and all that’s good with the world. We then look around at our own existence – the late car payment, the missed promotion, the strained relationship – and we compare our reality with the world that has been repeatedly modeled for us. We sub-consciously evaluate our lack of love compared to the ‘standard’ and seek to improve the score at any cost, as it if were as simple as collecting coins in a computer game.
We try hard to love our life, even if it’s forced through gritted teeth, because the idea of love is considered to be natural, and not requiring education, awareness, or practice. We think that evidence of love makes better quality people, yet can’t help but discover (and seek to deny), that like every other contrasted experience in life (rags to riches, sickness and health), love and hate go hand-in-hand, for we cannot understand or value one without the other.
Don’t agree? Why is it that one minute we can cite our deepest love, then turn on our heel and vehemently decry our hate?
“But love is natural!” I hear you de-cry. Well yes, but so is hate. The sooner we understand the mechanics behind these complex emotions, the sooner we can choose what to feel because we know where they come from. Anyone who has dated or fought with loved ones knows that love is not simple. Unlike the sterility of like and dislike, love (and hate) requires going out on a limb with input, participation and a willingness to take a risk – all things that are the antithesis and arch nemesis of our lizard brain.
The Five Love Languages
We’ve all had relationships (friendship, familial, or romantic) where both people loved each other by their own definition, and standards, mis-communicating over semantics, nuance, and interpretation. Two (or more) people seemingly bonded by a common goal, with very different paths and attitudes to getting there. Remind you of anything else?
Despite its glowing carefree reputation, love is often highly conditional, contextual, and divisive, and is more likely to resemble a minefield than sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
Don’t believe me? In his best-selling relationship book, “The Five Love Languages”, Gary D Chapman explains the multiple ways of giving and receiving love which include:
- Words of affirmation (I love you, you’re the best etc)
- Quality time (I prioritize you over other things)
- Receiving gifts (I translate my feelings into tangible things)
- Acts of service (Look at what I have done/will do for you)
- Physical touch (I don’t touch anyone/everyone like this…)
The tenet of the book is to demonstrate how often we can misinterpret the love we give and receive. Most often, we offer love in the ways that we wish to most receive it, and get butt-hurt when we don’t get it back, all the while not meeting the love-needs of the other person either.
So, if you’re a quality time person who needs time and attention (but your partner expresses with words) then all the ‘I love you’s’ under the sun won’t make up for their seemingly lack of prioritization, or as you see it, “their lack of love”.
Love isn’t just a tangled ball of wires – it’s a tangled ball of wires covered in honey and ants, tucked inside a dark attic on a hot day.
The complicated languages of love are the backbone of pop culture, media, and politics. Love (or a lack of) is the basis of almost all lyrics, jokes, characters, and plots. Despite love ‘being all around us’, we are pretty clueless about it, and defer to others in order to understand it. While we may be instinctively smart enough to know that it requires work, life-coaches like Tony Robbins maintain a booming business where tens of thousands of people annually seek to understand the role of love in their life.
Most NLP practitioners (like Tony) teach the evolution of our heads and hearts. How we start out as an open book seemingly free of debt and meaning, only to build a fortress of beliefs that we put down to age, experience and education. We set these standards with rules, traditions, fables, old wive’s tails, nursery rhymes and so forth, so that we have rules to live by, and justifications for our actions.
The unfortunate by-product is that we are also susceptible to the sunk-cost fallacy, which suggests we become more stuck-in-the-mud when we feel invested, because why would we want to ‘lose’ what we’ve already done? In other words, we become victims of our own dogma; binary machines of right vs wrong and not always because of sound reasoning, but emotional investment.
How does this impact our ability to love?
When we introduce time, distorted expectations, varying cultural values, generational differences, family upbringing and so on, love becomes heavily conditional, laden with expectations, detailed rules, and consequences. Furthermore, those who show it differently are usually perceived as ‘clueless idiots’, ‘assholes’ and other strong divisive terms.
The worst part of all? Our evolution from ‘free-love preachers’ can soon turn into ‘tough-love practitioners’, a polite way of hinting that “I feel that what’s best for you, is what’s best for me and my views and expectations”.
NB: There’s tough-love, then there’s guidance and mentoring. One involves intelligent questions to challenge one’s perspective, another is the dispensing of bullish demands, impervious to other viewpoints.
Backing out of love
Imagine loving someone/something today, then hating them/it tomorrow? Even with all the emotional TED talks and Oprah interviews, society will not support love going backwards, without introducing hate. If you ‘un-love’, you risk being labelled an untrustworthy pariah, and you are arguably worse-off than someone who was a hater all-along.
When we express love, we are patted on the back by peers because it sounds good, but the reality of love is much deeper than words. We can love our new car, love our friends, and love our job – until they ask us to do something we don’t want to/can’t do. The first few times are okay – WE LOVE THEM! – but after the tenth time, we are actively encouraged to question our love, and even to seek love from a less demanding source. It’s all about me.
It’s a fascinating condition. It would seem that love does in fact have boundaries, and it won’t always transcend. In fact, love is rife with obscure rules and limits, that when broken, can be used in a clean getaway to maintain our higher ground. Ask religious parents who abandon their gay children because of the good book if you don’t agree with me.
It’s a curious thing. The world has never been more intertwined with language, culture, expression, art. One would think that we would have entered a state of higher intelligence, yet the courage to express love as empathy, compassion, and integrity rather than self-interested rules, is at an all-time low. Why? Perhaps it’s because we’re a judgey bunch, quick to set others on fire for sport.
The whole premise of social media is the raw expression of the consumption mindset – more is better, better is progress, and progress means not settling. When you think about it, love is sold as an indefinite commitment, but indefinite commitment is sold an anchor, and an anchors are likened to settling. And who wants to settle nowadays when we can HAVE IT ALL?
So we like the idea of love, but not the reality of it, so we fudge it.
What reason is there for people to love, when liking will do?
When we can alternate so easily between like and dislike – and be openly accepted by our peers, why would we risk going down the road of love, which we cannot return unscathed from?
We have championed a culture of avoiding love at all costs unless it’s on our very specific terms (which we don’t have enough self-awareness to articulate).
It seems that the more the love agenda is pushed, the more evident it is that we have no common or simple idea of what love is. It could be posited that love is no different from religion, politics, and sports teams – highly personalized, highly governed by customized beliefs, and laden with gotchas and clauses. And this means people want to avoid it like the plague.
Next time you watch someone hurt themselves, have their heart broken, or achieve greatness, listen to your own heartbeat. You will notice that you can almost feel what they’re feeling. An elevated heart-rate, sweating palms, and a rush of endorphins. That feeling of being connected to another person’s situation is your natural empathy at work.
It’s the same reason why those animals helped each other in need. The rhino didn’t spend years watching rom-coms or listening to Usher, developing rules, stories and expectations. The rhino was driven by the same natural instinct that protects him from hunger and danger. At their core, living creatures want to survive and thrive, and looking out for one another is part of that process.
Humans are animals! (until we’re not).
In various studies of babies, subjects were put to the test to determine degrees of empathy and morality. For a long time, the view was that all babies were born as a blank slate and are entirely crafted by the world they were raised in. Psychopaths were said to be a product of loveless childhoods, rather than them being a physical anomaly to the gene pool.
However, the data of multiple studies suggested there was more to it than that.
It was found that babies would not only cry when others cried, but also attempt to soothe those in pain around them with the offering of a toy or a pat. When they perceived people in need, they would attempt to help (such as picking something up out of reach), and would start to explore the notion of sharing vs ‘mine’. It was revealed that their natural state of empathy was a condition of nature, rather than just nurture.
So if we correlate the idea of empathy and compassion with ‘love’, why is it that children are seemingly so loving but grow up into narcissistic, selfish adults? Perhaps it’s worth looking at the ‘nurture’ side of the equation.
One thing humans are the best at, is creating meaning. Unlike another other species (who also have memories, empathy, grief etc) we are the lucky species who get to make up things, then make them mean other things (especially when there’s no actual correlation).
It’s brilliant – emotional imagination allows up to invent things that don’t yet exist, and make them real. On the other hand, it’s also terrible, because we create rules and systems that fuck with our animal instincts, and blur manufactured morality with natural urges.
One such concept is the idea of ingroup-outgroup theory, and it goes like this:
You have a group of friends at your place for a BBQ. You are all good mates and would help any of them at any moment.
Being a sunny day, you choose to play a game of backyard cricket and divide into teams. Suddenly, before long, your best mate is now your worst enemy, and even through the guise of friendly summer celebration, you want to beat him. To outdo her. To defeat him.
The concept of ingroup-outgroup theory is that we create sides in order to compete without empathy slowing us down. Creating sides allows us to create binary terms of us vs them and winners vs losers. If everyone was on the same team, then we would have no reason to outdo one another. If asked to beat one another without division, our sense of instinct would step in and prevent us from hurting or taking advantage of our mates.
In order to compete, we must ‘dehumanize’ those we seek to beat and what better way than to associate a new identity in the form of a flag, jersey, name, or team? As a result, the faster we can dehumanize, the easier it is to inflict our will onto others, to favor our own view, and to denigrate theirs. It’s a game of sides – winners versus losers. It helps us to disconnect our emotions, and we are at risk of being unable to reconnect it.
The creation of binary groups can be so overwhelmingly powerful that seemingly normal people will murder their own family with a misguided sense of ‘representation’ and ‘respect’. The scariest thing about ingroup/outgroup theory is that dehumanization can go to such an extent that we believe the opposition deserves whatever misfortune happens to them.
Through education, movies, tv, music, politics, homes or communities, our beliefs have been crafted to consider all information in the form of taking and championing a side. The fight for right vs wrong, good vs bad, in vs out, and us vs them. The prevailing attitude being, “if you’re not with us, you must be with them”.
Who’s defining these parameters?
When we pull the focus back from sports teams, and instead focus the conversation toward the homeless, elderly, criminals, addicts, and minorities, it’s distressing to see how quickly and easily we are willing to dehumanize others in the name of love, simply to justify our beliefs. In fact, one only needs to compare the public outcry between various atrocities around the world, and the confusing irregularity to which we apply our empathy. What’s worse, we’ve manipulated love into social commentary, a public judiciary of who deserves what, and a curation of group logic to solidify a bias.
That said, it’s not all demonic – used thoughtfully, ingroup/outgroup theory provides entertaining competition in the sense of World Cup sporting events, Olympic Games, and commercial contests which lead to innovation and technological advancement. It can be a great thing – but we need to find some balance and consider our addiction.
What does this have to do with love?
One of the most frequent challenges I’ve found in love is constant competition.
Left unchecked, playful banter can soon turn into a game of outdoing one another at any cost. If we’re not careful, love becomes about ‘you vs me’, and not about ‘us’, with rules, conditions, and requirements. Before we know it, ingroup/outgroup theory kicks in and we are at risk of dehumanizing the very person/people we purport to adore.
In the era that celebrates and values every individual as their own brand, it can be mentally overloading trying to navigate the world of love for others, and love for ourselves. As a result, we defer from getting too involved in favor of hovering between disliking, tolerance and liking; one foot in, one foot out, and waiting for someone else to tell us whether it’s safe to jump in, or if we should leave.
However, every once in a while, one friend, or project, or item slips through the cracks and we create an exceptional rule. It often catches us by surprise and we can’t explain it. It’s the jeans we keep mending, the friend we never give up on, and the project we accept will never end. When someone asks about why we persist with these, we cite ‘true love’ – as if somehow all other love was in fact, fake all along. Just perhaps, ‘true love’ is in between the broad strokes – the real moments between Facebook Life Events, selfies, and public displays of affection. True love is in the despair, the uncertainty, and the silence of ‘what do we do now?’
The funny thing about true love is, that depending on your perspective, it can be easily mistaken for despise. A place where people don’t care what others think, and who dive in with assertive courage. People who will die to defend their love of something – or at least put themselves, their property, and/or their reputation in harm’s way. When we love at this level, sacrificing our own pleasure to enable the pleasure of those we love is considered noble and gallant, we believe we are strong, impervious and convicted. Others would say we’re stupid and blind.
We’re desperate to feel connected to ourselves, each other, and our community. We want to love, and we want to be loved. The trouble is there are too many rules, too many conditions, and a framework that encourages the taking of sides. The celebration of the individual might be good for business, but has it killed our willingness to connect without rules?
Talking about conditional love is what we offer. Empathy, compassion, and being willing to ignore ‘sides’, is the love we want but don’t know how to give. Perhaps if Maya Angelou collaborated with the Beatles, we’d be more aligned.
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” – Maya Angelou