WHAT IS THIS THING called love? Perhaps only a fool rushes in where philosophers and artists (not to mention Cole Porter) have already trod. But today is the feast of Saint Valentine, and on this day, at least, even newspaper scribblers may speculate on love.
Never having to say you're sorry is not what love is. Love — true love — isn't being wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again. It's not that old black magic. It's not growing accustomed to her face — or to his. (If the pronouns in this column aren't right for your circumstance, feel free to switch them.)
Maybe love, like a shiver, cannot really be explained, only experienced. So suggests the most romantic love poem I know. In "A Valediction: forbidding mourning," John Donne urges his wife — from whom he is about to be separated — not to grieve over his absence. Mind you, Donne was no angel. Described in his youth as "a great visitor of Ladies," he wrote some of the raciest poetry of his day. Yet only for shallow people, he tells his adored Ann, does love depend on the physical senses. True love isn't so easily comprehended. It is stronger; finer. And distance can only increase it:
But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls, therefore, which are one
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
Desire doesn't equal love. "I didn't marry your mother for her looks," one happily married man I know said to his son shortly after the son's wedding. Meaning: I have made a terrific marriage, and you can, too — as long as you aren't so foolish as to build it on the unstable foundation of excitement and beauty.
Easy to preach, harder to practice. They say that falling in love is wonderful, wonderful — but to judge from our national divorce rate, the real miracle is staying in love. Easy no-fault divorce laws are presumably part of the explanation for the collapse of so many marriages today -- like buying something from L.L. Bean, it's easy to undo the transaction if you ever change your mind — but part of it is also a great national confusion between passion and love.
"If we had a problem," wrote O.J. Simpson, who once pleaded no contest to beating his wife, "it's because I loved her so much." Is that what that was? Love?
Anti-love is more like it. And it's nothing new. Fifty years before Nicole Simpson was found with her head nearly sawed off, the Mills Brothers' "You Always Hurt the One You Love" went gold. It was, and is, a marvelously hummable, danceable song — but the warped sentiment it expresses is a lot closer to O.J. Simpson than to John Donne.
You always take the sweetest rose
And crush it 'til the petals fall.
. . . So if I broke your heart last night
It's because I love you most of all.
Not that I'm an expert. I suppose I know about as much of love, or as little, as any other thirtysomething American single. But I do know what love looks like. I was raised by two parents who derive deep satisfaction from their marriage to each other. During my growing-up years, it occurs to me, I had a ringside seat at a true-love story. Of the many gifts my parents gave me, that has to rank among the most valuable.
"Doesn't it drive you crazy when Mom does that?" I once asked my father, when my mother was doing something I found maddening.
"I'm sure I do things that drive your mother crazy," he answered, not quite answering. "If you love somebody, you learn to accept things you don't like." At 17, I had no real idea what he was talking about. But then, at 17, I'd never been in love, and hadn't yet found out that the quest for perfection is the best way not to find love.
I was around the same age when my mother told me, "Love doesn't grow from the things somebody else does for you. It grows from the things you do for somebody else." Her words must have seemed a riddle when I first heard them. I know better now. As anyone who's ever loved can vouch, she was speaking the simple truth.
So many centuries after Hero and Leander, after Jacob and Rachel, after Romeo and Juliet, is there anything new to be learned about love? Might as well ask if there's anything new to be learned about walking. Some conundrums we have to puzzle out for ourselves. It can take a while to figure them out. Most of us stumble and fall, and fall again.
So what is this thing called love? I'll venture a definition: Love is when another person's happiness is as important to you as your own.
Your ardor for someone isn't proof of love, though that can be an element of it. You may go to great lengths to be with her, you may burn for her, be dazzled by her, want her all to yourself forever and always. That doesn't mean you love her.
But if you can't be happy unless she is, if her joy makes you joyful, if you treasure pleasing her as much as you treasure her pleasing you — ah, that's love. And on this Valentine's Day, I can wish you no better than this: that love is either in your heart, or on its way.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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