Soon, we take the necessary steps of growing older. We learn control. We learn how to fit in. That one stuffed animal you loved for years goes on a shelf. But something else can happen too: all too often, the person who loved that stuffed animal is relegated to the shelf as well. We slice off pieces of ourselves to live in this world. We take on other voices, absorb other opinions. And all this needs to happen to some degree. One can’t be a child forever, either physically or mentally.
We also learn that love and its expressions are conscribed. One may say “I love you” to a romantic partner one has known for only a month. Only, please don’t say those same three words to your friend whom you’ve for known for a decade. This is very odd when you think about it. We can, however, freely proclaim that we love coffee. Or the Italian countryside. The whole business is… confusing and contradictory.
No wonder we’re so uncomfortable with this four-letter word. It’s bad enough in its secular sense, but its myriad of uses in varying monotheistic religious contexts just adds to all our trouble. Indeed, some Heathens convey the impression that they wish we'd neither speak nor write of “love” in relation to our faith. My own opinion is that this is an impossibility. Pretty much everyone is a convert, perhaps with an exception or two somewhere or another. At some point, most of us stepped outside the familiar and listened to a yearning from deep within. Some instinct, some voice let us know that “the tried and the true” were not right for us. We recognized that we were finding beauty, meaning, and completion in a place very far removed from the societal presumptions of either Atheism or monotheism. In other words, we listened to love. And, yes, even if you are following a warrior path, some form of love drove your choice. Recall that Odin Himself is married to a Goddess whose very name means "love" or "beloved," and that another Goddess associated with love gets half His slain. Recall too that Valhalla is hardly the only hall in Asgard, popular misconceptions to the contrary.
Still, it’s not a very comfortable word, is it? The twist here is that our discomfort comes from our discomfort with ourselves. If we have lived on this planet, we’ve all given away pieces of ourselves. We’ve all told our hearts that its longings are not allowed--that whatever the heart is crying out for is “weak” or “selfish” or “too much trouble” or… the list goes on. When we tell the heart that it is flawed, we tell ourselves that we are flawed. We are weak or selfish or too much trouble or....
Abusive or constraining words are not conducive to love. Love requires knowledge: a deep and true knowledge, not a surface familiarity or an itemized list of attributes. It requires honesty about what is meaningful, the sort of honesty we had about the stuffed animal that was loved, back when we didn't care what anyone else had to say about its value. And then, love requires acceptance. This might be the hardest part of all, because acceptance means loosening our very natural desire for control. It means that we must give up our cherished illusion that we have ultimate mastery over who we are, deep within. This is why it can be so hard to love ourselves. From the raw and sometimes painful core, we must release our sense of who we want to be or who we wanted to become... of who we were told we should be or thought we should be. Love is accepting what actually is, as of now, and moving forward on that basis.
None of this is to say that we relinquish responsibility for our actions. Emotions can point toward the heart's path, but they are pieces of a larger picture; this is a topic I hope to explore in a subsequent post. Here, I will note that we do tend to choose a better course from a foundation of authenticity. The chronic alcoholic who denies what he is racks up multiple DUI convictions—that is, presuming he is very lucky and doesn't main or kill anyone first. It might tear him up inside, but for his own sake and everyone else's, he desperately needs to face his reality.
In truth, though, all these thoughts are glaringly incomplete. We can look to great poets and playwrights, to dreams, literature, and psychology texts, but there will always another surprise, another revelation, another mystery--another grief, another loss, another wound--another sunrise and another solace. No summary, axiom, contract, or end-point can describe, proscribe, or define love. Love is worthy and complex and irreducible. If we begin to learn something of it in the course of a lifetime, we have been blessed.