What is Love?

Author: Fr. William Most

Fr. William Most

What is Love?

Am I in love? Most young people, especially when in their teens, ask themselves that sometime. They know it feels good. They want to have happy life, and they think - and are not so wrong-that a good choice of a marriage partner makes a vital difference. It does.

But even though there is perhaps more talk of love today than in the past, yet not everyone - even Ann Landers - knows what love is. They think it is a feeling. Thank heavens it is not merely that. You could not build a lifelong marriage on feelings -they flicker too much. So we need to investigate.

We start with a remarkable idea from modern Psychology, namely, Somatic Resonance. It says this: since we are made of two parts, body and soul, matter and spirit, and since, further, these two are so closely put together that they make just one person -then, as a result, if I have a condition on one of the two sides, for smooth running I need a parallel condition on the other side.

To illustrate. A great innovator in modern psychology was Thomas Vernor Moore. He practiced psychiatry in D. C. One day, he reported in a book, that a man who had manic depressive psychosis came to him for help. At the time, he was down in the deep black part of the cycle, in depression. He said he was losing his faith. Moore in writing it up said no, the man was not losing his faith. He said the real trouble was this: the process - Moore meant biochemistry - of his disease was interfering with the somatic resonance to his faith.

Here it is: faith was of course, on the side of the spirit, but the bad chemistry was on the side of the body. Because of this remarkable tie between the two parts, that bad chemistry affected what he thought was his faith. It could not expel faith - when the patient came up out of that black swing he still had his faith. But it was keeping faith from functioning. No wonder the poor man thought he was losing his faith.

We can use this idea of somatic resonance. We ask: where in a human is love? We reply, it is basically on the side of the soul, but it normally has a resonance in the body.

We are glad to learn this, for something in the spiritual soul can last even a lifetime; something on the body side alone would be unstable, would flicker.

At this point we get some help from the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He said that to love is to will good to another for the other's sake. Scripture implies the same. In John 3:16: "God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, so people might not perish, but might have eternal life." We see: His love was so great it led Him to go so far as the terrible death of His Son to make that eternal life possible for us. Why did He go so far? Easy to see: He wants, wills that we have eternal life, that is, eternal happiness. He does want us to be happy in this life, but most of all He wants us to have a happiness that never ends, a happiness beyond our wildest dreams, really, a share in divinity itself.

What do we see by now? We see that love is basically in our wills, it is the will, wish, or desire for the happiness and well-being of another for the other's sake. But we see too: in normal human running, there is normally should be a resonance to that on the side of the body. What is that? There is a broad spectrum of things that can be the resonance: at one end of the scale is the nonsexual love of parents for their own children - at the other end is explicitly sexual response - and points in between.

But now we see there is room to make a mistake. Someone could mistake that biochemistry, that bodily part of the picture, for the central thing, for love in the soul. And if he/she would not only make that mistake, but marry on the strength of a mistake - no wonder the failure rate for marriages today is around 60%. That is enough to make any sensible person really careful. A failed marriage is one of the greatest tragedies of a lifetime. So we need to watch out.

Then: how can anyone tell if he/she has real love, or only just chemistry that mimics love? Ann Landers seems not to know how to tell. But there is a way. To understand it, we need to look at the tremendous psychological design made by our Father in Heaven.

We all start out life as babies - no other way to do it. But a baby is perfectly selfish. If he could talk he would say: These big giants around me - they are here to give me what I want, when I want it, as I want it. Or I will fix them: Waa!

Is such a baby ready for real love, for willing good to another for the other's sake? Far from it: it is completely in a shell of self. But then: How get away from that shell to the point where he can really be interested in the well-being of another for the other's sake? That takes some doing. Our Father's plan has arranged a marvelous machinery as it were. If we use it the way He built it, it will work wonders - if not, the results may look good, but will be foul on the inside, and in time, one must pay.

We follow the development. Baby soon plays with other little ones, and soon makes a horrifying discovery: "Why that little guy thinks he has some rights - he does not. I am the only one who has rights." They are fighting over a toy. There are many such incidents, and a beginning is made of chipping away at the shell of self.

Around age 9 for boys - and similar for girls - comes a time many psychologists call the flight of the sexes. Little boys have no use for little girls - and vice versa. But this too is part of our Father's plan: He wants them to run away from each other to develop their own special characteristics, to prepare for the next stage.

This next stage comes automatically, when biochemistry changes, when certain hormones start to operate. Then, to his surprise, one day little boy sees a girl, and says to himself, "She is wonderful, marvelous!. If he had merely said she is a good conversationalist, plays tennis well etc. - nothing much has happened. But if he uses such words as wonderful or marvelous, he has been hit. And really, he is glad he has been! There is of course a parallel development in the girls.

In this new phase two powerful processes begin to work. If we use them the way our Father has planned, they develop real love - if not, only a sad counterfeit that look the same to a confused eye.

First, love as we said means willing good to the other for the other's sake. Psychologically the process starts when a boy or girl sees something fine in the other: this leads to the reaction: So fine a person, I hope he/she is happy and well off. Then if that is strong, he/she will even want to try to make it happen, to bring about this happiness and well-being.

Now this starts if one merely sees the other as fine or good - what if he/she sees the other as it were in a magic light, so that he/she says: wonderful!

Then we have a powerful starter for real love. But it is only a starter. It is so vitally important to play the game in such a way that it really does develop love, instead of just a fake chemical counterfeit.

But as we can see, this process only tends to develop love. A person can wreck it all without knowing it. Really he/she can wreck it, make it turn out just a fake, and not even know it. How? Will explain.

There is a second process at work at the same time. We explained above the moderns psychological idea of somatic resonance. Now when hormones begun to bubble, they start up the somatic resonance to love. But it is so important not to mistake the resonance for the real thing. But if one plays it right, it will develop love, even great love.

We said something can go wrong - or rather, the person can make it go wrong. In two ways: First if he/she uses sex for private entertainment, masturbation, that does not get one out of the shell of self where he/she started. No, it turns one back right into that shell - a poor forecast for a happy marriage which needs real unselfishness and love.

The second way takes two, namely, two people use each other for sensory pleasure. That word use is really right: if they do that, they are not only not watching for the happiness and welfare of the other - they are putting each other into a state such that if death happened along, they would be miserable forever. This is more like hatred than love, for there is no willing good to the other for the other's sake. They, we said, are using each other.

It is easy to see that real love can hardly develop when they are using each other, instead of really wanting the happiness of the other. Yes, they are giving sensory stimulation, very strong at that. But that is not the same as love.

But, tragically, this will feel the same as if there were real love, the biochemistry is identical. But in such a premarital pattern real love could hardly develop. It is closer to hatred. since it endangers the real, permanent happiness of the other.

Next we see: it is so easy for a person to make the mistake of a lifetime, in mistaking chemistry for love. In time, when emotions simmer down after marriage, he/she will find out it had been only chemistry. Can this really happen? Ask any marriage counselor. He/she knows so sadly that it can easily happen. No wonder the marriage failure rate is about 60% today.

But to look at the pleasant side of the picture: if the people play the game as our Father designed it, it will really develop powerful love, and make for a happy life in the future. Male and female psychology are terribly different. A recent popular book had the title You just don't understand. It means that when the wife says something, it is very apt to register as something quite different on the husband's ears. And vice versa. They really have to learn to translate.

During courtship, these differences cannot be seen - they are all papered over by intense emotion. But as we said, after marriage, things do simmer down - and then they find out. They may find themselves locked into the same house with someone they do not really love at all. This is a real tragedy, one of life's greatest tragedies.

Even in a fine match - does not always happen - each one will be able to say honestly: I have to give in most of the time to make this work. But if they play the game as our Father designed it, they will find that they can make the sacrifices that are needed and can be quite content and happy in doing so.

Further, parents can and often do develop marvelous generosity to each other. And if children come - babies are so cute part of the time, pesky part of the time - then this generosity spills over onto them. The generosity of even ordinary parents to their children often is astounding. An insurance commercial said: When you have children, their goals become your goals.

In fact, if they positively intend to do things and accept sacrifices as part of our Father's plan, then marriage is, as Pope Paul VI said, "a long path toward sanctification. Then, for example, if baby cries at 3 AM, if the Mother or Father intends taking care of it as part of our Father's plan, then that time can rightly be called a holy hour. A religious getting up at the same hour knows he/she can go back to bed in 60 minutes - with baby , it is quite uncertain.

So one needs to be intelligent and smart, to understand how it all works, to realize what the system is that the Father has produced for our happiness, both here and hereafter.

But: how can one protect against making the dreadful mistake some make, who react in the opposite way? First of all, as we said, play the game the way our Father has designed it. That really will generate love. But also, have enough good sense to ask for help.

In some countries, even in so advanced a nation as Japan today, young people often ask for an arranged marriage. They say to themselves: I am so blinded by feeling now, I cannot really what the other party is like. There is even a saying, in the U.S.: "You marry a stranger." So they ask the older people to arrange. Legitimate use of sex can and will generate love in an arranged marriage.

One need not go that far - but at least, he/she should have the good sense to ask for help from two kinds of people - the people of their own age, and older people.

Young people of the same age - probably they do not have the same romantic infatuation as the prospective couple. They can see straight. To ask for this help from good friends of one's own age is very valuable. One is not bound to follow it- but should be terribly careful about vetoing it.

Older people, as we said, see it differently. And they too have been young once, and they can remember what it is like. If they veto a partner, the young people are not obliged to follow them. But again, it is only good sense to be very slow to go against it.

As we said, male and female psychology are tremendously different. Even in a fine match, there will be disagreements, probably some of them strong, in a marriage. But what if one marries someone of a very different culture , or even a different religion? Then the potential for trouble is greatly multiplied. Again, one with good sense will use really great care.

Our Father does not give us commands because He enjoys using authority. Really it does Him no good at all if we obey." The words, serving God" are not really very accurate: He cannot gain anything from anyone. But He does want us to follow Him for two reasons: 1) He loves everything that is good - goodness does call for us to follow Him; 2)He wants intensely to give us good things and happiness. But it is one thing for Him to be willing, another for us to take these in. For that, we need to be open to receive: His commands really are instructions about how to be open. At the same time, they steer us away from booby traps that lie in the very nature of things - such as hangover after a drunk, or a loveless marriage after a lot of premarital sex.

Some time back, when we first had electric fridges, the instructions used to tell us that if we want it to be cold, we must at intervals defrost, take the ice out. Someone might say: That manufacturer is silly: ice makes things cold. Similarly, to one in a daze from emotion, our Father's plans may seem foolish. But He is our manufacturer. He knows how we are built. If we did not defrost the old fridge, it would not work well - neither will a human life work well if we do not follow His principles, which tell us at times to do what our feelings seem to say is a mistake.

He wants out eternal happiness so much He sent His only Son to a hideous death to open up the possibilities of eternal happiness for us. Cannot we trust Him? He wants us to be happy here, and hereafter too.