The Essence of Love: Can We Define It?

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I think back to when I was younger, when my mother would ask me, “How much do you love me?” I would stretch out my arms indicating an amount and cry, “This much, Mammy!”. That was a period of my life when my understanding of the notion of “love” was based upon the merit of affection and appreciation, but as one matures the notion of love becomes fragmented and it begins to represent more than just gentle nature that sometimes infuses people and has them settle into the ritual of marriage.

Culture and society dictate the formal understanding of love, and in doing so sets about demarking all the expressions and behaviours that depict love. In doing so, it dilutes love for what it truly is, and sets about commoditising it. It illustrates it as a soft temperament that is never ruptured by melancholy, despair and regret, thus being homogenised by Disney, Hallmark and just about every entity that may be able to market love as the pinnacle of life, clad with the all the trimmings of unrivalled joy.

Love cannot be universalised, nor can it be subject to criteria that can deliberate upon whether someone is in love, or loves someone. The great anguish that we, as human beings, are fraught with fright by is not knowing whether we truly have cultivated true love for someone – as often we go about our lives not knowing what is under our nose – only until these things come to an end and the anguish of remorse and regret pours over us. Perhaps this is because the understanding we have of love has been spoon-fed to us in a fracas of consumerism in the hopes that the measure of love can be demonstrated through financial splendour and ill-fated endeavours.

So long as we accept every fashionable tenet of love, and preserve it as truth and the pinnacle of love, then we will ultimately never find what love truly is to us. I do not have a definition of love, nor do I presuppose that anyone else’s understanding of such is superior to another’s; I only posit that perhaps everything we thought we knew about love taught to us through our environment is actually a diluted and false illustration of something that revels in the rawness and sporadic nature of people. We have been taught to always revere love as the epitome of selflessness and of happiness, yet it is the ones who we love so tirelessly who we always seem to hurt. The compromise of our efforts and of our lives is what leads us to this intimacy with misery, that which puts many in foetal positions.

I decided to write this piece after I was confronted with the reality that everything I thought I knew about love was in essence false and based upon the assumption that it comprises solely of affection, honesty, loyalty and ultimately happiness. Yet love is the great compromise of human existence that brings two people together in the most paradoxical terms. I was once told by someone that anyone who makes you feel so upset and cry isn’t right for you – yet I don’t think she could be any more wrong, because it’s the people who had me losing sleep and neglecting my health who had truly stolen my heart, which is laughable.

That being said, I do not imply that to experience love one must endure unhappiness and upset. That simply sounds like misery, not love. I searched for examples of what I thought demonstrated love through the library of literature that I had read over the years and I saw that I found validity only in the most extreme circumstances. I ponder upon Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights as I have always done throughout my youth, and I stand alarmed thinking, “Christ. This is it! This is what love is.” Through the vengeance, spite, implied necrophilia – for me, this is love. This is the illustration of the great matter that dictates our lives, either by choice or by a series of uncontrollable events. I do not personally acknowledge love as a substance of either purity or of resolute happiness, but instead as a raw and distinguishable element of all our lives, something that happens to many of us without being aware of it.

I often admitted to people that love is relative, and that experience and perspective portrays it in a different light; so as multiple relationships come and go, one sees that the love that they were certain they felt was actually an amalgamation of naivety, infatuation and dependency – but not love. I stand by this, as I continually see that every time I thought I loved sincerely, I realise that it is diminished by the introduction of a new seemingly flawless partner. But there comes a time in one’s life where the presence of another puts all things into their right place.

There are a number of different theories positing what love is and they differ fundamentally in terms of what faculty of study they preside in. You’ve probably heard that falling in love is three chemicals – phenylethylamine, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and dopamine – which react to supposedly manifest this feeling of falling in love. As time progresses, oxytocin and dopamine are usually acknowledged as furthering the attachment, and thus we have falling in love and loving someone in the sense of a scientific understanding. If you are not content with this definition, then you are not alone. For many, love is instead a manifestation of something unique to us, something that binds us together and is what defines as humans. Whatever truly dictates what love is, it is still after all this time something of mere fantasy and something that will keep Hollywood churning out their definition of love. Will we keep lapping it up?

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Writer and Poet. Interested in cuisine, culture and the arts. I tweet recklessly @sveifla

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