How Do We Love?

Author: Mel Livatino

I once asked a freshman writing class to define love. I had long considered this word one of the slipperiest in the English language, having been put to more selfish and foolish misuses than any other word in our tongue. How, I wondered that day, does one begin to unravel such a tangled ball of string? All I could think to do was to pluck the string with the simplest of questions and begin pulling.

So I just said to the class, “What is love?” When no one answered, I asked the question again. This time their eyes looked off into that blank space where serious thinking is done — but still no one said a word. So I asked the question a third time: “What is love?”

Of course I knew why they were having trouble. We’re surrounded by expressions of it, but don’t we all wonder from time to time just what love is? I had my own special reason for wondering. A few years earlier, a young woman I had been seeing for more than half a decade had said to me one day, “I think it’s time for me to move on.” And so she did and got married, something she wanted from me but which I was reluctant to do. And I learned again how many pieces a heart can break into and for how long those pieces could lie shattered on the floor.

In my misery I did what teachers, writers and thinkers often do when confronted with a serious problem. I put together a shelf of books (32, to be exact) and started reading. When I thought I knew something, I walked into my class one day and said, “What is love?”

I was still standing in front of my mute students when I finally broke the silence with an easier question. I almost whispered it: “Have any of you ever been in love?” It was a trick question, of course, because being in love has as much to do with love as a starting line has to do with a race. But they didn’t know that yet, and I needed to lighten the moment.

Two Asian girls began giggling and averting their eyes. When I called on one of them she just looked at her desk and giggled. So I asked the question a little differently: “How many of you have been in love?” Everybody except the Asian girls and two others raised their hands. “Well, you’re old hands,” I said. “So what is love?”

After a bit more silence a girl in the middle of the class put her hand up and said, “Love is like the warm fuzzies.” “Wonderful!” I exclaimed, saying the dictionary wouldn’t have it, but I liked it anyway and knew what it meant and had felt the same thing myself many times. So I wrote Warm Fuzzies high on the board. Then I asked the class to define the Warm Fuzzies. For the next five minutes we nailed Jell-O to the wall.

When we were finished with the stories of the wonderful girls and boys who had stolen hearts away from their proper owners, I put a second definition on the board. It belonged to the pioneering American psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan: Love is valuing another person’s needs as equal to your own. I wrote it on the board just beneath Warm Fuzzies. They didn’t think it was nearly as much fun as the Warm Fuzzies. Me either. In fact, I said, it could even be downright painful because it meant attentiveness, work and sacrifice.

“But wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all did that?” I asked. It would, they agreed. “Great,” I said. “So why don’t we all do that?” After a few minutes of wrangling, we saw that the problem was the word all — as in the clause “if we all did that.” The problem was that we don’t all do that. We don’t all value each other’s needs as equal to our own. Look at the way we treat each other when driving or the way we elbow each other aside when we’re after something. Even people who claim to love each other don’t treat each other’s needs equally much of the time. Which means some people do the loving and giving while others do the taking and receiving.

“It’s the old story of the ant and the grasshopper,” I said. “Which are you?” Now everyone felt uncomfortable, me included. I didn’t want us to be uncomfortable. I just wanted us to look at this thing called love. I was succeeding, but it was becoming unpleasant. We all wanted to go back to the Warm Fuzzies.

But we didn’t. Instead I put a third definition on the board, Erich Fromm’s Love is sharing yourself with another person to the deepest level possible. Much more palatable, we agreed. Especially the extroverts. But it turned out that their idea of sharing themselves meant grabbing all the attention. Whoa! I said. That’s not what Fromm has in mind. Putting yourself in the limelight is only narcissism. And narcissism isn’t even self-love; it’s just vanity.

One of the 32 books I had put on my shelf was Fromm’s The Art of Loving, perhaps the richest essay on love in the English language. I said what Fromm means is that we should get to know ourselves as deeply as we can and make that self available to others, not as explanation or entertainment but as our way of being with other human beings. He means listening with rapt attention to our own souls and then listening with rapt attention to the other’s soul. He means seeing into that other soul and cupping your hands under it and holding it in its joys and sorrows, anxieties and losses, victories and defeats. He means putting your own soul into the cupped hands of another and trusting that that person will hold your soul with attention and affection.

Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher

“Ever watch cheerleaders who stand on the shoulders of their fellow cheerleaders and then fall backward into their arms?” I asked. “Think of the trust that requires. If those hands aren’t there to catch those falling cheerleaders, they crash to the ground and suffer serious injuries. Fromm means putting your soul into someone else’s care and falling backward. It requires courage, attention and trust. It means you take the other person as he or she is and the other takes you as you are without provisos or exceptions. Has this ever happened to you?”

My students looked slightly stunned. We were a long way from the Warm Fuzzies.

Pursuing love, as Fromm defined it, I said, would take a lifetime, and few of us would get all the way to paradise. That’s because we are lazy, because we are frightened and because our culture of consumption encourages us to seek not love but that which is immediately gratifying: food, sex, entertainment, vacations, alcohol, drugs, wall-to-wall TV, vacuous movies. Each one is easier and much more immediate than real loving.

These students had not lived long enough, I knew, to understand the longevity required in true love’s marination — wisdom found in John Williams’ novel Stoner, “In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

I looked at them a long time, hoping I was letting all this sink in. Then I put a fourth definition on the board, M. Scott Peck’s Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. The definition comes from Peck’s 1979 book, The Road Less Traveled, a book I have now read four times. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read, also one of the most necessary books for our time.

It was on The New York Times best-seller list for 13 years, an astonishing feat, especially in light of the book’s first sentence, “Life is difficult,” and its emphasis on being disciplined. We don’t like discipline; we want the world’s pleasures to pour through us free and easy.

I’ve always considered this class one of my best. I was happy to have put before these young students a terribly important word they thought they knew but to which they realized they had given little probing thought.

Years went by but I never offered that class again. Then I retired from teaching and more years passed and I seldom thought about it — until I began caring for my wife as she developed advanced dementia. Of what use, I wondered, were those definitions when I considered what I should do for my wife, who cannot think, remember, recognize family members or even take care of her most basic physical needs?

In the midst of my wondering, I saw on the news President Obama awarding a posthumous Medal of Honor to Father Emil Kapaun for his actions during the early days of the Korean War. President Obama said Father Kapaun was “an American soldier who didn’t fire a gun, but wielded the mightiest weapon of all . . . a love for his brothers so pure he was willing to die that they might live.” He described Father Kapaun running outside a shrinking defense perimeter to rescue wounded American soldiers despite fierce enemy fire. Then Kapaun stayed behind and let himself be captured by Chinese forces in order to care for wounded American soldiers. The only things keeping those prisoners alive were handfuls of birdseed, and the spiritual and emotional nourishment offered by this calm, humble chaplain from Kansas.

During his imprisonment Father Kapaun developed a blood clot, dysentery and then pneumonia, and in May of 1951, guards sent him into isolation, without food or water, to die. As Obama recounted, based on testimony from Father Kapaun’s comrades, the priest looked at the guards and said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His remains were never recovered. At war’s end, the surviving POWs walked out of the camp with a 4-foot wooden crucifix they had made in his honor.

During the presentation, I thought: That is how to love. And my next thought was: Yes, if one is a saint. I knew I wasn’t, but I also knew I would keep the vision of this good father before me as a model of perfect love for the rest of my life. And I began searching for thoughts about what makes love between two people endure and redeem their lives. I was looking not for the heroism of Father Kapaun — I knew that was far beyond nearly all of us — nor for the theories of thinkers, no matter how profound, but for practical insights my life had tossed up without my quite noticing. After wrestling with memory and thought, I came up with six elements of bonding that make love lasting and joyful, each one borne out by my own life.

The first and most obvious element is an attracting force. Every teenager knows this element. Curves, smiles, eyes, demeanor — such items only begin the list, and I don’t know where it ends. Maybe in paradise. And I’m thinking of all love relationships, even those between friends and parents and children. The song has it right: it helps a lot to like the way he wears his hat, the way she sips her tea — or the way someone beams a welcoming smile.

The sages believe we shouldn’t put much faith in this attracting force because it will likely fade with the years: curves turn to fat, smiles wither, physical beauty may fade. Maybe so, but they might last a long time before slipping away, perhaps even go all the way to the end. During this time, especially under the stress and weight of daily life, this attracting force can help pull us through grim times. And then there’s the memory we carry of our initial attraction. Dozens of such memories have blessed my life for more than 70 years. Who would want to live without such memories?

Thinking of the power such a force can exert over a lifetime, I am reminded of the moment in Citizen Kane when the reporter Jerry Thompson, trying to track down the meaning of Kane’s last word, “Rosebud,” interviews Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s personal business manager. Bernstein tells the reporter, “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896, I was crossing over into Jersey on the ferry . . . and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in . . . and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on and she was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all . . . but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since . . . that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

Something similar once happened to me. I had stepped out of my office into a large hallway. It was 8 or so in the evening when I saw a woman walk by with a buoyancy that arrested my attention. She had silken, shiny, perfectly cut hair, a stunning facial profile and perfect posture. I saw her for only a moment before she turned the corner into another hallway — 20 years ago.

Usually an attracting force is not so dramatic. But it is always delightful. Once, attending a seminar on Catholicism, I encountered a facilitator, a woman with an electric, welcoming smile. As we talked, my only thought was: So this is what’s meant by that mysterious term, life force.

The lack of such an attracting force inside a relationship can be devastating. Some years ago a dear friend told me of his marriage to a woman who was never attracted to him. Though it was 50 years in the past he still remembered with crystal clarity the moment he met her and how thrilled he was by her magnetic beauty. She, however, was cool. They dated for a year, were engaged for a year and were married for nine. In all that time he never once felt her attraction to him. “It was a marriage made only out of ripeness,” he said. “She’d graduated college, and the rules said it was time to get married and have children, which she dearly wanted. I just happened to be in front of her one night at a dance — and obviously falling in love with her. But there was never any desire on her part.”

His anger and longing continued for decades after she divorced him, until he eventually came to see that he was not an unattractive man; he had simply married a woman who had no attraction to him. Contrary to the punditry of the aged, attraction is crucial.

Finding something admirable in the other person is the second element — and the more things the better. This is not the same thing as being attracted, and it usually doesn’t occur immediately. At its best, getting to know the person means getting to admire the person.

I could trot out a Boy Scout’s list of virtues: courage, honor, fidelity, loyalty, honesty, competence, commitment, fortitude, prudence, intelligence, dependability, caring, tenderness and that supreme quality so hard to pin down but so recognizable in time: goodness. These are surely attractive traits, but they are something even greater: they are traits that pull relationships over mountains of rejection, canyons of loss and deserts of sorrow and pain.

When I sit over lunch with my old Army pal Dennis, I am always keenly aware of many of these qualities in him. I am especially aware of his noble nature and his ability to give his undivided attention to what I am saying. His eyes never leave mine, and he isn’t preparing his response. He’s listening. I try to do the same for him.

Fewer than seven miles from my home is another dear friend who shares this same laundry list of qualities. We see each other only about four times a year, communicating instead by email and occasionally by phone. Our paucity of personal visits is a shame, because she always brings solace and wisdom. If I were in trouble, she would be at my door as fast as her car could cover seven miles, and she’d stay until I was out of trouble. Goodness is her middle name.

A third quality that nurtures love is being fun, interesting and a joy to be with. The best friend of my life was such a person. The first time I ever laid eyes on Jerry Segal he was wheeling a cart and slide projector down the center of the main hall of the community college at which we both taught. We had been hired only a few months earlier. It was the autumn of 1968, and I thought he was arrogant. Who did he think he was, this impossibly tall man with dark penetrating eyes rolling his cart down the center of the hallway as if he owned it? A few months later, when a mutual friend introduced us, I found out: he was more fun, more welcoming, more up for adventure, more interesting than anybody I’d ever met. He was the brother I never had. He made my life joy and fun until he died of Lou Gehrig’s disease 14 years later. Not a week goes by that I don’t miss him.

Forty years ago I spent the summer in Paris as den mother to 17 U.S. students studying French at the Sorbonne. Also in the same house, the Maison de l’Inde, was a group of grad students about my age. We fast became friends and often spent our days and nights in each other’s company: heady, glorious days full of joy, adventure and good times. One night on the Rue des Rosiers in the Jewish quarter we heard music coming from a café. On the spur of the moment we began doing a group dance down the center of the street, an entire block of high spirits to which the people in the cafés raised their glasses. Those friends lifted Paris to the second or third power that summer. Though I’ve been back many times, it’s never been the same.

In the first week of August I departed Paris for Venice and a week in Switzerland with my parents. I was taking the Orient Express and my train left at midnight. The air was soft that night and the stars ablaze as I toted my suitcases away from our house. Luigi, a Portuguese-American from Massachusetts who had been the most fun of all that summer, was standing on the stoop of our house watching me leave. He held up his hand to wave goodbye and called out, “Maybe again in Paris!” That was my last sight of him, a happy man with a giant smile standing under the stars and calling out a wish for the future.

My fourth element is so obvious as to seem foolish setting down on paper: compatibility. Well, duh! as the kids like to say. But how many times have you witnessed friends and spouses, particularly the latter, who are not compatible? Happens all the time. And you can only wonder why. Though he wasn’t intending to, some years ago a friend suggested an answer: “We make our friends,” he said, “not by gathering ideal people to us but by taking those who present themselves.” The luck of the draw. In grade school and high school the draw is small, so we may not pull the right cards. But what happens when the cohort expands in college, work and the organizations to which we belong? Some friends and lovers still seem poorly matched, especially spouses. Why?

The major reason people spend their time and lives with the wrong friends or spouse is a willingness to settle too soon for anyone to end the loneliness, to fill in the empty hours. Loneliness can be unendurable. It can make us take whoever comes along. My friend’s wife who never found him attractive threw in the towel long before it was necessary. A beautiful young woman surely could have found someone she was attracted to. Instead, she settled for someone she didn’t really want — and diminished two people for the rest of their lives.

After high school I went to work in a printing plant — a job and life no part of me wanted — and suddenly lost my cohort of friends from the previous four years. I can still summon up those bleak, lonely years. I had not the slightest clue how to go about making friends. All my life they had been presented to me by my schools and neighborhoods. Suddenly, at 18, there was no one. But one guy with whom I was not at all compatible did become my friend and introduced me to his friends, guys who tried to talk like Italian toughs and hung out in a pizzeria and insulted girls as a way of flirting with them. This went on for years. They were my years in the desert.

The spell of incompatible friends was not broken until I began graduate school and found myself in the company of souls like myself. It was like coming upon an oasis, and I began to live — not just exist. For that is what life is like when all you have are incompatible friends or an incompatible spouse: a bleak existence. The only reason you would make such a choice is because it is the only one you have. And then God help you.

Seeing and being seen is the fifth element. It is pure Erich Fromm. Whenever it occurs it is extraordinary and memorable. It is lacking in most of our lives most of the time.

The routines of daily life, the same faces each day, the need to accomplish our tasks and reach our goals: all these sandpaper away our attention and the attention others pay to us. So most of the time we are not beings seen or seeing, but doings running through our checklists for the day, week, month, year. Getting and spending, we lay waste our power to see and be seen.

When I last taught poetry a decade ago I tried to make students aware that a poem was a timeout from daily life, a pause in the quotidian, a moment of seeing. A poem, I told them, is a moment of passionate, patient attention. When two people really see each other — when they allow themselves to fall backward into each other’s arms — they become a living poem.

My good friends over the years — Jerry Segal and my friend from the Army days and the woman who lives seven miles from my house — pay careful attention but never judge. We truly see each other. For a period of several years I shared such seeing and being seen with a condo neighbor at our summer home. All my other relationships at that time had merely been cordial and pleasant. Then one day I met this man who astonished me by the way he turned his attention to what I was saying. He listened with all his energy every second we were in each other’s company. His attention intensified my own presence and attention.

But it is the sixth and final element that is the crux of all loving, and it is a lesson that has taken me a lifetime to learn. The lesson was crystalized for me one June morning a few years ago while launching my boat. Each year a farmer in northern Michigan picks up, stores and then delivers my boat. He is a fundamentalist Christian with four children, 14 grandchildren, and 28 great grandchildren, altogether 62 in his family, with 17 marriages and no divorces. Five of his family are in ministry. Over the years he has become a friend.

Because he has such a large and happy family, I was moved to ask on that sunny morning what he thought was the secret of a good marriage and a happy family. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “You just have to care more about the other person than you care about yourself.”

Easy, did he say? Over a lifetime of trying to practice it and watching others try to practice it, I have come to believe it is not at all easy. Indeed, it is the second most difficult thing in the world. Caring about another person more than we care about ourselves is in fact a crucifixion, for when we love with such devotion we cross out our own purposes for the sake of another’s. But from such a crucifixion spring children, meaning, deep friendship and more love — the best life has to offer. This may make it a sweet crucifixion — but it is a crucifixion just the same. Easier, of course, if attraction, admiration, joy, compatibility and seeing and being seen have been embedded in our loving.

But sooner or later, whether we know it or not, we are still pounding nails into our hands and feet when we love one another.

The only thing more difficult than the crucifixion of love is the crucifixion of no love. We have all known such moments; they bring death to the very center of our beings. For some, those moments become long stretches of life. You need only look into the faces of the displaced, abandoned and unwanted elderly to see what this crucifixion looks like. From this crucifixion spring depression, rage, cancer and heart failure.

If we live long enough, none of us gets out of this life without being crucified. With some luck, we get to choose the cross: love or no love. I was too young or immature to know this on the day I conducted my class on love so many years ago. Had I not been, I would have ended that class by quoting from the closing stanza of Alan Dugan’s marvelous poem to his wife, “Love Song: I and Thou”:

This is hell,
but I planned it, I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.

Love may be the cross on which we are crucified. But it is also the cross on which we are saved.

Mel Livatino’s essays have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Writing on the Edge, River Teeth and other publications. Six of his pieces have been named Notable Essays of the Year in Robert Atwan’s Best American Essays annual. He is at work on two books: The Little Red Guide to Publishing Creative Nonfiction and God: An Inquiry, the latter about the existence and nature of God and evil. He lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Alan Dugan, excerpt from “Love Song: I and Thou” from Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Dugan. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Seven Stories Press,