What is Love? An Effort to Define the Undefinable

What is Love? An Effort to Define the Undefinable

Love. No emotion is as all-encompassing or as ill-defined as love. During this month, I’m going to ask for your help, in fact I would love for you to help me define love. Not only romantic love, the pink-and-red hearts-and-flowers that Valentine’s Day has become, but family love, the love of friends, and what happens to us holistically when we’re not getting enough…of love.

Let’s pause for a second. I’m going to ask you right now to, after you read this sentence, close your eyes, get focused, and ask yourself, when you use the word love, what are you essentially talking about? {now you can close your eyes} OK, what was the first word or image that popped into your head? Think of this as a word association game. Whatever you came up with, however odd, symbolizes what runs underneath your efforts to bond with others. Keep it in mind this month, and if you want, let me know what you got, in the comments section below; if you don’t want me to share this info, let me know and we’ll keep it between ourselves. That may be for the best!

What has love to do with trauma, the area in which I specialize? Bessel Van Der Kolk, one of the leading voices in trauma treatment internationally, has long expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of inclusion of a particularly poignant symptom of PTSD:  Isolation. Even those with good-enough experiences growing up, after an overwhelmingly stressful event, start to pull away from friends and family. In my work with couples, one of the chief complaints is that one member withdraws. And for my clients who are barely surviving horror-story childhoods, the uncomfortable dance between the suffocating fear they feel around people and the terrible void they feel at being alone mimics the proverbial cat on a hot tin roof.

And yet we know, from studies too numerous to mention here, and in particular Bowlby’s work, that mammals need touch, need intimacy, need contact, in order to survive. Need, not want. It’s as essential as food, as water. In its presence, we expand, and paradoxically not only become more present to others, but to ourselves. The need to be seen, as in this old photograph of mine, in which a mother and child are making eye contact,

mother and child 2

Echoes Allan Shore’s work on early attachment. When an infant is seen, the child is soothed, and the child’s sense of self (ego) is encouraged. Too little, failure to thrive; too much, and boundaries are violated and the child withdraws. Throughout our lives, our need to be seen, to be understood, and to feel empathy to another’s experience define our level of satisfaction and fulfillment essentially.

So in February and March, I will explore, with your feedback, this extraordinary energy called love. What healthy friendship consists of, the sacrifices we make for romantic love, the biological implications of attachment, and ultimately, spiritual implications as we expand our ability to love, in a very real way, to include the world.

RESPONSES:

in that delicious synchronicity that seems to be life I was just sitting quietly with coffee and winter waking up birds, noticing that full/spacious bubbly/peaceful space of stillness that so many traditions have a word for and that I call love.

Life has brought me to a point –  dragging, screaming, blaming, being stripped down and finally gratitude – of really getting that it all starts inside me.  Love which is gratitude, which is acceptance of what is, which is forgiveness, which is openness to each moment, all comes from within and then flows outward undifferentiated like the sun on flower and weed alike.

 There are other arrangements: deals made with partners, family members, children –  bartering, bargaining, giving, expecting and those are fine and necessary to being human and taking full advantage of this amazing opportunity to experience having a personality.
 
However even the most heartfelt is an expression of that love that is within, that is a return to the source where the infinite flows unimpeded in and out of me and all virtues – sense of humour, patience, creativity, unconditionality, live there too.  And then my love can be felt toward the first morning sparrow hopping on the deck, the drop of water stirring a leaf, the small pettiness that invaded me, the open day ahead.
 
as ever such gratitude for being asked to articulate this. — NW, 2/11/14
I love especially the piece around the seemingly small, beautiful, specific expressions of life. While the comment below expresses the expansiveness of love, this also brings us to the discreet, specific triggers for it. Thank you.

A thorough investigation of love! You ask good questions. What is love? What happens when we don’t have love? For me, love is expansive and runs deeper than human relationships. — LK, 2/12/14.

Lorraine, I think therein lies the secret, that even as we need relationships to strengthen ourselves, the love that is an essential component of this is not limited to this. For me, it’s more like a limitless pool in which I swim and from which I drink, and which allows me to extend myself more bravely to others. That expansiveness is experienced in different ways for all of us, but I think that’s why so many of us are on spiritual quests: to tap into that larger world. Thank you.

Fascinating information about the science behind attachment! I think psychology originally viewed attachment as something that happened when you were a baby. Either you got good attachment from your parents or you did not. What I find very interesting and hopeful is that newer research indicates that attachment is ongoing. That means that there there is hope and healing for our ourselves and our clients – LK, 2/24/14.

You are so right about those traumatized children. Then those children become troubled adults and connection seems to allude them forevermore. And you can’t blame them if they just can’t go on because really they’ve been dying of isolation their whole lives. But because as you say, love is a need, the sheer will to survive drives them to try again as if they forgot the agony of the last rejection even though they have a photographic memory of it and recall even the subtle look that told them, “move on.” But still, they ready themselves to take a walk in the minefield where they lost a limb, and an eye, and three fingers on the left hand. In sales seminars they say it takes 100 no’s to get one yes, but Jesus! And so, one day you meet someone who takes in blind dogs and cats with engine rotor chopped limbs and who collects outsider art and knows something about mental illness and to whom you are highly attracted and she actually sees you and loves you even more because you’re so damaged. A Complex PTSD love story. It can happen. I can’t imagine it happens much. But then you learn how good at love you are although you really suspected it all along. And yea, you’re still being rejected all around you, because you didn’t develop right and people are going to notice that and it continues to cause you pain, but this one, this person is really fundamentally good and kind and she’s a little fucked up (like everybody) too and it works really well. And you might find a couple more good friends. But you keep telling yourself “everything is temporary” because you have to be ready since your body knows the seriousness of isolation. That’s love. – A.Q., 3/4/14

I don’t know if I could communicate the profound threat of attachment as well as my dear friend, A., who has endured so much. That you can come from this place, and with a bravery that I witnessed at many times with awe, step into a life of others, risking love and, yay, finding it, is a miracle to me. Thank you.

Please note that all comments are moderated. The blog author will review your comment and reply. Thank you for helping to keep our community SPAM free. I would also like to publish your helpful responses, unless you advise me not to.

5 Comments

  1. test comment

  2. Inga,

    Fascinating information about the science behind attachment! I think psychology originally viewed attachment as something that happened when you were a baby. Either you got good attachment from your parents or you did not. What I find very interesting and hopeful is that newer research indicates that attachment is ongoing. That means that there there is hope and healing for our ourselves and our clients.

    • Amen! and thanks.

  3. Inga,

    A thorough investigation of love! You ask good questions. What is love? What happens when we don’t have love?

    For me, love is expansive and runs deeper than human relationships.

    • Lorraine, I think therein lies the secret, that even as we need relationships to strengthen ourselves, the love that is an essential component of this is not limited to this. For me, it’s more like a limitless pool in which I swim and from which I drink, and which allows me to extend myself more bravely to others. That expansiveness is experienced in different ways for all of us, but I think that’s why so many of us are on spiritual quests: to tap into that larger world. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *