What Love Is (A Definition)

What is love?

I’d basically put it among the very broad family of “the better angels of our nature,” and in the genus of “seeking connection, harmony, and cooperation in a non-zero sum way.” As to the species of this genus, I’d call love “an emotion that draws us into a larger circle of inclusion over exclusion; a willingness to take risks of inclusion, even at risk to ourselves.”

Life, from the first cell to us, always asks as its first question, “What’s in, what’s out?” Every living thing has a border, a skin. It’s a bit like Thomas Aquinas’ essentialism: “What’s this like, what’s this not like? What makes this unique from everything else in the cosmos?”

The positive emotions and joys of the distinguishing intellect prompts the Thomistic will, but then love prompts us back towards bringing what we’ve established as “out,” in (or back in).

So once we have gotten very precise, and made our fine distinctions, and put up our walls of who (and what) is in and out, what then can we reintegrate into the circle of good, beauty, inclusion, kindness, and joy?

Ram Das used to keep a photo of Caspar Weinberger (Reagan’s defense secretary) on his puja table alongside Christ, Krishna, and Buddha. Each morning he would light a candle to all of them. It was a reminder of the spiritual work he still needed to do. It’s easy to love the lovable, but those you find hard to love, that’s the work. Putting an image of your enemy on a puja table is an imaginative attempt at reorienting to love; of risking incorporation.

It’s the evolutionary strategy of the hippie bonobo, not the go-it-alone shark.

That’s what love is.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to What Love Is (A Definition)

  1. Staffan says:

    It rather sounds like love is the inclusiveness characterized by Northwest Europeans, but no so much by any other people. As an evolutionary strategy it can probably only survive in isolation. Because what happens when you love and give to someone who doesn’t reciprocate? Even the hipster bonobo will bite off fingers from someone who steals food. Exploitation and victimization is what you can expect when you love without expectations. If you love that way you need to be very picky.

  2. Interesting post. I especially like that last bit about bonobos and sharks. Oddly, sharks and their vicious individualism (how’s that for anthropomophizing) are a pretty successful evolutionary tangent. Anyway, this made me think of Wilhelm Reich, who says something similar to what you do. That from the single cellular level to the supposedly intricate and complex human, there are essentially two choices. “Open” — toward the world, and “closed” — away from it. And here, at a very primal level, we have the beginnings of the twin notions of “love” and “fear”.

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