Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 Jn 4 v7
To say ‘I love you’ seriously in any circumstance is among the most significant things we can ever do; it can have huge and long lasting implications for both the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, whatever happens next. It’s not the kind of thing anyone should want to say insincerely, or thoughtlessly, or out of obedience to convention, or against their better judgement. So it’s a good idea to be as clear as we can be about what it means. Unlike ancient Greek, English doesn’t distinguish different sorts of love: lovers ‘love’ each other, parents ‘love’ their children, friends ‘love’ each other; God is said to ‘love’ us. Always the same word: love. The fact that English has a bigger vocabulary than any other language suggests that this isn’t an accident; it suggests that maybe there is something similar at the core of all these loves that perhaps the Greeks overlooked in their desire for unambiguous definitions. At its most basic level, ‘I love you’ conveys a speculation: ‘I being I and you being you, I sense that we could do wonderful things together’; in the light of that speculation it offers an invitation: ‘I’d like you join me in enjoying doing those wonderful things.’ The first thing to notice is that love is personal; it’s about you as you and me as me. That means that to love someone you need to have a reasonably clear understanding of who you are yourself – your strengths and limitations, hopes and fears, expectations and blind spots, values and hang-ups, sexuality and status; that’s one reason why love is for grown-ups. You also need some idea about these aspects of the person you may be about to tell that you love them; at the very least you need to understand that he or she has all these aspects, just as you do. You can’t love humanity in the mass; you can only love individuals.
If you love someone, you will take time and make efforts both to build your relationship with that person and to work on your shared activities – those ‘wonderful things’ you could do together. But it’s important not to think of these contributions as fulfilling the demands of the other person; if you make that mistake, you will resent making them, and your resentment will communicate itself and rot the foundations of love. They must rather be freely given – and that ‘must’ is a logical not a moral ‘must’. Similarly, the contributions the other person makes must not be thought of by you as some kind of quid-pro-quo for your contributions. As the Jesus teaching points out, life in everyday society can be successfully managed only through a common sense of reciprocity, of give-and-take, forgiving as we ask to be forgiven. Love takes this a stage further, because it envisages doing wonderful things with a particular person, not just rubbing along with the people you happen to come across. For reciprocity to work, both sides have to know about it; one of the characteristics of love is that it sometimes makes us want to do things for the other person that they will never know about, and it may be that it’s when we find ourselves doing such never-to-be-known-about things that we discover that, yes, it really is love.
Love is about doing wonderful things together, but it’s not about achieving wonderful things. It is the ‘doing together’ that makes it love, not any ‘achieving’ that may or may not be the result. Take the most obvious use of ‘I love you’, said between a man and a woman: the wonderful things they will no doubt do together include sex; if that sex produces children that’s a wonderful added extra. And if they do have children, the possibility of a further wonderful thing to do together opens up, the wonderful shared activity of bringing up members of the next generation; if what those young people do with their lives is itself wonderful, that’s a wonderful added extra. Of course some people do marry in order to have children, and they do their best for those children in order to see them grow into successful adults. Love however never does anything in order to achieve something wonderful; love does what it does because doing that is itself wonderful. And when people get together in order to achieve something beyond their relationship, there is the rather unsettling question of what happens if they don’t achieve what they set out to achieve, or indeed after they have achieved it.
The reason that question is unsettling is that we humans are not principally satisfied by achievements; we are not made that way, because for tens of millennia, our fully modern human ancestors ‘achieved’ practically nothing: no ‘progress’, no ‘development’, no ‘improvement’ – or at any rate, none that any individual would have noticed. We like them are evolved to enjoy principally our relationships with each other. We often, quite rightly, contrast love with law as a guide for life, but love also contrasts with being results-oriented. What both law and being results-oriented have in common is that they are consciously controlled activities: we consciously write laws and consciously obey them, or we consciously stipulate our goals and consciously work out how to attain them. They are activities we feel we can do without having much awareness of anything beyond our conscious selves. Love calls for a great deal more self knowledge, or at least self awareness, including awareness of the resources we have access to that are not under our conscious control. And one word that can be used for such resources is ‘God’.
Can anyone really promise to love someone else ‘till death us do part’, rather as they might promise to pay back a loan over the course of a lifetime? No, because loving someone is not a contract. But because we are made the way we are, long term relationships give us immense satisfaction, richer and deeper than either our achievements or any relatively short-term relationships. If sticking to the letter of a contract is not the way to make relationships last, we need some other more effective glue. There can be no more effective glue between people than the recollection of an ever-growing number of wonderful things done together. No surprise then that some of those wonderful things are called ‘making love’.