On The Meaning of Love

No matter how much I think I understand about some things, I find I can always learn more. Love is one of those things. Love is the only thing I can think of that is as important to life as purpose. Life without purpose is meaningless, but life without love is hardly worth living. I have written a good bit about love over the years in my books and essays. Love probably has about as many different definitions are there are people capable of loving. There are also different kinds of love. One essay on the subject identifies: “family love, friendship love, conceptual love, and intimate love.” I would add Godly Love to that list. Love is one of the most frequently referenced words in the Bible. Love probably is the most used, confused, misused, and abused word in the English language. However, as one essayist concluded, “Love is the most powerful force in the entire universe.”


I have frequently recalled the classic line from a 1970 hit movie Love Story: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” I have never fully understood that line. According to Aristotle, love is “unequivocally and emphatically altruistic: one wishes and acts to realize good things for the other’s sake.”  I would think if a loved one had suffered pain, the lover would feel sorrow and want to express their sympathy. I always wondered if the scriptwriters knew something I didn’t know about love.


Over the years, I have come up with my own definition of love, which I feel encompasses all of the others. It is not a particular catchy or compelling definition, but it is concise – and I think “it works:” Love is a belief in inherent goodness. The object of love can be a person, an animal, an inanimate object, an image, or even an idea – anything that might be inherently good. True love does not require logic or reason but instead is a matter of belief or faith. Falling in love and out of love are emotional rather than rational acts. Regardless of whether a person falls in love without thinking or learns to love after much thought, people who are “in love” are blind to evidence that their faith might be unfounded.


A teenager in love can see no possible fault in the object of his or her affection. A mother who loves her son simply will not believe the person who committed a horrendous crime is the same person she raised as a baby. Artists cling to their favorite words and images and scientists to their ideas as if they were creations of God. The Bible states: Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” Regardless, it takes many betrayals to convince lovers that the objects of their affection are unworthy of their love. At the very least, relationships often end long before the love that formed and bound them ends or fails.


Love expects nothing in return. “In the Rhetoric Aristotle affirms that philos [friendship love] wishes “what you believe to be good things, not for your own sake but for his, and being inclined, so far as you can, to bring these things about.” He goes on to explain that “friendship” depends on reciprocity or the expectation of receiving something in return from the relationship. The expectation may not be specific with regard to what, when, or how, but to have a friend you must be a friend. However, the loving aspect of a friendship asks and expects nothing in return, and the love, or belief in inherent goodness, may endure long after a friendship has ended.


I was reminded of this altruistic nature of love by a guest lecturer in our Economic Sustainability class, Rohana Ulluwishewa, who Skyped into our class from Sri Lanka. He emphasized that an act of love is made with no expectation of anything in return. Logical and rational concerns for the sustainability of humanity are rooted in a belief or faith in the inherent goodness of life on earth – including both human and non-human life. Many acts essential to enhancing the quality and integrity of life on earth, including the lives of other people, must be acts of love – made with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Acts of love require no reciprocal action for confirmation, justification, or validation. They are simply the right thing to do.


Admittedly, love may mean “never having to say you are sorry.” However, if we believe in the inherent goodness of life, we should “never forget to say we are sorry” when we have done something that is hurtful to others – and we should vow to be more loving in the future. If we truly love life, we should feel sorry for the lives needlessly sacrificed to selfishness and greed and should vow to be more loving in the future.


John Ikerd