What is love, anyway?

What is love anyway?
Does anybody love anybody anyway?
Can you believe it was almost thirty years ago Howard Jones asked that question?

A couple of thousand years ago Paul took a crack at answering it.
Love is long-suffering and kind.
Love is not jealous,
it does not brag,
does not get puffed up,
does not behave indecently,
does not look for its own interests,
does not become provoked.
It does not keep account of the injury.
It does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
So, love is a lot of things. To borrow Dr Haim Ginott's analogy, love is too large a concept. It is like a fifty-pound note. Having it might make us feel wealthy, but it's useless in a phone box. It needs to be broken into smaller change to be any use. You'll notice Paul spends a lot of time explaining what love is not. Paul didn't really know what love is. It's like one of those things, "I'm not really sure what love is, but I'll know it when I see it." Except you won't.

One of the best indications of love is this one: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Look at the way men treat each other throughout the world and it should give you a fairly clear indication of something: Men hate themselves.

Love is something we do to ourselves. Masser and Creed had the right idea when they wrote, "Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all." They were not right, however, when they declared that this was "easy to achieve." It is not. It is very hard to achieve, so hard in fact that few barely attempt it and even fewer achieve it. Whitney sang the words passionately, but still found life impossible to cope with. Paul tried to explain love, but he didn't do love. Paul was all the things he said love was not. There is no shame in this, he was a man like any other man - he was constantly struggling with himself. Worldwide there is the clamour of resounding gongs and clanging cymbals. The world is noisy with the lack of love.

When men do not love themselves the ego comes to the rescue. It rides in like the cavalry. It kicks in the door like a social worker on suicide watch. The ego thinks it's doing you a favour but it's just making things worse. It masquerades as self-esteem. The ego is an idiot. I can say that about the ego without offending anyone because the ego is not the real you. The ego exists because you think you are withering away and fit only for death, and that you deserve it. We do all these things that Paul says love doesn't do to protect ourselves. We get boastful and rude, we make sure to look out for number one and we rise up fiercely in our own defence. We keep score, and we revel in other people's downfall. We behave this way because we are ashamed of something.

This is what we are ashamed of, and the guilt is too much to bear: We hated our parents.

This is "hate" being used as a broad brush stroke. On a spectrum it was occasional or it was permanent. It was the feeling that you wished your parents ill. You wished them away; you wished they weren't there; you wished that they never existed.

I'm talking about the mother and father who gave birth to you. Your birth parents. You hated them. You hated them for not being there when you needed them, and you hated them for always being there when you didn't. You hated them for giving you away, for abandoning you, for smothering you. You hated them for making you feel disgusted with yourself, or that you weren't good enough for them. You hated them for getting angry for no good reason. You hated them for making you feel like they didn't want you around.

If "hate" seems too strong a word for you feel free to water it down, but know that if you do you stand to risk losing hold of the gnawing shame that sits at the centre of your self-loathing. Putting it as plainly as that does not get you off the hook, either. Laughing and waving it away isn't enough. You need to get down and dirty with it. You need to know in what specific ways you hated them and why. Only by doing this can you realise that it is okay to have hated them. You won't disappear, or disintegrate, or fade away if you accept that you hated them. Remembering is a way of letting go. Understanding leads irresistibly to forgiveness. It accepts that the hatred was mutual at times.

Yes, there are times when parents hate their children. They hate them for keeping them up at nights. They hate them for being a drain on their finances. They hate them because they have the responsibility of keeping them alive when children are so determined to die: They run out into the road; they refuse to take the remedy to make them better when they are ill; they will not eat the food that is put in front of them, or drink enough water. Parents handle all these inconveniences badly because they have not yet learned how to deal successfully with their own shame - that they in turn hated their own parents.

Once we understand all this the shame and guilt dissipate. Now Paul's definition of love begins to make sense. Love is a reflection of how I perceive life impacts on me. Nothing in life can diminish me.

I can be patient and kind without any fear of reproach. I have nothing to be jealous about because somebody else's much does not have any bearing on my little. I have no need to be boastful as if that is a way to build myself up. I don't need to be arrogant or rude. I don't need to insist on my own way as if doing things any other way makes me any less of a person. Irritation and resentment only exist if I believe that I am in danger in any way - and, I'm not. Other people's wrong does not make me any better or worse. I can bear all things because I respect myself. I can believe all things because I live without the anxiety of my expectations being dashed. Trust and you make someone trustworthy. The fulfilment or not of anything I believe bears no relation to what I think of myself as a person.

This complete acceptance of myself frees me from the burden of the ego with its sneering face and hobnailed boots. Hating your parents and feeling guilty for it. Being glad to be alive but resenting the fact that you somehow had to feel grateful when life was such a struggle - a balancing act between relying so completely on your parents and wanting to strike out on your own. The eternal, "I didn't ask to be born!" A cry that echoes all the way back through time, generation after generation. And always the gnawing shame. This is part of what the writer was trying to address in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis. Adam blames God for his woes, but this only brings us full circle because if "God is love," then Adam is ultimately blaming himself.

And so it follows that if "God is love" then God, too, is something we do to ourselves. Love yourself, and loving others will irresistibly follow.