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Let me count the ways 

Can we attach modern meaning to the word love?

Love defies definition.

As one of those universal truths we all hold dear, it’s a huge concept that people, time and again, try to boil down or reduce to an easy and digestible idea. So why do people bother trying to nail it down?

People try to define love for different reasons, although you can generally break them into two camps—the spiritual and the secular.

Lately the spiritual camp has been on the move. The first Encyclical Letter, a kind of speech from the throne or annual report from Pope Benedict XVI, the recently installed pontiff, defines love for Catholic believers the world over. Known to be an intellectual and moral heavyweight in the Catholic faith, the pope got right to his point in the title: “God is Love,” or if you prefer the gravitas of Latin, Deus Caritas Est.

“Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings,” Pope Benedict XVI writes. He goes on to list the various meanings, from one’s love for work, between parents and children, among siblings, love of country.

And, of course, there’s romantic, or emotional, love. “Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.”

So, the pope defines love exclusively between a man and woman and it has to be a union of “body and soul,” not body and emotions, of two people. In other words, you must accept that love only occurs when you believe in God. Indeed in his conclusion, Benedict refers to love as an “intimate union with God.”

While the pontiff wants to hang an image of God above your blissful bed, alternatives from within Christianity itself exist to temper the certainty and the absolutism of a guy like Pope Benedict XVI.

One alternative to consider: Augustine, later Saint Augustine. He wrote about his ideas on love in his book Confessions, circa 397 to 400 AD (or CE, for Common Era, now more widely used), according to one Halifax-based experton the saint. During last week’s snowstorm, Dr. Alyda Faber, a researcher and teacher at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax’s south end, happily ignored the shovelling for a discussion of her man Augustine.

The layers of his thoughts on love piled high, but the main drift, according to Faber, comes down to this: Augustine asks more questions and doesn’t pretend to have the definitive answer. Sure, he still holds God’s love for him and his for God in highest esteem, but even a love for God to Augustine produces good toward other human beings.

Faber talks at length about Augustine’s search for “a sense of God within,” what she also poetically calls an “uncanny strangeness,” in himself and others. It’s a mystery, that indefinable beauty—the infinite—we all see in the people we love. “If you could think of yourself as this bearer of uncanny strangeness, then it’s possible to respond to it in other people,” Faber says.

Augustine also acknowledges that other loves, maybe best understood as impulses and desires, exist within us all, influencing our individual decisions, actions and behaviour—what makes us human, really.

“He asks why there are different kinds of love felt in a single soul with different degrees of weight,” says Faber. As well, she notes, within his philosophy, there are no right or wrong loves. To Augustine, we all experience “youth love,” which Faber characterizes as humans “compulsively grasping after things, wanting…even if they have something already.” This kind of love happens when we’re babies and carries on into our adult lives.

She quotes another line from Augustine: “We eat other people up like food.” In other words, we also have in our nature the ability to use people up and hurt them. Faber says we’re not seeing them for who they really are, or “loving others for their own sakes.” That kind of love is called “enjoyment love” in Augustine’s philosophy. Faber points out that these two loves balance each other out, so that in the end, “Love is what makes us grasp at things, but also to turn and…delight in others.”

On the other side of the line, squarely in the secular, you find Dr. Ronald Cosper, who has taught linguistics at Saint Mary’s University for more than 30 years. “’s been turned into a Christian virtue,” Cosper says. “I guess my feeling there is I see the idea of love as a myth. I call it a myth because of the way it justifies social institutions. But it’s also a myth in that it exaggerates a relatively minor aspect of .”

According to Cosper, the romanticized, “glorified” language of love and its basis for marriage only goes back as far as the 11th century, and in the West. Cosper’s research has taken him to places like northern Nigeria, where he studies the language and culture of a “minority tribe” called the Polci.

Once, while working on the campus of a university in Kano, Nigeria, he stood with some students in a line to get a drink on a hot day: “Toward us come walking down the street a young man and woman holding hands. You should’ve seen the reaction there. People rolling their eyes, asking ‘Who do they think they are, some kind of Hollywood couple?’

“Even love songs are taboo there. In popular music, you have songs about work, religion or family, different things, social problems. You would never sing romantic songs.”

And what about a commercial that musically declares, “I’m lovin’ it”? The tag for McDonald’s launched with Justin Timberlake’s song a couple years ago and has continued, seemingly unabated, ever since. Advertising like this is often demonized as manipulating people’s emotions, cheapening true love. But, again, what is true love?

“I don’t love it,” remarks Shawn King, vice president and creative director at the Dartmouth-based advertising firm, Extreme Group. “But I do like what they’ve done with it. What I mean by that is they’re trying to do something big with it. They’re trying to associate all things McDonald’s with making you feel good. That’s sort of the big idea there: Let’s just make people feel good about McDonald’s.”

Love as good feeling is every bit as legitimate as the deeply emotional sense of love—of being in love, King says. He sees two distinctive uses of the word but says only one gets used in advertising.

“There’s the real personal use, ‘I love you.’ And there’s the slang use, ‘I’m lovin’ it,’ the impersonal use of it,” King says, adding that both are OK because the target audience is smart enough to know the difference in usage.

Again, love is many things these days, which can be very confusing, as one writer and grade-school teacher admits. “I think love is defined by its indefinability,” Sarah Mian says. “As an emotion or general concept, it consistently breaks its own rules. I for one know very little about love, but I’m a true romantic anyway. I follow love everywhere. Mostly in circles.”

As a teacher, she sees love’s teachings as lacking. “The way kids learn about love in a school sense is tragically one-dimensional,” says Mian. “They rarely offer variations, even in the modern curriculum, and never seem to deconstruct love’s multi-facets. And kids don’t respond to these sappy stories. They’ve been in pain; they’ve seen their parents divorce, have affairs, use kids as pawns.”

So, love is pain too.

Mian wrote a poem, “Your Love is a Harley,” to be published in the literary journal Antigonish Review; inspired in part by someone close to her heart. “This poem may have been influenced by a relationship my mother had with a man who couldn’t be as ‘present’ as she needed,” Mian reveals. “It was sad for both of them because they really cared for each other.”

Here’s the last verse: “Your love is the gunning of an engine filtered through bird song, reaching up too late to the bedroom window./Your love is miles away, an empty tank, a broken headlight, a postcard./The word:/lost.”

Indeed. Love’s all this and more.


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