What Love Really Is and Why It Matters – Free Ebook

There is so much talk of love in our societies,
it would be natural to think that we must

by now know what it is and why it counts.
Love is the excited feeling we get in the

presence of someone of unusual accomplishment
and talent – great intelligence or beauty

for the most part – whom we hope will reciprocate
our interest and whom we badly want to touch,

caress and one day share our lives with.

This definition sounds so plausible and enjoys
such powerful cultural endorsement, we are

apt to miss another vision of love altogether,
this one focused not so much on the appreciation

of strength as on a tolerance of, and kindness
towards, what is weak and misshapen.

According to this vision, we display love
when, on the way home, we come across an itinerant

drunk – weather-beaten and dishevelled,
beer addled and ranting – and do not, for

once, turn away and instead make the momentous
internal step (with all the eventual outward

actions that might follow) of considering
them as a version of ourselves, prey to the

same passions and distempers, visited by the
same longings, upset by similar losses and

worthy of their own share of compassion and

We show love too when we see a well dressed
person shouting grandly and imperiously at

an airport, filled with self-righteousness,
apparently bloated on their own self-regard,

and do not dismiss them immediately as insane
or entitled, but instead, take the trouble

to see the frightened vulnerable self beneath
the bluster, when we grow curious as to the

sickness of the soul that might be operating
just below the surface and are able to wonder

what has hurt them – and why they might
be so scared.

We show love when we see a small child throwing
themselves on the floor in the aisles of a

supermarket, shouting that they want ‘it’
again and again, and do not focus only on

how inconvenient it is to steer our trolley
around them and how piercing and maddening

their screams are, but also feel how much
we understand their frustration – and would

want to tell them that their pain is in its
general form ours too and that we would also

like to rest against a kindly adult’s chest
and hear ‘I know, I know’ until the pain


However many songs celebrate the act, it is
no particular feat to love someone who is

on their best behaviour, who looks beautiful
and moves with grace through the world. What

really cries out for our attention is the
love of what is crooked and gnarled, damaged

and self-disgusted. In this definition, love
is the effort required to imagine oneself

more accurately into the life of another human
who has not made it in way easy to admire

or even like them.

In the Western tradition, it was the man from
Nazareth who gave us the most memorable demonstrations

of this sort of love, who made it seem glamorous
to love differently from the Romans and the

Greeks, to love the prostitute, the prisoner
and the sinner, to show love to a wretch,

a catastrophe and an enemy. To extrapolate
from the approach, a truly Christian dating

app would not merely highlight the beautiful
and the dazzling, it wouldn’t allow us to

swipe away every slightly displeasing person
at a stroke but would instead stop us arbitrarily

at photographs of hugely challenging figures
– malodorous lepers, shocking reprobates

– and would command, with all the authority
of divine intonation, ‘Love! Here where

it would feel so natural and so easy to hate,
your duty is to love…’

It’s a measure of how we far forgotten everything
to do with this sort of love, how committed

we are to love-as-admiration, that such a
command would sound so peculiar and so laughable.

Yet we might say that nothing is more important
than this love, that this is the love that

rescues nations from intolerance, that pauses
wars, that halts recriminations, that calms

furies and that
allows civilisation to continue. True love

involves precisely not giving someone what
is their due, but giving them what they need

in order to survive.

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