Love is the most important word in the English language—and the most confusing.
Both secular and religious thinkers agree that love plays a central role in life.
We are told that “love is a many- splendored thing” and that “love makes the world go round.”
Thousands of books, songs, magazines, and movies are peppered with the word.
Numerous philosophical and theological systems have made a prominent place for love.
And the founder of the Christian faith wanted love to be the distinguishing characteristic of His followers.
Psychologists have concluded that the need to feel loved is a primary human emotional need.
For love, we will climb mountains, cross seas, traverse desert sands, and endure untold hardships.
Without love, mountains become unclimbable, seas uncrossable, deserts unbearable, and hardships our plight in life.
The Christian apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, exalted love when he indicated that all human accomplishments that are not motivated by love are, in the end, empty. He concluded that in the last scene of the human drama, only three characters will remain: “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
If we can agree that the word love permeates human society, both historically and in the present, we must also agree that it is a most confusing word.
We use it in a thousand ways.
We say, “I love hot dogs,” and in the next breath, “I love my mother.” We speak of loving activities: swimming, fishing, hunting. We love objects: food, cars, houses. We love animals: dogs, cats, even pet snails. We love nature: trees, grass, flowers, and weather. We love people: mother, father, son, daughter, parents, wives, husbands, friends. We even fall in love with love.
If all that is not confusing enough, we also use the word love to explain behaviour. “I did it because I love her.”
That explanation is given for all kinds of actions. A man is involved in an adulterous relationship, and he calls it love. The preacher, on the other hand, calls it sin.
The wife of an alcoholic picks up the pieces after her husband’s latest episode. She calls it love, but the psychologist calls it codependency. The parent indulges all the child’s wishes, calling it love. The family therapist would call it irresponsible parenting. What is loving behaviour?
The purpose of this article is not to eliminate all confusion surrounding the word love, but to focus on that kind of love that is essential to our emotional health. Child psychologists affirm that every child has certain basic emotional needs that must be met if he is to be emotionally stable.
Among those emotional needs, none is more basic than the need for love and affection, the need to sense that he or she belongs and is wanted.
With an adequate supply of affection, the child will likely develop into a responsible adult.
Without that love, he or she will be emotionally and socially retarded.
I liked the metaphor the first time I heard it: “Inside every child is an ‘emotional tank’ waiting to be filled with love. When a child really feels loved, he will develop normally but when the love tank is empty, the child will misbehave. Much of the misbehaviour of children is motivated by the cravings of an empty ‘love tank.’” I was listening to a psychiatrist who specialises in the treatment of children and adolescents.
As I listened, I thought of the hundreds of parents who had paraded the misdeeds of their children through my office. I had never visualised an empty love tank inside those children, but I had certainly seen the results of it.
Their misbehaviour was a misguided search for the love they did not feel.
They were seeking love in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways.
At the heart of mankind’s existence is the desire to be intimate and to be loved by another.
Marriage is also designed to meet that need for intimacy and love.