(Essay) Seeking Definition and Failure

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What do I say when I say ‘I love you’?

If I mean ‘you make me happy’, there is no difference between ‘love’ and ‘happiness’. If when you say ‘I love you’, you mean ‘I’m happy around you’, again, the term ‘love’ cannot be defined from ‘happiness’. If ‘love’ is to be used meaningfully, it must signify something else.

Audio Summary

Love often results in happiness but isn’t merely happiness. Yet if I love someone because that person makes me happy, there is no definable difference between ‘wanting happiness’ and ‘giving love’. Though love can result in happiness, happiness cannot be the goal of love. Happiness is the goal of happiness, because happiness is an end in itself. If the goal of love is happiness, ‘love’ and ‘happiness’ cannot be defined apart.

Love is not a physical entity, so it must be some kind of expression of the mind or will. Yet ‘love’ cannot meaningfully be said to be a feeling, for the line between where the feeling of love ends and where happiness begins cannot be clearly drawn. Therefore, ‘love’, to be substantive, must be defined as a choice. One chooses love, rather than feels it. When a person most meaningfully says ‘I love you’, the person doesn’t mean ‘I feel love for you’, but ‘I choose to love you’. The significance of this latter statement is dependent on how much the speaker is committed to it.

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If you told a loved one ‘I love you because you make me happy’, not only could that come off as selfish, but your loved one may feel like a means to an end rather than an end in and of his or her self. Your loved one might feel appreciated because of what he or she does for you, rather than for who he or she is, which could be alienating. If love entailed reducing people to utilities or ‘means to an end’, not only would it be questionable to say that ‘love is good’, but it is doubtful that love would be as popular as it is. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that when people say ‘I love you’, they mean something more than just ‘you make me happy’, even if it can be hard to tell what is meant.

I

To ‘like’ is to ‘approve of’ something or someone because of its qualities. For example, I like pizza because pizza tastes good, as I like Sarah because she’s always energetic. To like something is to treat a thing as a means to an end of happiness, making it Utilitarian. If ‘love’ is definable from ‘like’ and not Utilitarian, ‘love’ is to ‘will for’ someone based on his or her ‘being’, upon which that person’s qualities are founded. This isn’t to say love and liking can’t arise simultaneously, only that they must maintain some kind of distinction if they aren’t one and the same.

To like something is to respond to what is before you: it is reactionary. I say I ‘like’ something that treats me well or that I enjoy experiencing. ‘Love’, if so reactionary, is indefinable from ‘liking’. Because liking is reactionary, it isn’t committed and is restricted to particular moments in time. Love, on the other hand, entails a commitment and operates through time, rather than merely flair up in instances.

If there were no time, people wouldn’t change, and if people didn’t change, there would be no need for vows or promises. The whole point of marriage is to be committed to another regardless of who that person becomes. Likewise, there would be little if any need to define ‘love’ apart from ‘like’, for a person would be an eternally pleasing or displeasing collection of suspended qualities.1

A person likes another when he or she feels positively around someone, for who that individual is, in the present. On the other hand, a person loves another when he or she stays with that individual between instances of positivity. In other words, to love someone is to remain committed to a person between the times when he or she is likable. Therefore, ‘love’ is a distinctively meaningful term during the times when you don’t like someone. Toward the people you always like, it’s hard to define your ‘love’ from your ‘liking’. In a way, you cannot meaningfully say you love people who you always like.

II

If by ‘I love you’ I mean ‘I’ll put up with you when you don’t make me happy until you do again’, ‘love’ cannot be clearly defined from ‘tolerance’. Also, in such an instance, love is again Utilitarian, for it treats others like medicine with side effects. It is doubtful that love would be as popular as it is if love were, in essence, a ‘tolerable medicine’. Though it is reasonable to believe that ‘I love you’ doesn’t mean ‘I tolerate you’, it must still entail some kind of commitment and toleration, which is necessary because people change.

To tolerate someone is to be passive: it demands nothing more from a person then consent. I tolerate someone screaming at me if I don’t scream back. Again, if love means simply to not react during the times I don’t like people until they’re likeable again, ‘love’ is indefinable from ‘tolerance’. To have meaning, ‘love’ must be active and signify something more.

III

To say ‘I love you’ requires that I know who you are for the statement to be meaningful. Yet, I can only know who you are, truly, if I am you. Since this isn’t possible, I can only love my idea of you. Since you change through time, this idea must constantly adapt to accurately align with your identity. Also, since ideas tend to be stagnant and fixed, I must consciously change that idea to match who you become, which requires effort. If I fail to do these things, when I say ‘I love you’, I’ll be talking more to who you were than to who you are.

If I settle with my idea of you rather than work that idea into matching your actuality, I will settle with not loving who you are (now). Actually loving you entails moving beyond my idea of you toward your true self. At the same time, an idea of you that I have now which matches your present actuality will not necessarily match the actuality of you a year from now. My love must constantly change as you change: my love must follow you. Otherwise, a ravine will form between the ‘you’ I love and the ‘you’ you are. When this ravine is recognized and I realize how far away from me you are, I may be heartbroken. Worse yet, I may blame you for leaving me, when in fact it was my fault for not following you as I promised. If ‘I love you’ doesn’t mean ‘I will follow you into whoever you become’, ‘I love you’ means only ‘I like you (now)’.

Because my idea of you can never completely reach your actuality (only head toward it like a curve toward an asymptote line), my love for you is destined for imperfection. Since one loves another in order to love that person’s ‘you’, and because love can never fully reach this ‘you’, love can never reach its sought end. For ‘love’ to be meaningful humbly, it must be understood as impossible.

‘Love’ must be understood as destined to fail.

IV

If in ‘following you into whoever you become’ I let you commit suicide, I may have loved you, but it cannot be said that my love was good. Yet if ‘love’ isn’t good, ‘love’ cannot be clearly defined from ‘hate’ or ‘dislike’. Therefore, while love follows, love must also help to guide another ‘toward the good’ and into making the most of his or her self. Yet, only that person can know who he or she ‘is’ (and so what constitutes ‘good for that person’), which is necessary for knowing how to make the most of one’s life.2 Therefore, love cannot guide with a ‘hands on’ approach, per se; love can only help a person ask his or her self ‘who am I?’ and help that person find the life-giving answer for his or her self. Love cannot provide the answer, for love cannot know the answer. Love can only help. In this way, love is both active and passive. Love doesn’t entail telling a person that he or she should do this or that; rather, love entails helping a person ask his or her self what he or she should do and then letting that person live out the answer that is found within.

Love is good when it helps someone make the most of their true self, which another can never fully know to actually love. In this sense, when good, love fails, sacrificially, for love helps another create the true self which love longs for, that in helping create, love makes more impossible to reach. Love provides this service most meaningfully when it doesn’t like who love serves.

Since self-discovery takes time, love must also be patient.

V

If you are someone I love but when I don’t like you I am mean to you, it wouldn’t be clear what the difference is between the statements ‘I dislike you’ and ‘I love you’. Only a given person can know if he or she dislikes another (another’s decisions, another’s attitude, etc.); therefore, one can never say that another ‘dislikes’ something or someone. Rather, all we can do is interpret certain dispositions, reactions, or actions as a sign that the person ‘may dislike’ something or someone. Every human is always responsible for his or her interpretations, so one must be careful before thinking that another dislikes others, this, or that.

However, it cannot be ignored that certain attitudes, actions, etc. connote, at least, dislike. If between times when you are likeable someone doesn’t talk to you, this would seem to suggest that the person ‘dislikes’ you. Whether or not this actually is the case is beside the point. If between moments of likability, the person tells you that you’re doing this or that wrong, it couldn’t be said meaningfully that the person ‘loves you’ rather than ‘dislikes you’ (for in that moment, there is no clear difference between the two). Therefore, if ‘I love you’ is to be meaningful and reasonable, the person must be saying it toward someone who, when unlikable, the speaker acts kindly toward. Love then, is kind.

VI

Only a given person can know when he or she is trying to be kind, so one can never say for sure that another is kind or unkind. Rather, one can only say for sure that another is ‘committed to being kind’. However, it also shouldn’t be ignored that certain attitudes, actions, etc. connote, at least, kindness. If between times of likability a person smiles at you and tells you that they love you, this would seem to suggest that the person is kind and also loving. If a person, when you tell them something that goes against what that person thought about you, continues to express trust and affection, it is reasonable to believe the person is kind and/or loving. With this in mind, it is loving toward that person to believe he or she will be kind once you tell that person a difficult thing that must be said, when you stop being likable, etc.

Love believes ‘all is well’.

Therefore, if someone loves you, that person, when you aren’t likeable, will do things that, to you, are kind. If a person is only kind to you when you are likable, it cannot be determined when that person is kind from when that person is happy. If someone smiles at you when you are likable, it can be said ‘that person is happy’, but it cannot meaningfully be said ‘that person is kind’. However, if someone smiles at you when you aren’t likeable, it can be said ‘that person is kind’ without conflating terms and rendering them indistinguishable.

VII

If you believe someone will be kind to you when you aren’t likeable, stay committed to enabling you to realize your true self, etc., and that person believes the same of you, both of you have faith and hope in one another. If two people don’t have this faith and hope in one another, it couldn’t be said that either are committed to love. Since love is a choice, without this willingness, ‘love’ cannot be defined. Therefore, if meaningful, ‘love’ is faithful and hopeful.

To say ‘I love you’ means ‘when you fail to love me, I will love you until and after you succeed’. Since love can never reach its end, love must be constant to maintain meaning. ‘I love you’ must mean ‘I will have faith in you when you are unlikable and hope you will do the same for me’. If whether or not the person actually does love you when you’re unlikable effects whether or not you love that person, your love is blurred with liking: your love holds back. Consequently, a part of you won’t contribute to reminding your loved one what ‘love’ means.

VIII

If your loved one isn’t kind to you, etc. when you aren’t likeable, in that moment, that person also becomes difficult to like, providing you with an opportunity to meaningfully express love, kindness, and patience. If you stop loving a person when he or she stops meaningfully loving you (and so becomes unlikable), it cannot meaningfully be said that you love that person. Therefore, if ‘love’ is meaningful, love must be forgiving. When a loved one fails to love you as he or she committed to do, this doesn’t mean you should stop loving that person. In fact, you have been given a chance to truly love, which can in turn lead, by example, the other back to true love.

Love forgives love’s failure.

Love always entails a kind of forgiveness, as being loved entails accepting forgiveness and so gratitude for that forgiveness. In loving another, you forgive that individual for being unable to reach your true self, as that loved one forgives you for not reaching his or her true self. In accepting love in this way, you acknowledge your inability to love another fully; in giving love, you ask another to forgive this inability.

To love is to forgive: to be loved is to be grateful.

You forgive one who does something unlikeable. Since love is meaningfully willed toward the unlikable, love inherently entails a forgiveness of the unlikable for being such. To the degree one is kind toward the unlikable is to the degree one can say that person’s forgiveness and love are meaningful, and in a way, one.3

It is in the act of forgiveness, as expressed through kindness, that ‘love’ is most clearly defined. When someone makes you happy, ‘love’ and ‘like’ cannot be distinguished from one another; when someone makes you upset, ‘love’ and ‘like’ have the potential to be defined apart. It is the act of forgiveness, manifest through kindness, which causes this split. The more unlikable the individual, the more forgiveness succeeds.

In a sense, love is forgiveness: to say ‘I love you’ is to say ‘I (will/have) forgive(n) you’.4

IX

‘Love’, when meaningful, is patient and kind. It is also sacrificial, forgiving, and destined to fail to reach its end. Love only appears in a definable manner toward those you don’t (always) like, and is best expressed in the act of forgiveness. When you like someone, ‘love’ cannot be defined from ‘liking’, as kindness and happiness cannot be separated. Since it is hard to be around a person who does something unlikeable, it is fair to say love is hard, that love is a hard commitment which requires faith and hope. Without love, ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are void of meaning, for it is in the context of hard times (and thus love) that faith and hope are needed. When things are good, faith and hope aren’t needed, for fully achieving such goodness is the end of them.

Ideally, love and likability, and so kindness and happiness, always run together like rivers that merge. However, because they don’t always do so, love is necessary. If love didn’t exist, the moment likability ended, so would end every relationship. Life is hard, so love is necessary. Consequently, ‘love’ is defined amidst the bad.

X

Since love is doomed to never reach its end, painful, demanding, and meaningful only when things are hard, love is best avoided. Yet without love, none of us could make it between times of happiness, and none of us could help one another find selfhood. Without love, life is best lived in search of evanescent likes and moments of happiness in such a way that those moments never end. Since this is impossible, love, painfully, cannot be avoided. If though love enables us to achieve a sense of authenticity and truth that without we could never reach, and if love helps us achieve a continuous happiness which, ironically, love is logically and initially avoided in favor of, then perhaps it could be said that love is worth it.

Love is a problem solver: if there were no problems, there would be no love. If to love is to endeavor to eliminate problems all together, love is to endeavor to create a place where love would be unnecessary. Love wouldn’t be needed in a perfect world. Though love itself could ‘be’ the perfect world, in a sense, this perfection would lack definition if reaching it did not take wading through hardship. Through pain, love divides heaven and hell.

Because there are no perfect people (and thus inevitable problems), love is enabled to exist, not that we love perfectly or love only that which is perfect, but so that the world can be made perfect in love.5 But isn’t it the case that if love gave the world perfection, love would render itself unnecessary?

Yes.

Love is ironic: love loves to cease.

Love’s purpose is to arrive where it dies.

Remembering that ‘happiness’ and ‘love’ are both goods but not similes, the point of love is to realize a world of happiness and bliss: the purpose of love is to sacrifice itself. Yet if the goal of love is happiness, ‘love’ cannot be defined from ‘happiness’, as noted at the very beginning of this work. Therefore, to be meaningful, ‘love’ must achieve happiness not because happiness is its goal, but as a consequence of achieving its goal. Love doesn’t aim for happiness; rather, the purpose of love is to erase the need for love. In this sense, love seeks its death.6 Love hopes that bliss will result for others because of its cessation and has faith that such will be the case, but doesn’t know for sure, nor does this outcome effect its commitment to sacrifice itself. Uncertain, facing doubts, love still loves, and ultimately dies, humbly knowing that as long as there is love, there will be sorrow.

Since love is hard, necessitates facing the unlikable, and requires being vulnerable through forgiveness and a willingness to fail until love dies, to make life anew, love requires fearlessness. Only through fearlessness can love be meaningful; hence, only the fearless will be made perfect in love.7

XI

In closing, ‘I love you’, when meaningful, signifies:

‘I am committed to being patient and kind to you when you aren’t likeable, and I am committed to always endeavoring to move my idea of who you are toward who you actually are, though I know, ultimately, I will never fully succeed. I promise to do all this while helping you, the one I long for, realize your true self, which, by pursuing, you will become harder to reach. I will hope in struggle: I will believe in what I cannot achieve. I will forgive and be forgiven: I will be made perfect in failure. I will love until my love dies.

Beloved, I won’t be afraid.’

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1If people didn’t change, people would be like inanimate objects, which, being unconscious, cannot choose to change their purpose (from what they were made for or from what they do in the present). Though both are changed by their environments, humans can also change their ‘toward-ness’ and the ‘purpose of their lives’ at will. While inanimate objects cannot change their essence, humans can. Consequently, the ‘true self’ of a given person is always susceptible to transformation based on how a person changes his or her ‘end’, which is a prime source of a person’s definition.

2If a person comes to believe who they ‘are’ is someone who commits suicide and to which suicide is ‘good’, it would be difficult for a lover to direct that person another way (the time when that could have been done now perhaps having passed). This potential problem highlights the shortcomings of a model of reality lacking a sense of Objective Good with which given ‘goods’ can/should align.

3There is a sense in which someone who is always likeable cannot be meaningfully loved. This isn’t to say the person isn’t loved, only that it cannot be said when people like this individual from when people love this individual. The line is always blurred. Consequently, it can be hard for this seemingly perfect person to ever feel authentically accepted for who he or she truly is rather than for what he or she does. This can result in alienation. Therefore, a perfect person is a contradiction, for what makes a person perfect to others is what makes the person imperfect inside.

4To ‘love’ is to ‘will (forgiveness and kindness) toward’ another, and is most meaningful when that other is unlikable. Also, to ‘love’ is to ‘will for’ a person to be ‘forgiven and to experience kindness’, and to love is the very thing which fulfills that will.

5A paradox of love is that it is often accompanied by a feeling of happiness that can make someone seem perfect to us, but if that person were in fact perfect, we couldn’t meaningfully love that individual. The person we fall in love with may always seems perfect, but the person we actually love must be fallible. Otherwise, our love will never achieve distinct definition.

5.1The sooner a person realizes that the focus of their affection is imperfect, the sooner that person will achieve a meaningful sense of ‘love’.

5.11As a person’s words achieve definition, so a person’s world achieves form.

5.2We tend to fall in love with those we think will always be likable, yet we never have an opportunity to love the ones we never dislike.

5.21In popular culture, ‘love’ and ‘like’ are often conflated: friends ask one another ‘do you like him?’, and so on. This conflation perpetuates our confusion about love.

5.3We cannot love perfect people, only like them.

6Whether or not this sacrificial act will make the lover happy, a lover does not know until the lover starts loving. If upon loving the lover doesn’t find happiness and quits, the lover wasn’t committed in the first place, and so never loved. When ‘love’ is meaningful, regardless if a given lover is happy or if others love the lover back, the lover continues to be committed to love’s sacrificial purpose.

6.1In a sense, the goal of love is happiness, but distinct from ‘happiness’, this bliss is not for itself, but for others. Wanting happiness is Utilitarian, while endeavoring to give it to others is loving.

7To love is to allow your will to be transformed. When you love, what you want, what makes you happy, who you want to be, etc., all change into that which will bring bliss to the focus of your love. Likewise, as you love another and are loved back, the will of that other will change as he or she loves you. This process is painful for both, but it is the only way for wills (and so selves) to become one.

7.1Love is the road to the meaning of life.

7.11The purpose of life is the harmony of every will.

Written by

2020 UNO Prize Finalist. The Write Launch. Iowa Review. Allegory Ridge. Streetlight. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M Review. Poydras. www.ogrose.com

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