These Days, Is 'Love' Meaningless?

As a concept, love has always fascinated me. The word itself is dull at best; one syllable, two vowels, four letters. But it's humanity's obsession, the one thing we crave more than wealth and power. There's a reason why the Eiffel Tower, despite its bestial dimensions and lackluster architecture, is the Western world's most iconic creation. New York attracts stockbrokers, D.C. politicians but Paris -- well Paris is for doe-eyed lovebirds.

When I was younger, I pasted fluffy red and pink feathers on heart doilies and wrote poems of admiration for my friends and family on Valentine's Day. Later on, love became more complex when carnality corrupted my purer visions of the heart's desires. I wrote a paper dichotomizing love and lust, as I felt the two were too often confused in the halls and stalls of my public high school.

In college, I watched Gossip Girl. "Three words, eight letters. Say it and I'm yours," Blair begged. Then came Plato's Symposium, a discourse on passion between hallowed classical philosophers. My professor sketched Socrates' ladder of love -- which privileged knowledge over all else -- on the blackboard. I didn't buy it, but maybe that was because I was caught on one of the ladder's lower rungs, somewhere between monogamy and love of self.

During the summer after my freshman year, I told someone I loved him, and I meant it. He said it, too; then, he took it back. But the truth was the words meant nothing; it was our actions that ended us.

Perhaps that's the problem: "love" has lost its spark. The term evades us, and it's become so disposable. As a turn of phrase, it's a ready-to-go option on your smartphone, pre-programmed along with "talk to you later" and "see you soon." A famous actor dashes it across a page in an autograph. We "love" frozen yogurt and New Girl. What polyester is to clothing "love" is to conversation: a cheap trick for any situation.

Meanwhile, modern thinkers are trying to dig into its depths and excavate the true meaning that warrants cherubs and string quartets. There are the romantics, who make lists of last year's movies that really grasped "love" in an hour and a half of footage. And ambitious artists like Regina Spektor come the closest they can to capturing the concept with songs like "Better," which forgoes the word for a feeling.

Critics of "love" write posts on things that supposedly mean more than Ms. Waldorf's "three words, eight letters." The issue with that, for me at least, is that I was raised in an environment that coveted love as the pinnacle of mortal understanding. There was nothing more essential or sincere, nothing more pressing or purposeful.

Over the years, as I've searched for a definition of this must-have thing, I've found that it's very easy to know what love is not. Its antithesis is hate, but with a spectrum as varied as human emotion, there are plenty of descriptors and probably even more sentiments that fly far and close to love but aren't love itself. Infatuation, with 5:00 a.m. calls and a hot and cold disposition, is too volatile. Falling in love is too airborne -- lust mixed with just enough care and concern to seem important. Sex is something else entirely, though not mutually exclusive by any means.

What love is can be harder to pinpoint because it adopts so many faces. On the good days, it lives in a wink from across the room or a few extra minutes of snuggles when you're already late for work. It's that Buzzfeed article that you post on your best friend's Facebook because you know it'll make her laugh, the call to your folks between naptime and dinner because they've been asking to hear your voice for a while now. It's the scrapbook that took a week to make and the near-scars from a glue gun.

On the bad days, love is something else entirely. Sometimes, it's ghosting when you don't want to because you know you're just adding to his burden. It's getting noticeably irate when your best friend says "I'm fine" for the umpteenth time but can't look you in the eyes, or acting strong around family before sneaking to your room for a cry. It's the gifted plane ticket to spend a week with one of the people who's going to be there for you no matter what.

On the worst days, love is a wife wiping your wounds from a 12-hour surgery or a friend saying that you'll get through this together.

Love's a lifeline, the web that connects me to you and all of us to the people we could never truly let go of. It's what inspires most of our pain, sadness, and desperation, but it's also what makes the day to day worth tolerating. It's fragile and vague and near-invisible because it's in us.

Love is the human condition; that's why we're so in love with it. It's much more than one syllable, two vowels, four letters. It's bigger than frozen yogurt, New Girl, or polyester.

Maybe that's why the word's lost its spark; real love defies description.