What Is Love?

A few days ago I was standing at the subway station waiting for my train to arrive when I overheard a conversation between a child about 9 or 10 years old and his mother. They were discussing homework to be done during the week-end when he suddenly asked "Mom? how many kinds of love do exist?". My first thought was how could a young child come up with such a deep existential question at 8 am of a normal weekday in an overcrowded subway platform full of bustling commuters? He must have chewed the cud for a while before getting it off his chest and I was amused by the ease and spontaneity of the boy, as if he had asked for an ice cream.

I was instantly hooked!

"Well, there is a kind of love between friends, such as you and Gianni, and that's friendship" his mother answered in a gentle and reassuring confident tone of voice, "then there is another kind of love between siblings, such as you and Silvia, and another between a couple that creates life, just like mom and dad, that's why you were born" she said tenderly stroking his face with her hand.

My train arrived and to my regret I couldn't hear the rest of the conversation. I got on the car, bumped and pushed around by the people getting on but that question buzzed in my head. Squeezed and rocked with the motion of the train my mind meandered into multiple thoughts: can love be classified? Can we give it definitions without bounding it with personal parameters and experiences? And even if we can appease ourselves with definitions, do we know how to love?

My first thoughts went to "love" as understood by the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, but quickly settled onto Umberto Eco's impressive quote in Adso's manuscript The Name of the Rose, he says: "What is love? There is nothing in the world, neither man nor Devil nor any thing, that I hold as suspect as love, for it penetrates the soul more than any other thing. Nothing exists that so fills and binds the heart as love does. Therefore, unless you have those weapons that subdue it, the soul plunges through love into an immense abyss." And with that thought my heart quivered, as I wonder whether the words send a thrill of fear or hope.

Scores of thinkers throughout history have attempted to explain love and we are still here debating the same. Mankind is young in evolutionary terms, so I guess there will be millions of us for a million years succumbing to the fascination and enchantment of this sentiment, so powerful, so delicate, so pervasive and so impenetrable.

Since we have all experienced those moments when your stomach ties up in knots and you can hardly breathe or when you have one hundred fluttering butterflies that make up for the sense of hunger, we surely remember those days when our beloved was the first thing we thought when we woke up and the last one before we fell asleep, nothing and no one could fill that time as he or she did. Falling in love... is a real state of being.

Love is a word that indicates some totally different realities. Indeed, it allows multiple interpretations, all of them valid. There is love for our parents, another for our children, between siblings, for our job, our friends, or country, for God, but some create stronger bonds or feelings, such as the love of lovers because it holds an intrinsical promise of mutual happiness we are all longing for, or the love of mothers, which holds the strongest human bond.

Upon further reflection, my thoughts hover the fact that love is never self-centered but rather self-giving, a revealing state that makes us know the other through what the other offers, not what we receive. The completeness which arises from the merging of two differences is truly enduring.

Not so easy, though. One has to want it strongly because one takes the risk of the initiative, with no early guarantee, and consistency in the long-term is crucial. It comes with a price, it requires commitment, effort, caring and respect. The ability to love is an important achievement for our emotional wellbeing and has to be taught and learned. At times, you wish you had a manual but, alas, it would take away its naturalness and would deprive you of the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them and go forward.

So, I guess I don't have an answer for that child and he will have the chance to experience all of "love" himself, but I am glad he is a curious boy, for his curiosity will make him take the risk and he will live the magical side just like everyone else, he will dream of it and will plunge into the sublime sea where love abounds and propels him to unveil his full potential. I hope he will enter his life and for a while permit himself to be bewitched and ravished by love. Let the cycle continue, as when it stops there will be no man or woman as we know of.