What is “love?”
Despite their differences, my partners all had something in common: they were all once “somebody who embodies something I am pursuing.” And I approached the partnerships as “sidling up next to them on our separate but similar walks.”
In the past, the “something I am pursuing” has ranged from straightforwardness and stability to adventure and art, exploration and experimentation; to play and laughter; to ambition and drive; to the philosophy of meaning and purpose.
I am driving at and fully expect to live out my own image of greatness, as defined by an individually-curated set of values. And my expectations, likewise, are for a “great” man, with his idea and embodiment of “greatness” more or less mirroring my own.
Ayn Rand, I discovered earlier this week, defined love in a similar way, saying: “Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another.”
Put more simply: “Love is the response of one’s own highest values in the person of another.” Love is the realization of values.
And if love is the realization of values, then in order to love, one must first know what their own values are.
Where love originates
To love another – to recognize one’s own values in someone else – one must first believe, buy into and build out a value system that one can stand behind. To see them elsewhere, one must first define and embody them for oneself.
“Only a man of self esteem is capable of love – because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” (Rand)
To love another, we must first love ourselves. Deeply. Wholly.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for his proposed hierarchy of needs – an illustration of human needs, outlined as a pyramid, in which he positions physiological (air, food, water, sleep, etc.) at the bottom, followed by “safety,” “love and belonging,” “esteem” and then, at the top, as the final need achieved: “self-actualization,” which Maslow articulated simply as “what a man can be, he must be.”
This level of need refers to what a person’s full potential is and the realization of that potential. Maslow describes it as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. And while I think Maslow was right to call this out as the chief “need,” I disagree with his assertion that “to understand this level of need, the person must not only achieve the previous needs, but master them.”
Self-actualization is indeed our greatest achievement; the pursuit of our purpose is our chief purpose. But until we have accomplished a sense of meaning and purpose for ourselves – until we have identified our full selves – we can’t give our full selves to others, via love. And just because many people attempt life in the order Maslow proposes – to first find love and figure someone else out, and then, only if there’s time and energy left, figure out what to do with ourselves – doesn’t mean this is the way we should be doing it.
To love another, we must first love ourselves.
How to do love
The portrayal of “love” in cultural references and media, often represented (superficially so) as “romance,” has done us a disservice. Sometimes, it seems, we harbor these notions that because relationships and love are such an invaluable part of life, that they are best positioned as the end-all, be-all endeavor – and that our success in finding and preserving love, even through artificial means, is the foremost metric of “life-ing” well. That we are obliged to focus a large part of our attention on the emotional wellbeing of this other person, positioned as a “partner.”
But a “partner” in what, if this is our focus? If two people dedicate the majority of their energy to simply sustaining their relationship status – even if only one person is doing the investing, in persuading or preserving the other – then what has happened to these two people’s lives?
The real meaning of life – and the measure of a life successfully lived – isn’t in dedicating energy to love alone. Securing and keeping a partner is not the end goal – and though love adds a tremendous amount of meaning to life, the meaning of one’s life does not depend on it. The measure of our success in life does not hang in other people, but rather in our own selves.
Our real task in life is to find something that gives it purpose – to find work in which we can act out our greatest values and yield value unto others. And when we choose partners, though we search for those who share values, we also ideally want someone whose attention is on their own purpose – on exercising those values we share. If neither person does this – if they meet and instead drop their drive at whatever purpose they may have fulfilled – their potential, within the context of the universe, may never extend beyond one or two single beings.
Any person, partnered or not, should operate with a degree of self-sufficiency and independence in judgment, in pursuit of our own ideals. Our focus, first and foremost, should always be on fulfilling our life purpose and acting out values. We should do this as individuals (for ourselves) when we’re single, and we should do it even when we are also someone’s partner… and we should demand the same from those people with whom we partner.
“Life’ing” well means that our energy and attention is focused ahead on common life goals rather than each other. The energy generated from the partnership supports and fuels bigger life goals.
To “love” well means that we spend our time combating and conquering the world side by side, rather than turning inward and combating and/or conquering one another.
This is not to say that relationships don’t take work or care. They do. But any relationship that consumes enough attention that other pursuits are put at risk should be considered a poor one, with a “good” relationship defined as one that supports our pursuits with an appropriate (e.g., proportional) level of “overhead.” Energy committed to maintaining a relationship shouldn’t conflict with or draw from the energy that should otherwise be spent on life purpose.
A word on compromise
In work, we give our employer hours of our day, our week, our life. We commit mental headspace and physical energy, and we do this day after day because, on some level, the whole thing is worthwhile to us… Ideally, our work allows us to live out our values. At a minimum, however, our work does not demand that we forfeit them. If it does, (hopefully) we leave. If we don’t, we die a bit each day, carving off and giving away too much of ourselves over time.
A compromise is only worthwhile if concessions are mutual; it “should be a breach of one’s comfort; never a breach of one’s convictions.” (Rand)
This is a trade – an exchange which benefits both people by their own independent judgment, in which each party neither seeks to take advantage of the other, nor allows himself to be taken advantage of.
Love requires a degree of honesty, fairness, and respect. It demands balance, at whatever level both parties are comfortable. In the same way that we cannot expect to withdraw more than we have invested; we cannot expect to get by on emotional “credit” alone, and we cannot allow our partners to do so, either. At least not for long.
Compromise and sacrifice is an important part of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. We yield, give in, meet halfway. And even dying – or risking death – for a loved one has merit, in the moment when doing so might mean saving the one we love. This has honor. But bleeding ourselves dry in love, over the long term, is not honorable. We shouldn’t do it. And we should not expect or allow others to do it either.
“Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” (Rand)
A word on passion
I suppose it might sound a bit like I am advocating some sort of “loveless” love – a scenario in which love is approached a bit like a business exchange. And I guess maybe I am, but if that’s the case, I am doing so only in the sense that I am also suggesting that business, too, should be approached with purpose, with intention, with a deeply-rooted sense of drive and deliberate energy. All of life, actually, should be built around identifying and acting on our values, and if I am saying that love should be treated like work, it is because I am saying that both should be treated with passion.
If life is built on values and love is founded on finding someone who shares our own, then of course it makes sense that those values – and the ways in which you drive at them, both together and separately, in both tangent and parallel lines – are the precise fuels for the greatest fires. And that the richer the shared perspective, the mutual initiatives, the joint purposes and drives, the greater the burn of the flame.
How love ends
We pursue work that offers the opportunity to live out and into things we think are important. We leave work when it no longer does – when things begin to tug in the wrong places; when strain is placed on our own fundamental way of being, and when too much energy is exerted toward “maintenance” and not enough on the actual work itself – the pursuit of what is good and valued.
The way we love and the way we search for meaning is through the identification of values – initially our own, and then their embodiment in other things. The way we lose interest or even feel resentment is when things begin to feel like a drain or all-out assault on our values.
There are a lot of things that don’t matter. Even things that once do matter may eventually cease to hold value, and once they do, they – rightfully – cease to serve as a container for any amount of real attention.
People change. Circumstances change. Given enough time, everything changes. Sometimes you change. Sometimes they do. Sometimes it’s simply that things do. Either way, though, sometimes we find that what once stood for a mirroring of values no longer does.
Achieving a meaningful life – including worthwhile love – “means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence. It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinion or wishes of others. The one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner.” (Rand)
If ever the compromises feel too substantial – the investment greater than the payoff; the energy exerted to be a toll on the wellbeing – then it is not only our prerogative but our responsibility (to ourselves, of course, but also to others) to say so. If values are no longer aligned and if we are exerting tremendous effort willing an imbalance to rebalance every morning, then we owe it to all involved to make it right.
No person should commit their life to investing in something that is no longer aligned with their values.
On being left
If we are to accept that love is a transaction – a trade; an unspoken (or spoken) agreement – that both parties enter voluntarily, if not happily, and we accept the boundaries of “compromise” – the discrepancy between appropriate sacrifices and dishonorable ones, then the responsibilities of the person who has been left are clear.
The universe dictates that we cannot seek or desire any more or any less than we have earned. What determines what we’ve earned? Put simply: what others are willing to offer or trade in return.
When a man interacts with others, whether there has been an exchange of money or energy or emotion, “he is counting – explicitly or implicitly – on their rationality, that is: on their ability to recognize the objective value of his work.” (Rand) To choose to interact with others is fundamentally to honor and respect their judgment.
We cannot sincerely love someone while simultaneously discounting or rejecting their judgment. If we love them, we trust their decisions regarding their life values and how they are arranging their life to live them out.
If we don’t trust or respect their decisions when it comes to their values – if we fight or reject their actions – then what we feel for them cannot be genuine love.
We are fortunate enough to experience an incredible breadth and depth of emotions. And in order to navigate the things that happen in life, it also demands rationale.
This is not to say that these emotions don’t consume our conscious, or even that they’re not valid – our own experience matters, too. And it’s okay to honor these emotions and sit with them for a while. But after that time has passed, we have to recall ourselves to the forefront, try to relinquish our opposition and fear to the universe and find room to replace those feelings with love.
And know that everything will be okay.