When my daughter was eight, we would sing along to Beatles CDs as we drove to her Saturday morning dance classes.
“Why are they always singing about love?” she once asked.
“Everything’s about love,” I answered.
Recently, I’ve written of the fulfillment that comes from walking your own path and discovering your positive potential in life. Yet achievement no matter how glorious is ultimately incomplete without the essential ingredient of human life – love.
In Eden Ahbez’s song, “Nature Boy”, Nat King Cole sang, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
Love may be the universal language, but it is also one of the most misunderstood words. In those intimate moments when one person says, “I love you” and the other responds, “I love you, too”, there’s a good chance they don’t mean quite the same thing.
When people think of love they may mean infatuation, physical attraction, lust, or a desire to possess and control another. They may mean feelings of excitement, euphoria and irrationality; your heart in love can simulate your brain on drugs.
So many irrational and criminal acts have been committed in the name of love that we could consider banning this emotion all together, but that would be like dumping on religion as a major source of human conflict. We may also be misunderstanding love. This was not the love that Nat was singing about.
In my family practice, I have seen people fall in and out of love. Once happy couples can change their hearts and minds about each other. Usually, one partner suddenly sees the other in a different light and no longer likes what is seen. Everything the other says and does is shaded in a negative light and the partner falls out of love. One partner is ready for a new life; the other is dumbfounded and heartbroken.
I have seen other couples with long and happy relationships. They share mutual positive regard, respect and caring. There is nothing they cannot forgive.
I have seen mothers still loving their not so perfect sons to the consternation of stepfathers. I have seen parents suffering but loving their defiant, angry teenagers, and I have seen adult children devotedly caring for their aging, dependent parents who may no longer recognize or appreciate them.
The love that makes life fulfilling, connects us to others and renders meaning to our days is abiding and unconditional. It is as much spiritual as emotional. It requires the uncensored affection of a child and the patient maturity of an elder.
Unconditional, it accepts others as they are – not as they should be. It is not dependent on youth, good looks, good behaviour, success or wealth. As in the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the father’s love of the wayward son – always present at home and waiting.
As a physician, I care for my patients unconditionally. They may make mistakes, not do as they’re told, fall off the wagon and do things they are ashamed of, yet I don’t judge and they are welcomed back. I remain at their service, ready to listen and to help.
I am blessed with some great friends. We have a long history of loving and accepting each other just as we are, with the changes our lives bring us, and in spite of our bad habits. In fact, it is our imperfections that make us human and lovable, and we continue to grow together.
What are the essential features of real love? It is unconditional (like a parent’s love for an infant), respectful, and demonstrated in what we do and how we do it. Appreciation is at the core of this love – a recognition of the other’s uniqueness, of strengths as well as needs.
To feel this love is to recognize the beauty in another person, to be inspired to be and do your best, to see beyond your own concerns, and to see the world as a better, brighter place with that person in it.
To be loved in this way is to feel recognized and understood, to feel appreciated for who you are and just as you are, and to feel at home wherever you may be in the world.
The greatest tragedy is not that we don’t achieve all our goals in life. It is the sad fact that we live and die not knowing how much we were loved.
My model for real love was of course my mother. She devoted her life so much to others I worried that she would become exhausted. Yet love is an inexhaustible resource. The more we give the more we have to give. It is also contagious.
When I tuck my daughter into bed, I remind her that our lives are all about love, and that the love that grandma gave to us and others, we must share with others – through thoughtfulness, gentle words and kind actions great and small.
Upcoming post: Falling in Love and Staying in Love – Cognitive Couples Therapy.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a physician and writer. His Healthwise column appears regularly in this paper, and his blog can be found at davidicuswong.wordpress.com, twitter.com/drdavidicuswong and facebook.com/davidicus.wong. His Positive Potential Medicine radio show is at pwrnradio.com.