By Dayna Mason
In our culture we use the word “love” to express many things—I love that shirt! I love your hair. I love hiking in the mountains. But do we truly love any of these things? Chances are, what we feel about these things is a strong affinity, but is it really love, or something else? And if it’s something else, what is real love?
The dictionary defines love as “an intense feeling of deep affection.” But I’d like to propose that real love in its purest form is more significant than that, and when we offer it, we give freedom to ourselves and others.
Love vs Desire
Desire is a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen. To long for, wish for, demand, expect—an emotion directed toward attainment or possession of an object.
Desire seeks to get—to possess.
We can find the deeper meaning of the word love in action in the root of the word “free.” Free comes from the Old English word “freogan,” which means to set free, to liberate, to love. The word free evolved from the 13th century as the concept of unrestrained movement, to setting free one’s beloved (in contrast to enslaving them), to giving without cost. All of these meanings apply to real love. Real love is to liberate—to give freedom (the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint). Real love is to give without cost to another.
Love seeks to give—to offer freedom.
When we make demands, or require expectations to be met by another person, we are seeking to “get” not to “give” and this is not love.
In relationship, when we seek to possess someone, we are operating out of desire (to long for, demand, expect), not love. Because love wants the other’s freedom and has no desire to possess. Often, when we say I love you, we’re not saying we want to contribute to another’s life in a way that makes it better for them without any expectations. What we’re saying is—If I give you this, I expect you to give me that in return—I will love you as long as you love me. I will care for you as long as you care for me.
This is not love. It’s a transaction. The term unconditional love is redundant. Real love is unconditional.
Love seeks nothing in return. No agenda, no expectations. Love is self-sacrificing—not for the sake of being a martyr, or getting recognition, but because it cannot help itself.
Setting healthy personal boundaries
Just because love is self-sacrificing, it doesn’t mean we abandon ourselves or become a “doormat” to make someone else happy. We need to love ourselves too. If we make a sacrifice for someone we care about, it needs to be because we want to, not because we feel obligated or because we fear the consequences of not doing it.
Healthy personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others.
A boundary always deals with oneself, not the other person. We are not demanding that they do something—even respect our boundaries. We are setting boundaries to say what we will do or will not do. Only these kinds of boundaries are enforceable, because we only have control over ourselves.
For example, if someone in our life swears, and we don’t want to be around profanity, we could request that they not swear around us. No force, no demands, just communication of what is best for us. If they choose not to change their behavior, then we would decide what we need to do to take care of ourselves. If the only way we can prevent the unwanted experience is to avoid the person, then that may be what we do. Not as a punishment for them, but to honor ourselves.
We cannot change what we dislike in another person. Love accepts people as they are and respects their choice to be that way. But we can decide what is best for us, given their choice.
When we love, we will risk our own lives to save another’s life without even thinking about it. Love can’t help it—it’s more powerful than our will to survive.
According to the writer and scholar of comparative religion Thomas Merton, “Love is not just something that happens to you: it is a certain special way of living and being alive. Love is an intensification of life, a reverence, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness—a perfection of life.”
When we truly love each other, we experience far more than just a mutual need for each other’s company and consolation. In loving relationship we become different people—more than our everyday selves. We become more alive, more understanding, more abiding, more enduring, more patient, more courageous. We become better people. We are transformed by the power of love.
Give this a try. Without expecting anything in return, even acknowledgment, do something for someone in secret, in a way that they may not even realize anything has been done for them, in a way that you won’t hear any feedback on the receipt of the gift. Then, notice how you feel. Can you let go of the attachment to the satisfaction of “acknowledgment” and just give, no expectations?
That’s what real love does.
Real love seeks to understand, not to be understood. Real love gives us freedom, and in that freedom, we feel safe to grow into our full potential.
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