Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, which means this weekend will be packed with red and pink, hearts and roses, dates and formals. Indeed, “love will be in the air,” or so they say. For those in relationships, this weekend is an occasion for celebration. For others, as Yik Yak will no doubt attest, Valentine’s Day often yields insecurity and heavy hearts.
Everyone wants to love and be loved, whether in romance, friendship or family. Indeed, we are wired for love. But what, actually, is love? The answer to that question frames one’s entire worldview. Nothing could be more important than getting that answer right.
Is this universal longing for love merely a desire, feeling, sensation or sentiment—perhaps just chemical reactions in the brain? Is it a quest for self-gratification, for pleasure? Or is love something different, something more radical, something more “other”?
Among the most quoted texts in all of literature on the subject of love comes from Paul of Tarsus, writing to the people of Corinth, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.”
The jaded might discard Paul’s text as a list of platitudes—patience, kindness, humility and honesty—mom and apple pie. But embedded in that litany is a phrase packed with power: Love seeks not its own interests. To love another—to be patient, kind and humble and to rejoice in the truth—we must want and do what is good for another, for that person’s sake. One of the best philosophers of love—Aristotle—anticipated Paul by more than 400 years when he articulated that very proposition in his hallmark work, the “Nicomachean Ethics.”
When love pivots on “self-donation,” it becomes a gift, a free offering to another, a “gratis” or “grace.” And when another responds in kind, a reciprocity develops, forming a synergy of grace. One’s heart throbs as love, which is our lifeblood, flows into and out of the heart, powering the synergy of grace that sustains rich and durable relationships.
Love, thus understood, is surely not a feeling, sensation or sentiment. And far more importantly, love cannot be a utilitarian game. One person cannot “use” another for self-gratification and at the same time make a gift of oneself. Moreover, using another objectifies the other and, in doing so, degrades the other’s inestimable dignity and personhood. We are human persons, not instruments.
Does “consent,” the celebrated moral imperative of our day, cure the utilitarian problem? Can two people just contractually agree to hook up for their respective pleasures? No, not without reducing both participants—the other and the self—to objects and destroying their respective personhood. The participant seeking the hook-up reduces the “partner” (predominantly an economic term) to an instrument of one’s own self-seeking, pleasurable use.
That participant also degrades his or her own self: first, by objectifying the self as an instrument of use by the other and, second, by seeking only self-serving, physical pleasure from an interaction that should be directed toward the good of the other. Consent thereby becomes a pact of mutual self-annihilation—both participants agree to reduce their respective personhood to nihil—which only magnifies the utilitarian problem.
But if love is not about self-interest, must it focus only on the good of the “other”? Or might it gratify the lover too? Love absolutely gratifies the lover, though not by the seeking of one’s own interests. As Saint John Paul the Great explained, when a lover obeys the “Law of the Gift” and chooses the good of the beloved, the lover grows in virtue and, therefore, happiness and true “gratification”—with more good comes more “gratis.” And when the gift of self is reciprocated by the beloved and the synergy of grace is formed, both persons, as Paul says, “rejoice with the truth.”
The common celebration of truth leads to a third dimension of authentic love. Aristotle teaches that reciprocal love is focused not solely on the lover and beloved but is sustained by their shared understanding of and participation in the values that inform the life of virtue and happiness. They pursue that life together and thereby flourish in a dynamic and reinforcing manner.
Within the framework of this column, the imago Dei, that “third dimension” of love—the shared pursuit of the good life—is the common embrace of the transcendent God, the ultimate origin of grace itself. The synergy of grace is thereby completed and allows both people to become the images of God that we are all meant to be.
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The Trinitarian essence of God gives that paradigm an even deeper meaning because God, as Trinity, is literally Love itself. The Trinity, the namesake of Trinity College, subsists as an interplay of reciprocal, dispossessing relations among three divine persons: the transcendent Father and the consubstantial Son are in perpetual and perfect self-giving (loving) reciprocity, from which proceeds the Holy Spirit, the very expression of love itself. Because we are made in God’s image, the relationality of the Trinity is the model for our own relations: reciprocal self-donation that cleaves toward the transcendent.
So, if you are looking for true love this Valentine’s Day, look into the heart of the other (whether lover, friend or family) and serve his or her best interests. Embrace the other for who he or she is, not for what the other can do for you or what pleasure the other can provide you. And give yourself to the other as you actually are—not a superficial version of yourself. Then, when the other embraces you for who you actually are and for what is truly, objectively good for you, the two will form a synergy of grace, with each giving and receiving, receiving and giving. All the while, turn upward, allow your hearts to throb, and jointly embrace Love itself.
William Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.