A couple of years ago I asked one of my favorite students: “If the desire for love is universal, why is it so hard to find?”
I was referring to romantic love. However, for many even something as basic as parental love can be difficult to find. Why is it hard? I was brought up to believe that love, more or less, grows on trees. All that takes to achieve it is a smile. I was loved because I was the baby of the family — and that was it. I had no concept of ‘finding love’ the way a young man discovers his favorite school subject, future occupation, and so on. Love was a given.
Once I started first grade, however, and began to show interest in the opposite sex, love took on a new meaning. I was not fully aware of it at age six, but love became elusive. If it still grew on trees, it was attached to one of the highest branches — and I was too short to reach it. Moreover, I found that I no longer understood love in the same way. Love became confusing. My friends would question why I had strong feelings for the girl who picked her nose, had crooked teeth, didn’t have friends, and so on. It was not yet a question of rejection because I had never viewed love as something I could be deprived of — and I was still too young and shy to ‘make a move.’ I was only capable of passive romantic love in my grade school years. I had friends who seemingly developed faster, but I was too self-absorbed to be affected by their modest exploits.
However, when I hit puberty it became increasingly clear that I liked women — perhaps even loved a few to the extent that you can love someone you hardly know — but still had no idea what to do with those feelings. Even the short sex ed unit in science class did little to help. No one had ever told me that love takes skill, work, and commitment. God damn them.
This is the central point: why does love take all that effort? Love is not an achievement. Those I have loved throughout my life did not earn my love the way a good student earns good grades. They did not apply for my love the way the unemployed submit job applications. I saw things in them I liked, and this grew over time as we developed shared experiences. They became more and more familiar until they became a part of me — until they weren’t (i.e. breakup). This is the paradox. It can be easy to fall in love but very difficult to sustain it. Romantics find themselves awash with competition, and there are countless ways to fail at love given societal standards, personal desires, expectations, and so on.
Sometimes I wonder if love itself has become just another commodity to be bought or sold. Why else would it be mandatory on certain dating services to input one’s income level? Love of money is separate from romantic love.
But then what is romantic love? We can generally agree on what sex is, marriage is, or commitment is, but not so much on what love is. Until we have a shared definition, it will remain elusive. This is the best answer I can give to the question I pose.