I was surprised to learn that “What is love?” was the most searched phrase on Google in 2012. It is one of those questions we can never really answer, but can use to guide our lives, in the sense Rilke suggested of “living the question.”
Asking the question “What is love?” has been a practice of mine for years. I ask it whenever I remember: washing the dishes, sitting at the computer, looking at the sky, and, of course, with other people. The question often brings me back to what is most important. I even come up with new ah-ha answers now and then—before I laugh at myself for imagining I will ever know. The not-knowing itself hints of the mystery of love.
I even used to consider myself a bit of an expert on the subject of love. For a time, I taught a course called “Eros: Beauty and Chaos” in which we explored many definitions of love. For me the one that rang most true was: Seeing the beauty of the other’s soul. I also used to imagine myself as quite a loving person. This is easy to do when things are going our way, by the way.
I loved sensing the sparkle in other people, even when they were grumpy or upset. But, soon enough I learned how little I knew about love. That was about the time, after many years together, my “soulmate,” who I imagined I loved most of all, abruptly left me shortly before our wedding. He cited my lack of empathy and love for him as major reasons; and soon he was with my “compassionate” replacement.
Amidst the devastation of this shock, I became more bewildered than ever about love. He was right. I felt like one of the most unloving people I could imagine! In the traumatic hurt and outrage of heartbreak and what felt like a massive betrayal, I kept asking myself, what happened to my loving nature? What is love, anyway?!
I found no easy answers. But the pain motivated me like little else in my life ever had to dive deep inside to find out. I had been thrown into a crash course not only on love, but on what stands in its way. The well-known advice that we need to love ourselves before we can truly love others stood in my way like a brick wall.
Finding Love in the Midst of Brokenness?
Unfortunately, when we are suffering most, we tend to be the most unforgiving and harsh with ourselves. I faced what seemed like the impossible task of picking up my shattered sense of self. I needed to learn to accept my brokenness, rage, and grief; and to respect these terrible feelings for the amazing teachers they are.
If we can find the heart and the grace to befriend our own suffering— rather than following the instinct to turn away from the hurt in fear and shame —something entirely unexpected happens. The heart begins to birth a deeper love. As I leaned into the mystery of my own craziness and hurt, I began to sense a subtle, precious longing for a deeper love right there in the heart of despair. It was not so much a feeling, as a distinct state of being.
I would not wish this disorienting pain on anyone; it can take years out of your life. But I must admit, coming to terms with my life-long rejection of my own grief and brokenness has taught me more what love means than anything else.
Suffering taught me the difference between love as a “special feeling”—that inevitably turns to hate and to fear—and love as a graced state of being that can connect us with all things. Jungian analyst Helen Luke said: “There is no cure for an inferior kind of love except a greater, more conscious love.”
A greater love radiates like a glowing ember in the ashes of a broken life. It is is enflamed by surrender and by radical acceptance of whatever happens to us—no matter how enraging, scary, humiliating or painful. Although I feel more than ever like a beginner, now I understand why learning to love is the work of a lifetime.
How about you—what have you learned so far about love?
Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.