L O V E
The backside of stooped shoulders and slightly askew head of a middle-aged man caught my attention. His right-hand maneuvered the console of his motor-powered wheelchair, propelling him slowly down the sidewalk. Looking closer, I saw a woman propped awkwardly in his lap, both oblivious to the traffic bustle. I nearly hit the car in front of me, gawking at the profoundly beautiful sight.
The slender woman clung to the man’s neck, with her head nuzzled into his broad chest. Her crippled legs waggled on and off his lap, submitting to the rhythm of craggy pavement. He was holding someone dear to him—his wife, his daughter, his girlfriend—I don’t know. What mattered was he literally carried and protected her.
The radio and the traffic all faded into silence as time slide into slow motion. Yearnings, awe, and envy collided somewhere deep inside me, evoking a tear. I felt the profound love I saw.
On my routine drive home from work, I encountered unconditional love. This man and woman radiated a total acceptance of each other, a literal embracing of imperfections.
Seeing the couple got me thinking about love. Most of us spend our lives trying to find love, trying to live in love, and die without ever truly discovering love because we expect it to show up on our doorstep, on our next birthday, or in the mail. "When I get…" "When I am…" "If only…" then I’ll find love and be happy. We sometimes think love will come to us or simply happen one day.
We equate love with sex, attraction, security, pleasure, romance, or attention. Love can be all of these things or none of these things. Our ability to love must be learned. Learning to love is not a neat and tidy process. We don’t have to love perfectly. It’s okay to make mistakes, to learn, and to grow.
While there’s no rulebook on how to love, we can better understand love in four levels:
Four Levels of Love
Love 1: The Feeling of Love
This level of love is limited to the physical and sexual aspect of attraction. "How attractive am I?" "Does he only desire me for my body?" "Does she only like me for my money?" It’s healthy to be desirable and to desire another person. A relationship runs into trouble when love is based only on the level of desirability the couple arouses in each other. The feeling of love doesn’t last long when it’s based on desirability because this is a superficial level of intimacy. I doubt that the love the couple in the wheelchair shared was limited to physical attraction.
Love 2: Love as Being Loved
This level of love needs a continuous ego-boost and is mostly a self-love. Our sense of being wanted is so important we will grasp at anyone or anything feeding our self-esteem and need for attention. With a Love 2 attitude, "I love you," may really mean, "I love that you make me more popular or powerful."
In a sexual relationship this may translate into seeing the beloved as a trophy—a prize enhancing our own desirability and ego. This attitude makes it very easy to justify control and manipulation of the beloved, and even easier not to commit "in case something better comes along."
Love 1 and Love 2 are immediately gratifying, intense, and superficial kinds of love, focusing on infatuation and affection alone. The feeling of love doesn’t last long. After a while, Love 1 and Love 2 may actually get boring if they’re the only levels of love we are living for.
Sometimes Love 1 and Love 2 became our idea of love because of a difficult past. We may have gotten accustomed to not acknowledging our need for love because we lived with people who had no real love to give. Sometimes the people who cared for us had discrepancies between what they said and did. They may have said, "I love you," and then neglected, abused, or abandoned us. This became our idea of love. But, we can learn to love despite a difficult past.
The couple in the wheelchair seemed to love each other despite challenging circumstances. They were unaffected by what other people might think. I doubt they would have made the highly public journey had they been ashamed of themselves. It seemed only to matter that they were together and headed in the right direction. Their love appeared deeper than Love 1 or Love 2.
Love 3: Love as making a Positive Difference
This level of love is about service. Love 3 desires to contribute. We give ourselves away in love. Every time you give someone else preference at the store or in traffic, hold the door for another, fold the laundry, wipe a dish, or lend a hand in any way—it matters not to whom—the kindness extended is Love 3. The man in the wheelchair displayed Love 3 when he gave the woman a ride.
In a sexual relationship this translates into giving the "gift of self" to the beloved—giving and receiving love, never taking. This increase in interdependence and care will normally result in an increase in intimacy, affection, attraction, and the desire for commitment (marriage).
Left to itself, Love 3 is open to a fatal flaw, namely thinking another person will bring absolute fulfillment of our heart’s desire. We cannot ultimately fulfill one another even though our love is true, intimate, and exclusively committed. This task is too great to expect another person to achieve for us, or for us to achieve for another person. The only thing that can fulfill us is the unconditional love of God.
Love 4: Love as the Imitiation of Christ
This level of love is agape love. Agape is unconditional love. It is to love as God loves. Agape is empathetic, "feeling with" and "being with" the beloved. Agape is the source of compassion, forgiveness, and empathy. Agape doesn’t require friendship, familial, or romantic love, in order to love another person.
In a sexual relationship this translates into desiring God to be apart of the exclusive commitment with our beloved, maximizing the pleasure and intimacy of each sexual encounter. God wants this for us because, after all, He created sex.
The sexual act becomes agape, a self-sacrificial love intended to always create, never destroy. Agape sees the natural dignity in each person. Agape would care for the any person, even when a person cannot repay our love.
Was the love between the couple in the wheelchair friendship, romantic, or familial love? I do not know. At the very least, the couple’s relationship was a gentle display of Love 3, the gift of self to the beloved. At best, it was agape (Love 4); a stranger helping another stranger; a man showing kindness to a woman physically unable to repay his love.
Each of us deserves to receive and give the best love that has to offer. We can learn to give and receive pervasive, enduring, and deep love (Love 3 and Love 4). The couple in the wheelchair taught me that.
Written by Shanelle Pierce, © Copyright 2005 Center for Life Principles. All Rights Reserved.
This article summarizes Love 1, 2, 3, and 4 as laid out in the book, Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues, by Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.
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