You know it’s Valentine’s Day when storefronts are sick with every shade of red. You’d think love was important. Certainly the most acceptable four-letter word in our language.
We also think we are a very loving people.
Except, of course, when it comes to gay and interracial love, and then we say, uh, not so much. Already, something’s wrong here.
Certainly we don’t understand it, however much it’s studied. Love may be long or brief, hurt as much as it heals, and we’re clueless why.
We could just shut up about it: Most of what we say about love is incurably romantic — and if it sounds good and feels good, we think it must be both good and true. Unless there’s more to it than pretty words.
People used to think what their popes and monarchs believed, and woe to those who didn’t. Then individuals came to hold beliefs that were true for them, regardless what others thought.
That’s when love declared its independence, thanks to folks like the troubadours, who advocated for it in art, song and poetry. Marriages were arranged before love became democratic.
The love we now follow by the call of our hearts, however, works no better than love arranged. In this free and democratic society, more than half of marriages don’t last because love doesn’t. We freely find love and lose it, honor and dishonor it, respect and disrespect it, nurture and starve it. We give ourselves to each other, and take ourselves away.
We could learn from certain love stories, but we must pay close attention: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella each was saved by a suitor, but were they truly in love? Sleeping Beauty gazed at her liberator “in a friendly fashion,” and Snow White “felt friendly” toward her rescuer — as if they dared not call it love, certainly not at “first sight.” Apparently more is involved in real love.
And each woman was beautiful, but who isn’t, to those who love us? In love, we are all beautiful. But we must be ourselves, for love does not seek our counterfeit.
Bettelheim said that fairy tales imply that falling in love is something that happens, while being in love demands so much more, and added that, charming as it is to be loved, not even being loved by a prince guarantees happiness.
Tyrants despise freedom, including that of love. The troubadours were not the hippies of their day — the counter-culture, as often portrayed; they were actually nobility in a part of France that spread through Europe in the 12th century. Before, there was eros, sexual desire; and agape, spiritual love. Both are impersonal. One cares little for the whole person; the other is love of neighbor regardless of who it is. As Joseph Campbell noted, agape is not passion but compassion.
The troubadours touted amor, personal love, with all its pleasures and disappointments, but which by commitment can deepen and enrich through time and loss of newness.
The democracy of love threatened not only politics, but religion. The Church controlled love and lovers and tried to crush personal love by persecuting the troubadours.
So there is also danger in love. Consider Tristan and Isolde. She was to marry a king she had never laid eyes on, and was given a potion to induce her love. Her escort, Tristan, mistakenly took a nip too, then realized that, if discovered, he had but drunk his death. But he didn’t care — even if it meant his doom in the fires of hell.
Others, like Dante and Bernard Shaw, said if you are in heaven or hell, you’re where you should be because it’s where you want to be. Why would anyone want to be in hell? Hell was a creation of the Church, and to risk or suffer for love put you right where you ought to be — where your heart is, not where someone else wants you to be.
Real love always pays a price, but we would do no other. We should be ashamed that in our time that means merely fidelity, nurturing and living for another as well as ourselves.
After the troubadours came the age of chivalry, where rules of love were made by women. Men were tested to be capable of more than lust and obliged to have a gentle heart of real affection.
Somebody was listening: In Disney’s “Frozen,” a version of the classic fairy-tale, “The Snow Queen,” it was thought Princess Anna’s frozen heart could only be thawed by the kiss of true love. Then her fiancé admits he doesn’t love her: He wants only power and fortune. Happily, an embrace from her sister saved Anna. Imagine that.
Much to learn from all this. And while love may be “the greatest,” it’s a four-letter word to be used with discretion.
John Burciaga of Newburyport writes on politics, social issues and popular culture.