“Everyone is deserving of love, but few are capable of finding it”.
I was watching a video essay in which someone uttered this flagrant offence to actual love and became so incensed I had to write down why I find this position a despicable misunderstanding of any meaningful discussion of the concept.
First, let’s clarify our definitions. The above is referring to love in its noun form, describing the state of being-in-love or being loved or loving or falling in love or complete happiness (which is invariably the supposed outcome of a properly fulfilled love in fairytales and popular media East, West, North, and South) or any number of other variations familiar from everyday life and film, art, literature, gossip down the hairdresser’s, or two pints and a whiskey in the bar. It’s already clear that there is some difficulty in pinning down to what exactly we might be referring when using the term ‘love’. Therefore the question arises, straightforwardly enough: what is love?
Language can only describe concepts in the negative and in the abstract – which means we can effectively say what love is not and what it is generally (as opposed to extremely precisely what it is, and what it might be in any specific situation).
The concept of love here is not familial or platonic love, both of which are noble passions with venerable histories, but not our subject. This leaves romantic love in its fully complex, multifarious, cliché and intimate forms. Love in this sense is distinguished from friendship – though one can certainly be friends with a partner with whom one is also in love. Love here is also distinguished from a relation based purely on physical contact, which can be familiarly and generally known as lust – though again, one can certainly also lust after a lover. Love should also be distinguished from other terms including fondness, affection, duty, responsibility, kindness, compassion, care, interest, passion, comfort, convenience, fairness, support, exchange, calculation, mutuality, consideration, obligation, dependence, happiness, bliss, joy, fulfilment, contentment, satisfaction. These are all things which love is not. And, to respond once more to the quote above, love is most certainly not something of which everyone is deserving.
Perhaps the immediate question here will be: do I therefore argue that there are people who are not deserving of love?
Yes. There are people who are not deserving of love. The quote above, by suggesting that everyone is deserving of love, is able to also claim that love is like some rare species of near-extinct insect. Known about by many, actually encountered by few. This assumption that love is inherently difficult to encounter (as if there’s simply a scarcity of the commodity on the world market) and that everyone should somehow be entitled to a share is what I am opposed to here. It is not the case that A) love is an entitlement for all; and B) love is hard to locate in the uncharted jungles of misguided passions. It is the case that people fail to encounter love because, straightforwardly, they do not deserve to encounter it. But that requires more nuancing.
More precisely: I’d argue that most people do encounter love in a minimal form. The reason that it remains only in a minimal form and does not transform into a lasting form, or rather, resembles the transcendent model of pure bliss or unfailing contentment that is so familiar from poetry, painting, and mythology is an entirely different problem.
I’ll briefly set out more of what I mean.
Firstly, love is asymmetrical by definition. On the subjective level it can only be given and never asked for. That which is given under duress, or given at request, or even given at the offer of mutual benefit does not qualify as love. If one partner gives the other something in exchange for reasonable recompense, then this is nothing more than an economic relation – which can be extremely pleasant, affable, and compassionate, it must be said, but does not qualify as love. This is why it is possible to be in love without being reciprocated and to receive love without reciprocating, or perhaps even realising.
Secondly, love is an absolute relation by definition. On the subjective level there is no negotiation about it, by which I mean, if asked a question such as ‘what do you love about me?’, it is an incorrect answer to list any specific set of qualities and also an incorrect answer to say every, any, and all qualities. This is not a case of ‘all or nothing’, which remains a negotiation. One who demands you receive and accept all of their character traits or none at all is not asking for love – he is asking for a positive response to any behaviour imaginable, which means he is asking for a guarantee of a positive outcome, which amounts to narcissism, like playing poker alone and congratulating oneself on a high-stakes victory. The correct answer to ‘what do you love about me?’ is nothing, which is to say that regardless and irrespective of any given quality which may define your character or transiently pass through your personality (many of which one may find distasteful, unpleasant, ugly, and even overtly caution against or despise), the object of love remains unchanged. This is what I mean by absolute, with no negotiation, in this case. Of course one may individually love and hate various traits of personality or appearance, but this is not relevant to love of the singular object beneath the various traits.
Thirdly, love is non-pragmatic and non-utilitarian. A principle reduced by example from the two above, this means that love is always an end-in-itself. One never loves for-the-sake-of something else, and one never does something for-the-sake-of love. Any such action is disqualified from the realm of love. The first formulation will not be so objectionable; philosophy since Kant has been happy to claim all people should be ends-in-themselves, and that one should not use people for-the-sake-of some other goal, much less love them in such a way. The second formulation will strike the modern listener as more strange, however. Is it not one of the most common tropes of love in its current romantic expression that we ‘do X for-the-sake-of love’? A glace at a hundred romcom film scripts will show that a love has come to be measured by what one is willing to give up for it – but this is a misunderstanding. Love is not pragmatic – it cannot be reduced to what one does any more than the more common criticism that it not be what one says. If love were measurable in this way, the outcome would be calculable in advance, which would, again, make it no more than an economic exchange, which it is not. Rather, love never has a what-for, and never has a for-love, which is to say it has no reasoning that is publicly expressible. Privately, within one’s own subjective experience, it may make perfect sense, but this sense should never be fully expressible in word, gesture, action, or any form of information available to the public. In other words, it cannot be generic, but must be specific to the direct union between the loving subject and the beloved object.
Fourthly, love is uncertain by definition. Directly related to and due to the above, because it is simply not wholly expressible, calculable, knowable, and only really communicates by analogy, allusion, and metaphor (which is why the tenderest expressions of love have forever been heralded as beautiful whether they be in literature, song, film, physical gift, photograph or facebook message), it is never certain that the love one is giving is being received by the beloved party, and it is furthermore never certain that the love one receives truly qualifies as love. The only real counter claim possible here would be to suggest that direct access to the inner mind of another subject is possible. I think it is not. As such, in order to adequately love for any meaningfully extended period of time requires a constant renewal of commitment in the face of uncertainty. This means a reaffirmation that one’s love is being given without any guarantee of reciprocation or even of it arriving at its destination; a reassertion of the love’s absolute character – that it is not confused with any characteristic of the beloved or its totality; a renewal of the love’s independence, that is, its refusal to be reduced to mere pragmatic acts or utilitarian gains; and a repetition of the love’s uncertainty, that there is no necessary correlation between anything one might know, think, or feel about the love and its reality, and the resolve to pursue it in spite of this. As the great author Murakami Haruki puts it: it always has to be the first time and the last.
With these tenets established, it is much easier to see how and why I declaim the idea of love being deserved by all but encountered by few. Love is rather encountered by many in a minimal form, but fails to take root because those who encounter it fail to complete the commitments necessary to make it into a meaningful relation.
Consider again our definition: expressions which are utterly one-sided, absolutely centred on one love-object, without rhyme or reason, and without any certainty of reciprocation, acknowledgement, or even understanding, are in fact, extraordinarily common. I cannot think of an individual I know who has not attempted to either deliver or perhaps witlessly received such an act in her lifetime. Hence, acts of love, in a minimal mode of expression, are practically universal. The reason Love as an enduring and stable state is much less common is, to my mind, largely because of a failure to understand the basic characteristics of what it is to love as set out above, and in particular, a failure to complete the final stage of repetition or commitment. Note that I am not talking about the failure of successful relationships here – as one can be wildly in love but have a catastrophic relationship, just as one can have a lifelong relationship which is explicitly loveless. I am specifically focused on an ongoing state of love (which, it should also be noted, does not have to register as necessarily ‘romantic’ in the terms with which we are familiar).
So to be clear one more time: to claim that ‘everyone is deserving of love’ is straightforwardly incorrect. Noone, in fact, is deserving of love in any inherent sense. Unless one is willing to give it and ask for nothing in return, to love an object without any criterion save its own identity, to love without ever being understood in the why or what-for, and to repeat these commitments in the face of uncertainty, one will never successfully give love. And giving love, or rather, loving, is a much more important category than deserving love, which noone does, since given the above criteria for love itself, if one only gave love to one who deserved it, this would by definition disqualify it from the realm of love in the first place, and if one only received love because one deserved it, this would put into question the very intention of the love-giver (because who indeed evaluates who to fall in love with by assessing their moral right to deserve it?).
Not a soul alive or dead has ever deserved love. But every soul that has ever loved has found that each and every single time they’ve given it, it has always been the first time and the last.