Kinds of Love: A Primer

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With the arrival of a grandbaby, loving feelings lead to loving thoughts. Clearly, romance is not the only kind of ardent affection. Some might even argue it is not the best kind. Consider a few others, little buddy:

  • “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” Hearing this is the emotional equivalent of finishing fourth in a three-person race.
  • Love of a newbie, like you. Complete, selfless, consuming — as airborne and obsessed as romantic love, but without the lust.
  • Love of your parents. Not interchangeable with the immediately preceding type. For a while they will be everything. Later? Be sure to remember them!
  • Love of a friend. One of life’s greatest satisfactions according to Aristotle and psychological research.
  • Unrequited love. So heartsick a condition you will not believe you will recover. You will, Will.
  • Love of a pet. Don’t forget you must clean up the poop!
  • Love of money. The “root of all evil.” Not the money itself, but the love of it. Read about King Midas so you recognize him by other names when you enter the world of work.
  • Chocolate! It doesn’t measure up to romance, but chocolate is more reliable!
  • Music or art, as in “I love this song.”
  • Materialistic love, as in “I love my toy.” Later it will be, ”my car.” No difference.
  • Love of learning. You are already learning lots, kiddo.
  • Love of self. A necessary thing. At its extreme, however, known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
  • God.

Now consider how these differ, little man. Some involve feelings for an abstraction (a deity) while others focus on the concrete: a person or a material object. A beloved can be literally “to die for.” You might give your life to save someone you adore, but probably not a piece of chocolate, a Taylor Swift song, or a Bruckner symphony. Especially a Bruckner symphony. People have died for their faith and their homeland. You will learn about Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War hero, who said, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Love comes with worry about the beloved’s well-being. Affection also involves the fear your fondness won’t be returned. Or will be returned like a package unopened. To love is to unshield yourself. No wonder we “fall” in love. Be sure to wear bubble wrap to cushion the impact, kid. Even that won’t work, I’m afraid.

Your parents will let you down, Will. Not that they intend to, but mistakes happen. Forgiveness is a big part of intimacy. Even inanimate objects wear out, discolor, and break. Affection survives because of the repairman in each of us.

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Love that is perpetually awestruck is not love. You might one day get on your knees to ask for a woman’s hand, but her permanent place (and your own) isn’t on a pedestal. Nor should it be underneath one, as Woody Allen admitted in describing why his first marriage failed.

Love can motivate art or music. Loss, too, can drive creation, as in songs of heartbreak. Joseph Suk wrote his Asrael Symphony after the death of his father-in-law Antonin Dvorak, and his wife Ottilie, Dvorak’s daughter. In Jewish mysticism, Islam, and Sikhism, the word Azrael is associated with the angel of death.

The opposite of love is indifference, not hate. Hate is closer to love than we think, as revealed by jealousy and rage over rejection. Love tends to generate possessiveness — the attempt to control — a kind of suffocation. Thus, the cry, “I can’t breathe.” Don’t suffocate anyone, my boy.

The absence of love is deforming — emotionally deforming — especially for children. Not your problem, you much-loved young man. Do, however, learn about Harry Harlow’s research on the differences between monkeys who were suckled by inanimate, surrogate “mothers” made of wire vs. those covered in fabric. Without the softness provided by the manikin’s cloth exterior, the babies developed behavioral problems.

Will 3

There is pain in distance from the thing you care for. Most of us long for sensuality, which you can find even in the aroma and taste of the chocolate I mentioned. Sensuality, however, won’t come from your goldfish: nobody dives into the bowl in the hope of a hug. Gods too, like goldfish, are out of reach. Can an abstraction alone fully satisfy a human made of bone, flesh, and a beating heart? Let me know when you have an answer.

Love of a human or a pet, sometimes even a country or a deity, brings obligation. Such demands will restrict you. You can’t fly to a Parisian holiday if your child is sick, should you be so lucky to have one of your own. As Francis Bacon wrote, “A man who hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” His freedom of action is encumbered by the “hostages.” Yours might be, too.

One present you give people you love is your presence: your time and focus. Much is said about “quality time,” but quantity is desperately important. Frank Bruni hit the target in The Myth of Quality Time:

“Couples move in together not just because it’s economically prudent. They understand, consciously or instinctively, that sustained proximity is the best route to the soul of someone; that unscripted gestures at unexpected junctures yield sweeter rewards than scripted ones on date night; that the ‘I love you’ that counts most isn’t whispered with great ceremony on a hilltop in Tuscany. No, it slips out casually, spontaneously, in the produce section or over the dishes, amid the drudgery and detritus of their routines. That’s also when the truest confessions are made, when hurt is at its rawest and tenderness at its purist.”

Your parents can’t schedule your first word, Will. Or your first step or first heartbreak. Life plays out unpredictably. I hope we are all lucky enough to see a good part of yours.

Children — your own — will need more than your presence, of course. A conscientious and stable parent tries not to burden his offspring with his own problems. By the way, your mom and dad are raising you so that you become independent enough to flee them. Hard to believe, isn’t it, when they hold you so close you feel you are in heaven? They do, too.

Many things are done for someone you love, as you will recognize by keeping an eye on your folks. I’m talking about generosity, care, and protection, not to mention self-sacrifice. Selfishness and infidelity are among those actions you don’t perform if your attachment is genuine.

Be careful what you say, my boy. That is, once your learn to talk. We reveal personal things to someone we love unsaid to others. A hard truth is another kind of utterance limited to only a few. At least, if you do it for their sake and not your own. Aristotle expected a real friend to try to keep his buddy from going off the rails. Then again, some statements are also held back for fear of injuring the person to whom you are close.

Even in love, however, not everything is disclosed. If your future partner hears your every thought, she will run screaming into the night.

Love means defending a confidant even in his absence. You do not conspire against him or sit by in silence while others do. The only exception to this rule I can think of is Brutus, the “noblest Roman of them all,” who slayed Julius Caesar.

What you do for someone you love is often unseen. What you do when you betray someone is usually unseen, as well. Camouflage identifies dishonorable intentions. Unless, that is, the secrecy leads to a birthday surprise.

You know none of this, buddy. You will not take a course in “Love” at college. A young person can only scrutinize, listen, stumble and try again. So, little guy, in matters of the human heart, you have much to learn. Love is a subject more difficult than calculus and more important.

Your mom and dad will be there to teach you, to touch you, to watch over you and listen to you. They will pick you up when you trip and encourage you to try again. Perhaps there is sort of instruction to be found in them and their actions, a model. Pay attention to their example and you will receive a tuition by intuition and observation.

The university, after all, can only teach so much. Matters of the heart are learned face-to-face.

I’ve seen you checking out the faces nearest you. Those faces are crazy about you, William. In that domain, kiddo, you are already a lucky boy.

The first image is called De Kuss by Bernardien Sternheim. It was made available by Marcel Oosterwijk, Amsterdam, via Wikimedia Commons. The other two photos are a bit closer to home.

14 thoughts on “Kinds of Love: A Primer

  1. Beautiful beyond measure. I am so happy that this little boy has entered your life and brought you such joy. I have read of many a grandparent who has spoken about how it is like falling in love. But it is wonderful to read it expressed like this. I will confide in you that I have a very selfish fear of my therapist becoming a grandmother at some point in the future. A little like fearing the arrival of a sibling perhaps. It is clearly a great love and all consuming, as you suggest….but luckily there is not a finite supply! Thank you for writing so beautifully and letting us see and share in your joy. He is one lucky little boy too – you have much to show him and teach him and I feel sure that he will cherish you….

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    • You are very sweet. You are right about your therapist. She wouldn’t be as good as she is if she didn’t have the capacity to give — from which you have already benefited.

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  2. What lovely words. You write so beautifully.

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  3. I hope you save this and give it to him when he’s older, maybe when he’s about to go off to college, or whenever you think he’s ready. Maybe give it to him multiple times, at different stages in his life. It’s a warm and beautiful gift to receive from a loving grandfather.

    My maternal grandparents loved my siblings and me freely, generously, with open, happy hearts. My relationship to them was one of the few uncomplicated relationships in my life. My grandfather often showed his love through silly teasing. I have a silly letter he wrote to me when I was in college, and I treasure it. It’s a symbol of the love we had for each other, and the joking tone brings him back to life for me, twenty years after he’s gone. This letter (and others you write later) can be that to Will.

    Not that you will be gone from his life for a very long time, of course. But one day he’ll be settling into middle age and writing about the love you gave him and how he can still hear your voice through your letter.

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    • Thank you. My eyes got moist reading your message. When my own children were born, I made a recording of the day for each of them within 24 hours of the event. For my eldest it was particularly hard to get through the recitation. And, as you have suggested, the plan was to give each the recording when they reached 21, which I did. Sounds like you had a great relationship with your grandparents. What a gift that it still lives inside of you.

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  4. Ah, eloquently and heartfelt said. We raise our children with love, affection, and protection. The hard part is not protecting them as they grow older, so they learn how to protect themselves. Love is also not just emotional, it has to be intelligent as well. Otherwise, how do we learn to let go when those we love leave us, like my Parents did. I do not fault them for not being immortal; but I will always miss them. For the kids, grandkids, friends, significant others, good chocolate and coffee (my personal favorite combination), Love now, there is no later.

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  5. What a poignant piece of writing! it is filled with the truth as I know it too. As another reader suggested, I do hope you give William a copy of this piece as he grows older.
    William is lucky to have you in his life. Except for one grandfather who was very aloof, my grandparents were dead by the time I came along. My own children had the same fate. There was only one grandmother left for them and grand-parenting was not for her. So, should I ever get that chance to be a grandparent, I am going to use you as my model!
    Thanks for a well written piece. JT

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  6. So fun. Keep on writing to him!

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  7. A meditation on love. Thanks, Dr. Stein.

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