Philosophers have long pondered the power and mystery of love. Socrates learned the art of love of wisdom from a mystical woman. But Platonic love transcends the erotic. It is love that teaches us kindness, friendship, joy, wonder and wisdom. Love gives us courage and hope. It puts us in touch with the transcendent and divine.
Our funny Valentines pale in comparison with the muscular heart of love. The Valentine heart is a stylized fertility symbol. But a real heart is a throbbing muscle. Like that muscle, love is moving and alive. Its rhythms change with circumstances. Love grows stronger with exercise. It becomes weak when neglected. It can be damaged from abuse. And it suffers the pains of growth and loss.
Love is a process unfolding in time. It thickens through the life of our relationships. The deepest love persists through good days and bad, in sickness and in health — even unto death. Sometimes it is grumpy and sluggish. Other times it is joyful and exuberant. Love grows and matures. It has texture and character. It ages and evolves.
Human life is shaped by love. If you want to get to know someone, ask who and what they love. Love structures our values. It directs the energies of life. Love gives us to be. We are birthed out of love. We continue to exist so long as we love and are loved.
But love needs discipline and direction, refinement and focus. Youthful love bewilders and overwhelms. The youth falls in love. Romance happens to him or her, as an accident that comes from beyond the self. But Platonic love is not accidental. It is chosen and cultivated.
Love ripens as it flows along a constant course. The intensity of love increases as our energies are focused in specific channels. Youthful love is full of joyful shouts and raging fury. Mature love is the disciplined harmony and concentrated passion of a symphony.
Life’s greatest tragedies occur when love is lost or not yet found. The capacity for love can atrophy from underuse. This is why children need to be loved. We strengthen their ability to love by loving them. And this is why every human being needs someone and something to love — not only friends and romantic partners but also a vocation, an art, and a way of life.
We are drawn to the spirit of those who love. Great lovers live a life that overflows with energy and attraction. If you want to find love — or you want love to find you — you must practice the art of love. Love others. Love nature. Love your work. And love yourself. The energy of love reverberates. The love we give becomes the love we get.
Love must be cared for and cultivated with wisdom and common sense. We can love too much and unwisely. Toxic love harms the exploited and abused. Love can be misdirected and confused. Sexual obsession focuses love too narrowly — as does every other addiction and compulsion. Love flourishes when it is open and expansive. Love is deformed by obsession, jealousy and greed.
The life of love includes its end. Youthful love imagines itself immortal. But time grows short with every breath. Our loved ones each fade away. Every heart will someday be broken.
Death, divorce and despair can make love seem absurd. But the cure for a broken heart is not to stop it from beating. Rather the wounded heart must be taught to beat again. Thoreau once said, “there is no remedy for love but to love more.” We can do nothing more important than give hope to the loveless and love to the hopeless.
The wisest love accepts that nothing lasts forever. Religions speak of eternal love. But eternal love is beyond the human imagination. The value of human love rests in its fragility. We love flowers, sunsets, and children because we know that each precious moment eventually passes into oblivion.
But the wonder of mortal love is its resilience and tenacity. We are made for love. We can’t help ourselves. So long as we live, there is love — the powerful and mysterious throb of life’s urge to go beyond itself.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala