Why Do We Love?

All it takes is skipping between radio stations for five minutes—four of which you’ll probably be listening to “Closer”—to notice that love is a major theme of life. The hard part lies in understanding what love actually is, a concept that, believe it or not, transcends pulling someone closer in the backseat of your Rover. On a whim, I attended the most recent Agape Latte, a coffeehouse speaker series sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Church in the 21st Century Center. The speaker was Dave Manzo, a long time professor in the PULSE program. He shared experiences of struggle in his life that hugely impacted his perception of relationships and gratitude, and he got me thinking about this “love” concept I’ve been grappling to understand for a while.

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I’d just like to clarify that I am indeed capable of feeling love, and even strongly. I love my family and friends, and would be willing to sacrifice anything for a few people in my life out of love—even life itself. The issue I’m having is not with understanding the feeling of love, but with understanding its nature. I’ve always thought that in the end love emerges out of certain primeval needs. Children desperately need the love and care of their parents, so they cling to them in their youth. Even as grown ups, people don’t just stop loving their mothers when they don’t technically “need” them anymore to survive, because of the bond and infinite gratitude that was established throughout the years by that need. Similarly, parents love their children out of a primeval need to propagate the species, but also out of a natural love of what is one’s own. The theory is this: people love what they need, and people love what is their own. Just as you’re more likely to love your own fourth-grade poetry or your own drooly dog more than a stranger’s, people in general tend to love things that are theirs. We love our family, friends, and significant others because of the good and noble qualities we recognize in them, but also because we inherently need them. And through needing them and knowing them, they become our own. To a large extent I buy this theory of love. But on the other hand, I think it’s somewhat dismal and incomplete.

Manzo told two stories that reminded me of the true face of love, stories that don’t fit neatly with the needing and owning theory. The first was about working with a troubled inner-city kid who initially denied his help and mistreated him. The other was about growing extremely close to a college friend and sticking by his side until the very moment he died of cancer. Manzo’s stories reminded me that we don’t just love people because we need them. We love people because they need us, regardless of if they love us, and regardless of how much pain is involved in love and loss. We love people because of the good we see in them, but also because love is inherently good and necessary in itself. “To love another person is to see the face of God,” goes the quote from Les Miserables that Manzo mentioned in his talk. For those who believe in God, it’s not hard to understand that God doesn’t love us because he needs us. Although we humans cannot love perfectly, we can also understand that true love cannot be based purely on need or ownership. There are plenty of things that we need, create, and own that we do not love. Perhaps love is based on the recognition of the ability and need for love in others.

A few weeks ago, someone in love prompted me to imagine that if love is so beautiful, how beautiful must its creator be? I retorted that whoever created love also created hate. My friend looked perplexed. He knew I was right. Perversely, I felt I’d won. But I’d forgotten one thing he told me. Love is necessary, but hate is not. We desperately need love in our lives, while hate, hate is just something that was created as a choice, he said. One could live a perfectly fulfilled life without hate, but without love, life would be impossible. And that claim I could not counter.

Featured Image by Kelsey McGee / Heights Editor