We’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. You might think that odd considering Valentine’s Day is still three and a half months away, but that’s not the type of love we mean. We are not writing of the love of candy and flowers and candle lit dinners. We’ve been thinking of the love that surrounds all of us. Our pondering may have started when we were wrapping up last week’s post and included a quote from Fred Rogers.
Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.
That’s the love of friendship, companionship, and emotional ties. Deep friendships exist to remind each other that people are lovable without having to perform for it. But not without having to work for it. This may be why anthropologist Robin Dunbar postulated that our closest circle of contacts, our “loved ones,” rarely exceeds five people as we discussed in our post High Five. It is hard work loving others with Pragma (committed) and Agape (selfless) love as we described in Three Little Words.
It may seem odd to speak of love as work, but it is true. As Mr. Rogers said, love is active, it requires movement, activity, energy. Echoing this thought, Pope Francis said of love:
Those who love do not stand around doing nothing. Those who love serve.
In a service where there are two people, whether one or both of them decide to act on that service, to be there to listen, to empathize, to support, and to accept, and to keep doing that over and over, depends on how much they love each other.
Some psychologists have suggested that altruistic behavior is so hard, many people begin to resent the constant giving with no receiving, going so far as to suggest a new behavior, reciprocal altruism. We have mixed feelings about this. If it is reciprocal, it’s not selfless, but enters the quid pro quote behavior setting of playful, romantic, or physical love (Ludus, Eros, Philia). But we do agree there can be a limit to altruistic behavior although not necessarily to selfless love.
The difference between altruism and selfless love is the recipient. A pure altruistic giver may engage with unknown recipients, complete strangers, and clearly does not expect anything in return. This can be anything from anonymous donations to a local charity to an altruistic kidney donation to a stranger on an organ donor waiting list. Although there are rare instances of people who cannot stop giving, the pure altruist gives until they no longer feel the benefit from doing for others exceeds their need to give, and at that point their giving slows or even stops. In the case of Pragma or committed love, or Agape or selfless love, the giver and receiver are in a knowing relationship, one of emotional intimacy not otherwise dominated by a romantic or physical connection.
As we said in Three Little Words, “there is no pure form of each love. Some characteristics of each of the seven types of love can be found in all of the seven types of love.” Some of the seven loves depend on, and almost demand reciprocity. It then is possible that a selfless lover may at times feel put upon or even taken advantage of without some acknowledgement. But unlike some of the other loves, the response a pure selfless lover expects may be nothing more than an occasional recognition, a verbal acknowledgement or physical gesture, that signals the receiver knows a two way relationship exists and it is appreciated. This is why we also said, “any [of the seven] love can improve a person’s self-worth, build trust, or strengthen family and social ties.”
Recall the words of Pope Francis, “Those who love do not stand around doing nothing. Those who love serve.” The service of the deep companionships of Pragma and Agape also differs from pure altruism in that where the altruist is giving for the benefit of others, the selfless lover gives to a specific person for a specific good. Why a person would want to enter into Pragma or Agape with another may be explained in the words of writer and theologian C. S. Lewis:
Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.
That is, one does it because the giver wishes any action or support offered will add to the recipient’s benefit, to their “ultimate good.” But Lewis also recognized how hard love is, love of any sort, let alone one without a steady return of affection:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.
Selfless behavior always carries risks. Good intentions do not always lead to positive outcomes, and the ultimate good though expected may not be served. Bad feelings, unpleasant thoughts or responses, or unintended emotional distress can result. Why then do people want such a relationship with no guarantee of that steady return of affection. Revisiting Pope Francis, he also said of those who love selflessly:
Acts of love are gifts for those who do them even before they benefit those who receive them.
We go back to our words, “any love can improve a person’s self-worth, build trust, or strengthen family and social ties.” Agape can also increase one’s empathy, one’s general approach to kindness in other situations, and one’s overall happiness. A selfless lover also enters a greater contentment with self, appreciating the benefits of receiving as well as giving. So, perhaps then there is just a touch of selfish behavior in selfless love. But for the most part, that selfless love of deep friends and companions, is there not only to remind us that people are lovable without having to perform for it, but that we can love and be lovable, and again in the words of Fred Rogers, “to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”