What is Love?

If love is not like, (we can breathe a sigh of relief that it is possible to love our children even when we sometime don’t like them), then what is it?

There was a long online discussion I read once a long time ago. It started with the heading: “Love is…” and left it for people to finish the sentence. It ran for many pages. There were views and contributions from all points of view – religious, philosophical, whimsical, serious, some disturbing.

But I do remember the final entry which seemed to stop the discussion cold, just like that. It felt like it was so simple and profound that no one else had anything more to say.

It read: “Love is…. you, not me.”

And the online debate ended right there.

Love is… you have it, not me. You eat, not me. If it comes down to it, you live, not me. At the risk of sounding like I promote martyrdom as a good thing, the “not me” part is crucial. If it’s just “you”, then it’s really just good wishes to the well-off and sympathy to the less fortunate. “I wish you well, I really do,” but there is nothing I am prepared to sacrifice to make good that wish. If it’s “you and me” then that’s not love, that’s sharing. A good thing, no doubt, but the principle here is equality and fairness.

Any act which impresses us as an act of love must involve sacrifice. Otherwise, it’s just a good intention that never becomes a reality. It is the act of giving up one’s interests, or even one’s actual self, that defines love. Addicts like me here will prick their ears at this. Recovery is a program of action, not thinking.

And the measure of love is the measure of the sacrifice. How much I love my kids is determined by how much I am willing to give up for them. Christians here will find this idea tantalizingly familiar -“Greater love has no man than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.”

So, if love is wanting the best for someone AND being willing to sacrifice for them, can I love my enemy?


I don’t want to, I certainly don’t have to be happy about it, but yes I can love my enemies. Through gritted teeth if necessary, but I can do it.

In the Rooms, we get to practice this by talking to anxious newcomers. Talking with struggling brothers late at night. Gently telling hard truths if necessary. In these, we want the best for the other person, and we are willing to sacrifice time, energy, personal popularity to get it for them, if possible. By practice, I mean, literally. More like “practising the piano” – making a mess, but trying again and again, instead of “practising law” or “practising medicine” – where there is a presumption of a decent level of competence.

Loving enemies probably comes with a lot of practice, and likely later in recovery, but sometimes not as long as one would expect. (See here.)

In any case, does this work as a definition? I think it does. It makes sense. It fits even aside from the religious context. It’s realistic about our limitations (just try liking someone you simply don’t!) and it’s real. Really real, if that makes sense.

At the moment, this is the definition I’m using not just for this blog, but for my life. So far so good. But I’ll be sure to update you if things change.

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