I would bet that the unknown author of this maxim had never experienced a lasting love, perhaps not even from his parents. The same for those who look for the catch in every act of goodness. Its cynicism is based on the misconception that we should be the passive recipients of love instead of its initiator. If I want love in the world it will start with me. I will give love and in the process the world itself will know more love. As Gandhi said, we must be the goodness (and love) that we want to see in the world.
Nowhere is this more true than in our marriages. The purpose of marriage is not to get the love we want, but to give the love we could. I am married to my wife not for the love she gives me, but for the love I give her. By loving her I discover my confidence, my self-esteem, and my essential goodness. I also discover that each year I go deeper into the mystery and wonder of love. Without my wife to love, I’m like a tennis player practicing for the tournament without anyone on the other side! I will always be mediocre to poor. Then, I’ll become like the cynical author above. I will say that love is for fools.
But what if I give all the love I have and get back nothing? What if I have a partner who is the cynical one expecting me to do all the loving? The questions imply that in a subtle way I’m still oriented around receiving love, this time after I’ve given it. “All right”, I say, “I’ll go first. But my partner must follow me or else I’ll stop loving”.
The misunderstanding here is that love depletes me as I give it away and that the recipient must quickly love me back so I can be full again. But love isn’t a zero-sum game. I don’t lose anything by loving. In fact, I gain everything even if my spouse doesn’t reciprocate. We are the direct and primary beneficiaries of the love we give every bit as much as our partners. When our loving hearts are open and tender, life flows through us more abundantly because love and the life force are the same. When we see another’s need and generously meet it, we discover our fullness of spirit. When we are willing to sacrifice a want, a privilege, or a comfort for the wellbeing of the beloved, we find an inner strength and confidence that can’t be experienced otherwise. We then contribute our goodness to the goodness of life itself. We merge with it becoming both a source for it and its reflection within a broader world. Forget all the negative news and the tweet wars. When our loving nature causes us to feel the goodness of life all around us and within us, what is there to fear?
But what if we really are with someone who cannot return love? Someone who’s abusive, addicted, narcissistic, or dishonest about life? Does love mean we stay in a hopeless marriage? No, it doesn’t. Sacrificing our wants, privileges, and comforts is not the same as sacrificing our need for respect, honesty, and loving support from our intimates. Staying under conditions where we are abused, living with an addictive partner, donating our lives to feed the emptiness of a narcissist, or witnessing our partner living from values we cannot respect would be foolish self-denial. But even here we have the choice to leave a bad marriage with or without hate and cynicism. Perhaps here the only form love can take is to go without harboring hate, especially where there are children involved.
But there’s an interesting fact about love. If we are genuinely learning about life as we love, we find ourselves drawn more to other lovers than to the me-first takers of love. We discover that character is worth more than charisma, that love tends to deepen our values, and that as compelling as infatuation is, it’s the worst condition under which to make a permanent decision. We also learn that while sex and love can go together, they can just as well run on entirely different tracks leading to completely different stations. In other words, love is self-correcting as the heart becomes both wiser and purer.
Love could be a misunderstanding between two fools, two immature people who are waiting for their delivery of love. Or it could be the deep happiness of two people who love loving each other.