What is love? Ah, the perennial question of our species. It has been posed time and again, by people from places far and wide. It has occupied the imaginations of antiquity’s masters, troubled the psyches of countless passersby. It has lent purpose to popular ballads and obsession to their twinkly-eyed, tween-aged fanatics.
This yearning to understand love—probably the most bewildering aspect of the human experience—has plagued us for quite some time now. This endlessly perplexing hodgepodge of sentiments, tightly bound up in a seemingly unassuming four-letter word, has all but driven us mad. It has taken Plato to his pen, Picasso to his paintbrush. It has been a call to arms for bitter and bloody battle (the Iliad, anyone?). It has united and sequestered us, made us and destroyed us.
The Beatles said it’s all we need. Dickinson called it the “exponent of breath.” Tennyson said something about walking in a garden. One soul, two bodies. Blah, blah, blah—you get it.
Regardless of the manner in which it is articulated, the message remains the same. Love is great. Love is grand. Love is what you should look forward to.
On this here Valentine’s eve, the overwhelming question for us ever-curious Columbians seems to be: Where is it? Where can we find this love, this pinnacle of pure passion in which we so ardently believe? In the more than momentary gaze of a subway stranger? In the all-too-agonizing Lerner package line? Somewhere between sense and sensibility, à la Austen perhaps? Or, as Neruda posits, between the shadow and the soul? (Sidenote: Let me know when I’ve hit enough literary references to make you think I’m legit.)
What if it’s nowhere to be found? What if the interminable lamentations of pajama-clad college females on Valentine’s Day are entirely misinformed? What if we are playing a useless game of hide and seek where the object of our pursuit never fails to evade us?
But don’t write me off as a nonbeliever just yet. My assertion isn’t that love does not exist, but rather that it may not exist as we’ve been conditioned to believe it does. The oft-expressed angst of our generation stems, it seems, from a perceived inability to “find love.” But to hunt after this concept of love is to presuppose that it is a firm and fast state of affairs we may conceivably aspire to. And to make such suppositions is to do a grave injustice to love and all its purported grandeur.
Thanks in no small part to books we’ve read, films we’ve watched, and stories we’ve heard revised and repeated, we conclude that love is this amazing, uplifting thing. We believe it can be characterized and identified. And in so believing, we corrupt its very essence.
Butterflies in your ravaged, post-Ferris stomach, heart-shaped boxes of candy, and audible declarations of commitment—these things aren’t love. They may be symptoms of it, but they aren’t love itself. These are finite manifestations of the infinite, outward demonstrations of what (presumably) lies within. We are confusing love as it really is, naked, for love as it appears, dressed in its prim and proper Sunday best.
In other words, the reason so many of us are failing to find love is that we are looking for it in the first place. Love is not a single marker we can achieve. It’s different for different people. We look upon Adam and Eve, Romeo and Juliet, and Kanye and Kim as all having partaken in love-filled unions—despite their having nothing in common—and that should be proof enough.
What I’m getting at is this: Maybe love is neither this nor that. Maybe it isn’t any single something, an enumerated list whose individual items ought to be checked off one by one. So maybe we all need to stop thinking about it so much, stop asking what it is, how much it will cost us, and where we can find it at this very moment. Love is not an exclusive club, a Hallmark card, happily ever after with a cherry on top.
Love is smiling, laughing, passing the time. It’s sharing a secret smirk in public every now and then. It’s printing out your best friend’s paper for her before class. It’s reminding your parents you’re still alive. Love is letting anyone near your mozzarella sticks at Tom’s. It’s simple and it’s sweet.
Our quest for love is not only a woeful waste of time but also a counterproductive effort. The philosopher Joel Feinberg puts it best: “The single-minded pursuit of happiness is necessarily self-defeating, for the way to get happiness is to forget it; then perhaps it will come to you.”
This is the paradox of hedonism. When we aim for an abstract idea like happiness or love, we move further and further away from it, closing ourselves off to the experience altogether. We wait for this particular feeling to come along, dismissing what lies before us because it doesn’t match up to our expectations. But that’s a bit unfair, both to ourselves and to the oh-so-sacred sentiment itself. Instead, we should take the time to cherish the love we live and breathe every day. We should stop looking for the full-fledged tree when we have not yet bothered to water the sapling. We should just chill out already.
Love is in us all, embedded in the fibers we are composed of. So let’s try to stop looking for it. Let’s live and let live. Let’s love and let love.
Nika Madyoon is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in political science and concentrations in philosophy and business management. She is a former editorial page deputy editor. Mad Universe runs alternate Thursdays.
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