Love Is As Love Does
–Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled
Enough with words of love!
Enough with expressions of feelings of love!
Enough with romanticized and transient fallings in love!
Let’s stop the falling!
Love is not words. It is not feelings. It is not becoming obsessed with an object of love.
Love is as love does.
Love is action. It is conscious striving for the beloved. It is willful thoughtfulness properly planned and executed.
Love is what is expressed in acts of love. It is volitional, not emotional. He or she who loves is engaged in works of love.
When you love somebody, ask yourself, “What acts of love have I done for him?” When somebody tells you he loves you, try to see beyond his words: are there any acts in the foreground – or even in the background?
Love is not a feeling that sits; it is a force that acts.
Words of love, feelings of love, and fallings in love are not necessarily bad or empty, provided they are followed by relevant action.
There are feelings that stand alone and need nothing beyond themselves to establish their reality: the feeling of awe or fear, the feeling of accomplishment, of restful contentment, of artistic or spiritual contemplation. Yet love belongs to another category of entities that are not quite stand-alone feelings. Just as “feeling daring” may result in acts of bravery, loving is irrevocably connected to the visible expression of loving acts. Stand-alone “feelings of love” are as meaningless as the courage of a supposedly brave man who simply talks about the brave deeds he intended to do, but never did! Love, just as bravery, is not static. “Loving” is not even a “state of being,” like, say, sleeping or thinking. It is a “state of doing,” such as working in your office, or on the construction site, or fetching the wood for the fireplace. Consequently, loving is identical with love’s self-expression in real life. Loving is not an invisible entity. It is not ethereal, up there in the sky, nor hidden somewhere in the deepest recesses of our soul, nor sitting idly in some poet’s mind waiting to be written down. Rather, it can be seen in the outside world via the actions that emanate from it; it is revealed through the words and movements and actions of our body or mind that express our loving soul; and it becomes a poem of love only after the poet becomes engaged in loving acts – not before.
Furthermore, since loving is an act dependent on our own actions, it is independent of other peoples’ actions – including those of the beloved. In this sense, and unlike what common wisdom holds true, love is one-directional and need not even be reciprocated. One of the best expressions of this relinquishing of the need for reciprocation was given 2,000 years ago by Seneca in one of his letters to Lucilius in which he spoke about friendship:
“The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practicing friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus… ‘That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want’; but that he may have someone by whose sickbed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free.”
In other words, we do not need a friend in order for him to do things for us, but so that we may have the opportunity to do something for him. We “need” him so that we may act for him. This type of “need” springs from our inner being outwards and becomes loving work. This loving service is simultaneously a way of practicing our own already-cultivated noble qualities, which will atrophy if they “lie dormant.” Paradoxically, as Seneca so ingeniously put it, by practicing friendship we do not only do good to our friends, but to ourselves!
In recent times, the psychiatrist Scott Peck distinguished between cathexis and love, or rather the “emotion of love” that is often misunderstood as love itself. Cathexis, put simply, is attraction with dependency: we cathect somebody (or something) when we want to own him or her, when we want to “get something from the person,” or even when we need the other person to nurture our own development with little or no regard for the other person’s well-being. Cathexis (in which he also classifies the state of “falling in love”) is needy and self-centered, and should not be confused with real love.
The concept of love as action directed towards the beloved without any thought of reciprocation and without any feelings of attachment or dependency is actually identical to the ideal of Karma Yoga, in which work is done for work’s sake and not for the rewards it may entail. Through this Eastern ideal of work, we may expand the concept of “love-as-action” to encompass not just love for other people but for the whole animal kingdom and also for inanimate objects or even ideas: We love animals when we do something for them (or at least leave them on their own without exploiting them); we love our plants and garden when we take good care of them, when we serve them; and, of course, we love our car, our art collection, our ideas when we work to maintain or enrich or defend them, respectively.
And just as the quality of every work is proportional to the passion with which it is done, the quality of love is related to the passion with which love generates acts of love. Going a step further, we may identify the quality of love with the quality of the loving work: Just as good work requires diligence, discipline, and thoughtfulness, “good love” is the product of wise action, not of blind instinct. As one needs to spend time and energy to learn one’s work or to master one’s craft, similarly, one must take up the responsibility of love by learning to love. And the first step towards this education is to unlearn the false and ubiquitously held notion that love is a feeling or something that resides invisibly outside this world.
But how do we learn to love? Well, the analogy of mastering a craft continues to serve us well here: Just as we become better at our craft by practicing it, we become better at love by practicing acts of love. When we meditate on the subject, we will discover that our very first understanding of love – which is also probably the deepest – was obtained through our observing and experiencing our parents’ loving acts towards us. Consequently, our first acts of love were the ones in which we strove to emulate our parents’ loving behavior. Through imitation, we cultivated our skill, our ability, our power to love through and by our loving acts. The extent to which our practice has been continuing ever since is the measure of our current and future ability to love through action.
Some may be offended when they hear that loving can be taught or that love requires conscious effort, discipline, and more in order to be worthy of the name. After all, is not parental love instinctive, is not romantic love spontaneous, is not spiritual contemplation or love towards the Divine something that flows (or ought to flow) effortlessly from our own being irrespective of whether we do anything? Well, actually, when examined carefully, none of these are so: Parental love becomes beneficial love only when it is thoughtful and guided by wise decisions, not when it is purely “instinctive”; romantic love may or may not become true love only after the initial spontaneous honeymoon phase of cathexis subsides; and spiritual contemplation, rather than being idle, to quote Brother David Steindl-Rast, is “contemplation in action,” which he defines as “a way of coming to know God’s love from within by acting it out,” or as “that contemplation in which we realize God by acting in love.” Real love is conscious, thoughtful, and guided by the human will.
Because love is work, and therefore identical with conscious loving deeds, we may use what we know of the nature of work to shed light on one final aspect of love-as-work that is often misunderstood: self-sacrifice. The highest expression of any work is some form of self-sacrifice (in its more ordinary and everyday meaning). In our job, this self-sacrifice, whenever it happens, is identical to the absolute self-forgetfulness in the job we do – we “sacrifice” our sense of self when we completely merge, so to speak, with our work, existing only in the work we do. As parents, we sacrifice our time, energy, money, and more for the benefit of our children. In friendship, we immerse ourselves in our friends’ worlds and are ready to sacrifice whatever we deem necessary in order to be of service to them. In its more extreme and rarer expression, self-sacrifice may mean literally giving one’s own life for the beloved. Thus we have Socrates gladly welcoming death in order to both defend his highest ideals and give the most perfect example of ethical conduct in history to his beloved students; and Jesus suffering and being crucified for the sake of his beloved humanity, thereby becoming the very embodiment, the paragon of the teaching Love is Action.
Although neither self-sacrifice nor suffering need be an integral part of loving action, still, it is by being prepared to gladly sacrifice one’s well-being, comforts, wealth, and peace of mind – and, if necessary, to welcome suffering too – that one may be said to have embarked on the Path of Love: a path that has nothing to do with feelings, and everything to do with deeds.