You Don’t Know What Love Is

A disillusioned look at love

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

The importance of giving, blessing others, can never be overemphasized because there’s always joy in giving. Learn to make someone happy by acts of giving. ~ Katharine Hepburn

Love is a many splendored thing.

Love is a divine, godly and spiritual quality.

All you need is love.

Wrong. Love is not splendored, spiritual or the one and only thing you need in life.

Be it brotherly love, romantic love, parental love, patriotic love or puppy love, what we call love isn’t love at all.

In a self-centered culture organized around the pursuit of personal gain, it makes sense that love would be thought of as a form of self-gratification. Our collective definition of love adheres to the what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that characterizes Western capitalist society. This cultural bias obscures the true meaning of love.

Consider how we use the word love in everyday life. I love the way you wear your hair. I love cabernet sauvignon. I love to sleep late on Sunday morning. I love life, people, animals. I love you. Love is a verb used to express a fondness or attraction to something. It’s a pseudonym for desire.

And then there’s the emotionally charged sexual attraction we feel for someone that causes us to “fall in love.” Whatever we like about a person — their looks, sense of humor, kindness or intelligence — it’s all about one thing: the feelings that arise in us when in the presence of our love object. We’re not actually attached to the person themselves, mind you, but to the powerful feelings they trigger, for often mysterious reasons.

By using the word “love” to label our feelings of desire, we confer a significance upon them they don’t deserve. It makes them seem noble and elevated. Consider how base and tawdry it would be to talk instead about all the things we desire — our mothers, families, pets, chocolate cake, sunsets, friends, lovers and so forth.

Unfortunately, conflating love with desire obliterates its true meaning by making it a synonym of a word that means something very different. If we didn’t confuse love with desire, I believe the meaning that would reveal itself would be as follows:

Love is selfless giving.

Nothing fancy, no celestial angels or ecstatic emotional states. In fact, love is not an emotion at all, or at least not one we’re accustomed to. It’s just selfless giving.

I’m not trying to set love and desire against each other, as if one is good and the other bad. It’s normal and, within limits, perfectly healthy to desire. I simply think that when we confuse desire with love, we create trouble for ourselves by making the mundane experience of desire seem sublime and otherworldly. Witness some of the terminology we use in relation to love: soulmate, meant for each other, my better half (as if you can be half of something), falling in love (as if it were some kind of mysterious and involuntary process) and so forth.

By distinguishing one from the other, we can have a more grounded and sane attitude toward what we call love. Doing so enables us to demystify our attachments and render them ordinary and unexceptional. For example, when we find ourselves in a state of unrequited “love,” pining away for the elusive object of our desire, we can realize that we’re just enduring the normal frustration of not getting something we want. No big deal, perfectly ordinary, just frustrated desire. We needn’t lose all perspective on life and contemplate some form of harmful behavior like stalking, suicide or homicide in response to our frustration.

My main point is that desire is selfish and love is selfless. One is about you and the other is about, well, the other. The Western conception of love, particularly romantic love, is the former rather than the latter, owing I believe to the obsessively self-centered nature of the culture we live in.

So, how do we truly love?

We must practice love to experience it. We must give to others again and again and again, with no thought of getting anything back. Because giving to others unconditionally is foreign to many of us, we must do it for a while to experience the accompanying feeling of love that arises from it. It won’t jump up and hit us in the face.

It might seem strange to do something without getting an immediate reward, but the more we do it, the more we become attuned to the emotions that accompany loving. It’s a different kind of feeling, subtle and without tension. It simply feels good, with no worry about whether it’s requited or recognized by anyone else. We don’t have to fight for it or earn it. It is simply there.

Love is selfless giving, but don’t take my word for it. Try truly loving and see for yourself.

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Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at

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Tony Rocco

Tony Rocco

Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at

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