Don’t try too hard to figure out what it is; you have to experience it. I tend to get this advice when I ask the question, that and diversions from requests to embody the feeling, to tell me about the experience of it.
Say “poetry,” and people will start talking about souls and angels and ephemera and beautiful old people with their souls showing through. Say love and one gets much the same reaction. The conversation veers away from the body, sometimes radically so, such as into discussion of God or other unknowables.
It seems that love is not a thing, not a feeling. It seems love might be more of an abstraction or a category, like a DSM diagnosis, meant to capture a range of experiences in common. You love your dog, you love hamburgers, and you love your children—are those all the same experience or do they just have common elements, like your depression and my depression? Two people can meet the diagnostic criteria for depression and have no symptoms in common. Is it true also with love?
I love science shows. When my television is on, it is generally on channels like Science or the Discovery or History Channels (although I do like my genre fiction and never miss The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones). When I was younger and my mind less crowded with relationships and responsibilities, I was able to visualize certain kinds of pure abstraction, like an object approaching the speed of light. The “object” was not a definite object at all, just the idea of an object, and I could speed it up or slow it down in my mind, watching it foreshorten as it approached light speed as a consequence, understanding why this was happening. It was natural.
Morgan Freeman narrates a show called Through the Wormhole. In an episode about extra dimensions, a scientist is born cross-eyed and later in life has surgery to correct her vision. She is incapable of depth perception even though her eyes work fine now, because her brain is not wired to see it. But over time, she starts to have intrusive experiences of depth in her vision, and marvels at it.
I attribute not experiencing a direct feeling of love to my disorder. Psychopaths are incapable of empathy but those of us with Asperger’s merely lack the aptitude for it. And empathy is central to the feeling of love, it seems. Years of graduate school and human services work, however, have trained my empathy to be fairly acute when I care to apply it.
Like the scientist on the science show, I have recently had some experiences of a newly visible dimension I had not perceived before. I was on the arduous return trip from China following two weeks or so of existential conferences and presentations. For some reason, I mostly talked about art, but every moment was spent getting closer to people, building relationships, and teaching empathy. In retrospect, this experience is not that surprising. At the time, it felt psychotic, and I knew it would have a dreamlike quality later—slippery, difficult to remember or embody—so I wrote it down in my journal:
She’s wearing pink, a pink so loud it’s like all the pink in the world. Whoever is waiting for her at the end of her journey will see her from a mile away.
I reflect on my need to tell her so, then start to see the other colors people are wearing. A startling yellow repeated here and there, exclaiming “see me!” Blue and grey there, screaming “don’t!” Camo pants and coral necklaces, sending confusing signals from a bearded man.
I consider putting on my sunglasses to mute the colors before they make me ill. Can I hear them all at once? I decide to roll with the experience.
The pink is rarified, the idea of pink. I see a dog—what the hell is a dog doing in an airport terminal?—a dog so doglike, groomed to embody dogness, the abstraction of a dog. A man whose shirt and pants type him, abstract him.
Am I going crazy, or is the world like this every day? Do other people live this way, or do you block it all out?
Now I am seeing your faces, encountering you as people, minus the ugly masks I usually give you, minus the disdain with which I usually protect myself. I hear your voices and the affect therein. I want to offer you each a word, a moment of engagement. I want to like you—and I do.
I am afraid. I am afraid, and afraid this might be a moment for courage. Defend against this now, I think, and something might be lost, a door closed, something precious neglected. To step through, or linger here in the doorway?
For the next few hours, each person I see I am overjoyed to see. I like them. Their faces attract me, open me up. I want to be with them. I smile at everyone, and they smile back. I exchange kind words with a stranger about her son. With a fellow passenger about her journey. They want to like me, too. I think this cannot be sustained, but I have to try.
This is a moment of enlightenment, I think. I am touching an experience much wiser people can hold onto. I know it will slip away soon and I have to live it while I can without grasping for it.
And sure enough the joy subsides in fatigue. I am left with memories and lessons. These hours will take a lifetime to process.
What this experience seems to me to point to is that there is one thing we know of as love, almost but not quite an abstraction, that we can access sometimes. It is more a state than a feeling but we can feel the pure state sometimes. I think people who practice compassion in the Buddhist tradition feel this more than others of us. I wonder if compassionate or contemplative Christians also feel it. Having done some investigation, I do not suspect any longer that this is a workaday experience of love that most people have most of the time.
It also seems to have a lot to do with awe: the readiness for reverence, the openness to the other. In therapy, this might be the most useful sort of love, if it is not crass to speak of love as having utility. To be able to sit with another person absent the ugly masks we put on them—like labels and diagnoses and prognoses and expectations—and let their being shine through. Access the Ding an sich, the thing in itself. I think only love can do this.
And in the end maybe love is as love does. When you do things for people, you are loving them. I’m about to leave for work, where I will spend a bit more than an hour loving my students by giving them everything I can within the boundaries of our relationship, not being satisfied unless I worry in the car on the way home that I might have taken too many risks. If that’s true—that love is as love does—I hope everyone goes out right now and loves somebody, because love is also infectious. Just as an object approaching the speed of light foreshortens and gains mass, the more you love people by doing, the more you will feel love for them. It’s natural.
— Jason Dias