What Is This Thing Called Love?

“What is this Thing called Love?”

We are familiar with its essence, emotional stirrings and ecstasy, but defining love often removes its magic. Not that we haven’t tried: The theme of love has filled volumes of poetry and prose, operas, plays and films, art, music and even architecture.

We’ve all had those “in love” feelings of ardor and passion. We’ve experienced other kinds of fulfilling love as well, with our spouses, parents and grandparents, siblings, children and friends. And we’ve all had our hearts broken.

Love songs invariably spark visceral memories of romance. At my age, Ella Fitzgerald’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” moves me, as other songs surely get to you.

Our earliest love bonds are formed in infancy and childhood, usually with our mothers or other loving caretakers. This nurturance is crucial in developing the ability to form love attachments. All our senses are involved in this: warm faces and sounds of voices, tastes and aromas, touching and kissing.

When we’re in love, worries seem to melt away. The poem “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning conveys this rapture. Feelings of love stimulate neuronal activity in parts of the brain which “light up” on brain scans. (“You Light Up My Life” was prescient!)

Love can be painful. When love mysteriously ebbs from our beloved, we feel lost and forsaken. A broken-heart’s soul yearns for the return of lost love, so poignantly evoked in Shakespeare’s sonnets, Verdi’s arias, the blues, folk music, and country and western songs.

Our need for love is a deeply felt cri du coeur. “All the Lonely People” by the Beatles evokes that poignant feeling of yearning for a soul mate, as does Joe Cocker’s plaintive, “I need somebody to love.”

The blush of early romance is a magical sensation (“I hear music and there’s no one there…”), which makes enraptured lovers feel they have special personal nirvanas.

Lovers often dream of lifelong partnerships of commitment, caring and companionship, but early passion and romance are not guarantees of good or long-term marriages. (Even prearranged marriages can be loving and fulfilling).

Implausibly, millions of people are now searching for “Truly, Madly, Deeply” love using internet websites, a sad commentary on our new technological reality.

We are social beings, and bonds of affection and intimacy are our very lifeblood, emotional equivalents of oxygen and nourishment. We need love from our first breaths in infancy until our last inspirations of life.

Without love our hearts can ache and atrophy. Without love, children don’t develop as well and adults are prone to depression and illness. Without love, our human essences diminish. A life without love is lonelier, emptier, and bereft of meaning.

“A World Without Love” (Beatles) is not one I wish to inhabit.

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