A lifetime of love: exploring humanity’s strongest emotion


Sheena Baharudin explores love across the ages, regions and species.

A Life of Love_Aquila Style

What is love? Is it the feeling between man and woman, parent and child, human and animal, God and mankind? Is it all of them? Can it be? Has it always existed as we know it, or has it evolved over time? Is modern romantic love meant for our lives, or only for the big screen? Love is such a nebulous concept, a word thrown around with such reckless abandon that sometimes it seems to have lost all meaning, or to mean utterly different things for different people. Yet still it’s there and still we use it, feel it, and occasionally get crushed by it. Maybe that last point is the most relevant: If it wasn’t real, then how could it hurt us so?

It doesn’t seem to be exclusive to humans. The controversial American psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated that rhesus monkeys experience something similar. He performed numerous experiments with rhesus monkeys, where he offered them two inanimate mothers, one that could feed the monkey – by way of a bottle of milk – while the other offered comfort, by the way of soft padding. The monkey always chose the soft padded ‘mother’, especially when frightened. Harlow therefore reasoned that the monkey was more interested in comfort than foodstuff.

There are many other examples which seem to suggest that love occurs among other species. Evidence from the wild suggests that elephants have something akin to love. The bond between mother-and-daughter elephants, for instance, can last beyond 50 years. Elephants also seem to mourn their dead, with the living herd-members touching the body of their fallen comrade repeatedly, rubbing their teeth and tusks, and covering them with moss and conducting week long vigils, even if there is little water or food nearby. It appears that their memories are so strong and their bonds so long lasting that they will sometimes return to the ‘graves’ of those that have died for years on end.

‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it’

Dogs have also demonstrated loyalty and what some even go so far as to call love. Hachiko, an Akita dog from Japan, is an example of this special bond. For almost 10 years after his owner suddenly passed away at work, Hachiko returned to Shibuya station in Tokyo, as it was their ritual to meet there after work when the man was alive. Hachiko himself died in 1935 but not before becoming a national hero and a symbol of faithfulness. More recently, in 2006, there was another such phenomenon with German shepherd, Capitan, refusing to leave his master’s grave. Upon the master’s death, the dog ran away from home and was only seen again when the family visited the grave, which Capitan hasn’t left for six years according to a 2012 newspaper report.

So, animals seem to have it – particularly those that live in herds or troops – but what about humans? Is our concept universal and has it always been what it is now? In a word, no. In the European Middle Ages, for example, there was courtly love, but this – as the name implies – was reserved for the nobility. It was a crossover between religion and love and, what was more, it was meant to be secret, partially illicit and did not occur between husband and wife.

The ancient Greeks, in the mean time, had four different words for love, which they considered conceptually separate. They have Agape, which is true or sacrificial love, which one has for one’s children or one’s spouse; Éros, which is sensual desire or longing (i.e. lust); Philia, which is affectionate love or loyalty, towards friends, family and community; finally there’s Storge which is also termed affection or acceptance, towards other family members, for example, or obligatory love.

And then there’s religious love, or the love between God and humans, which has filled both books and entire lives. It’s hard to forget the beautiful words of the 13th-century Sufi poet, Rumi, who wrote, ‘Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.’ While Psalm 42 shares the following, ‘Like the deer that yearns, for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God.’

Love, it would seem, is shaped by our perceptions of it and our beliefs about it, which means that it changes as society changes

 And then finally, there’s the recent Western understanding of love, which has come to us from books and the big screen. This love seems different from those mentioned above for several reasons, the main one being that it appears to be utterly unreal. Research by Bjarne Holmes of Heriot Watt University has demonstrated that those that regularly consume romantic films or romantic comedies experience less happiness in their relationship than those that do not, due to having unrealistic expectations. This suggests that what they show on the screen is not really possible in real life.

So what then is love? It does seem that it exists, both in animals and in humans, but it is possibly no longer the same thing as it was before and probably will not be the same thing in the years to come. Love, it would seem, is shaped by our perceptions of it and our beliefs about it, which means that it changes as society changes. That makes describing love a little bit like hitting a moving target. Maybe the best idea, therefore, is to stop trying to define such a nebulous concept into one definition and instead to each keep our own council regarding such a complicated idea. Or maybe we can go one step simpler and instead of trying to understand it, simply aim to experience it – to feel it in all its glory and, yes, pain. For what is love without the occasional suffering?

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