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Love as a metaphor.

"Love" is a very big word. It is also one of the most confusing words. It can mean many different things. When you say you "love" someone, what are you really saying? When the other person replies that they "love" you too, do they mean the same thing?

I think that the word "Love" is a metaphor, but a particular kind of metaphor. It is a personal metaphor--a big word we fill with our own meanings. When we use big words such as "love," we need to check with others to see what they mean to them. We also need to check with ourselves to see what it means to us.

When I was younger I did not use the word "love" much, but looking back, I would say that I filled the word with different meanings at different times. I loved my parents and my sister, and grandma and grandpa, and uncles and aunts ... That was fine; they loved me; I was just a youngster, and love was part of the experience of family life. (I now realize how fortunate I was to have this.) But I didn't really know what "love" was and couldn't really define it.

Then in adolescence, "love" came to be part of relationships with young women. Suddenly, it was not taken for granted. It became complicated. I now understand that I was filling the word with meanings that were heavily tinged with lust. This was different from love for my family. This was driven by hormones. This "love" had much drama, uncertainty, and occasional payoffs. It was powerful and real, but I am not sure I could have defined it well.

And then there is all this religious talk about "love." God loves us; we should love our neighbors. These are central messages from Christianity. We should even love our enemies. This seemed to be yet another filling of the metaphor. I knew that loving my enemies was different from loving my girlfriend. But these different meanings just coexisted in my mind, not rewarding close scrutiny.

So it was helpful when, later in life, I came across the four Greek words for different kinds of love. Love for my family? That was storge (I still can't pronounce it--I think it is stor-gay.) Erotically charged love? That was eros. These different words let us think about different aspects of love, and talk about them, much better than we can do just using the overarching metaphor of love in English.

Love for friends, cherishing someone (including husband-wife) is philia. And that really tough version of love, loving everyone, even our enemies, is agape (agah-pay). It turns out that the word agape is very common in the Christian New Testament. Yet the English language tosses it all into the same word with the other kinds of love. Actually, agape means seeking the highest good for all, even your enemies. It can be difficult to do this, but we are told to make the effort. This is the love that will lead to peace.

I find the four Greek words for love very helpful. They do what good language should do they make it easier to think and talk clearly about complex realities. And yet I still have the feeling that the metaphor "Love'" is not fully grasped by any language. I think ultimately "Love" is a mystery. It is rewarding for us to think about this mystery, but we should not get fooled by our metaphors into thinking that we really understand it.

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Author:Gozzi, Raymond
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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