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What Is Love?

Let’s take a few moments to talk about love.

One of the most misunderstood concepts in our society, we affix love to all sorts of situations. Applied to both live and inanimate objects without a second thought, we say we love ourselves, our families, a good meal, and the latest season of Brothers and Sisters. How can the same word be used to describe these very different kinds of relationships?

While doing some research, I refreshed my memory on the different types of love identified by the ancient Greeks.

Eros is the type of feeling most people are talking about when they speak of love. It’s the romantic (or lustful, depending on the mood) feeling between two people. Dating and relationships are centered on eros, and the arts and popular culture use eros as one of its most popular topics. Think of all the films, television shows, songs, works of literature, paintings and advertisements that seek to inspire or reference that sense of eros. They appeal to the desire for intimacy that we all have, so eros can be very potent.

Then you have philia, a type of platonic love you share among friends, family, and things you enjoy like favorite activities or pets. That explains why Philadelphia is known as the City of Brotherly Love. Relationships based on philia are often easier to navigate than ones involving eros, because the emotions are not as intense.

Finally, there is agape. This may be the least-mentioned type of love, and with good reason, because I think this is the most difficult form of love to practice. Unlike eros and philia, which are at least partially dependent on reciprocity and getting what you want, agape is unconditional, a commitment to doing the right thing even if you don’t benefit from the action. In fact, you may be harmed in the process, but you persist because agape is not based on people’s reactions or expectations, only the principle of helping others, even if they don’t realize it at the time.

Because so many of our relationships are contingent on having our ego and pride rewarded, agape is tough to do. It demands a level of courage and determination that I’m not sure even eros requires. I think people involved in past movements for social equality, such as during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, were practicing agape.

What does any of this have to do with LGBT people?

I think our community could use an injection of agape for two reasons. One, it could help create a more unified LGBT community. I have seen how judgments, often based upon very superficial factors, have isolated people within the LGBT community more often than I care to admit. As a result, I think we have several LGBT communities instead of one community. Using a bit of unconditional lovin’ and consideration for the well-being of all its members may help repair some of the schisms that exist in the LGBT world.

The second benefit pertains to activism. Despite the overall arc of progress on LGBT issues in the last fifteen years, some believe that things are still going too slow and we need a new approach that involves engaging people opposed to gay rights. I feel that any attempt to do this will require a great deal of agape, because there are risks associated with this strategy, including feelings getting hurt, financial ramifications (i.e., losing your job), and possibly going to jail. If we can demonstrate our ability to place ourselves in these situations without reacting to provocation, I think we would have a level of moral authority that many people feel we currently lack.

One more thing to mention before closing: With gay pride celebration season starting up, I would like to encourage everyone to visit an online exhibit about the gay community of Bronzeville, Illinois, a Chicago neighborhood with a significant LGBT presence from roughly 1915 until the 1980s. Combining photographs, articles, maps, and interviews, we get a rare look at the LGBT world from nearly a century ago. It’s fascinating to learn that many of the concepts that we consider to be relatively new, such as LGBT religious leaders and how to be integrated into a larger community while retaining your LGBT identity, were already being explored back then.

The exhibit’s address is http://outhistory.org/wiki/Queer_Bronzeville_:_An_Overview.

From “Blackout” for 6/8/09 by Anthony Rucker

 

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