A few years ago, I spoke to a group of high-schoolers about the Jewish idea of love.
"Someone define love," I said.
"Doesn't anyone want to try?" I asked.
Still no response.
"Tell you what: I'll define it, and you raise your hands if you agree. Okay?"
"Okay. Love is that feeling you get when you meet the right person."
Every hand went up. And I thought, Oy.
This is how many people approach a relationship. Consciously or unconsciously, they believe love is a sensation (based on physical and emotional attraction) that magically, spontaneously generates when Mr. or Ms. Right appears. And just as easily, it can spontaneously degenerate when the magic "just isn't there" anymore. You fall in love, and you can fall out of it.
The key word is passivity. Erich Fromm, in his famous treatise "The Art of Loving," noted the sad consequence of this misconception: "There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love." (That was back in 1956 — chances are he'd be even more pessimistic today.)
So what is love — real, lasting love?
Love is the attachment that results from deeply appreciating another's goodness.
The word "goodness" may surprise you. After all, most love stories don't feature a couple enraptured with each other's ethics. ("I'm captivated by your values!" he told her passionately. "And I've never met a man with such morals!" she cooed.) But in her study of real-life successful marriages (The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts), Judith Wallerstein reports that "the value these couples placed on the partner's moral qualities was an unexpected finding."
To the Jewish mind, it isn't unexpected at all. What we value most in ourselves, we value most in others. God created us to see ourselves as good (hence our need to either rationalize or regret our wrongdoings). So, too, we seek goodness in others. Nice looks, an engaging personality, intelligence, and talent (all of which count for something) may attract you, but goodness is what moves you to love.
Love is a Choice
If love comes from appreciating goodness, it needn't just happen — you can make it happen. Love is active. You can create it. Just focus on the good in another person (and everyone has some). If you can do this easily, you'll love easily.
I was once at an intimate concert in which the performer, a deeply spiritual person, gazed warmly at his audience and said, "I want you to know, I love you all." I smiled tolerantly and thought, "Sure." Looking back, though, I realize my cynicism was misplaced. This man naturally saw the good in others, and our being there said enough about us that he could love us. Judaism actually idealizes this universal, unconditional love.
Obviously, there's a huge distance from here to the far more profound, personal love developed over the years, especially in marriage. But seeing goodness is the beginning.
Susan learned about this foundation of love after becoming engaged to David. When she called her parents to tell them the good news, they were elated. At the end of the conversation, her mother said, "Darling, I want you to know we love you, and we love David."
Susan was a bit dubious. "Mom," she said hesitantly, "I really appreciate your feelings, but, in all honesty, how can you say you love someone you've never met?"
"We're choosing to love him," her mother explained, "because love is a choice."
There's no better wisdom Susan's mother could have imparted to her before marriage. By focusing on the good, you can love almost anyone.
Actions Affect Feelings
Now that you're feeling so warmly toward the entire human race, how can you deepen your love for someone? The way God created us, actions affect our feelings most. For example, if you want to become more compassionate, thinking compassionate thoughts may be a start, but giving tzedaka (charity) will get you there. Likewise, the best way to feel loving is to be loving — and that means giving.
While most people believe love leads to giving, the truth (as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes in his famous discourse on loving kindness) is exactly the opposite: Giving leads to love.
What is giving? When an enthusiastic handyman happily announces to his non- mechanically inclined wife, "Honey, wait till you see what I got you for your birthday — a triple-decker toolbox!" that's not giving. Neither is a father's forcing violin lessons on his son because he himself always dreamed of being a virtuoso.
True giving, as Erich Fromm points out, is other-oriented, and requires four elements. The first is care, demonstrating active concern for the recipient's life and growth. The second is responsibility, responding to his or her expressed and unexpressed needs (particularly, in an adult relationship, emotional needs). The third is respect, "the ability to see a person as he [or she] is, to be aware of his [or her] unique individuality," and, consequently, wanting that person to "grow and unfold as he [or she] is."
These three components all depend upon the fourth, knowledge. You can care for, respond to, and respect another only as deeply as you know him or her.
Opening Yourself to Others
The effect of genuine, other-oriented giving is profound. It allows you into another person's world and opens you up to perceiving his or her goodness. At the same time, it means investing part of yourself in the other, enabling you to love this person as you love yourself.
Many years ago, I met a woman whom I found very unpleasant. So I decided to try out the "giving leads to love" theory. One day I invited her for dinner. A few days later I offered to help her with a personal problem. On another occasion I read something she'd written and offered feedback and praise. Today we have a warm relationship. The more you give, the more you love. This is why your parents (who've given you more than you'll ever know) undoubtedly love you more than you love them, and you, in turn, will love your own children more than they'll love you.
Because deep, intimate love emanates from knowledge and giving, it comes not overnight but over time — which nearly always means after marriage. The intensity many couples feel before marrying is usually great affection boosted by commonality, chemistry, and anticipation. These may be the seeds of love, but they have yet to sprout. On the wedding day, emotions run high, but true love should be at its lowest, because it will hopefully always be growing, as husband and wife give more and more to each other.
A woman I know once explained why she's been happily married for 25 years. "A relationship has its ups and downs," she told me. "The downs can be really low — and when you're in one, you have three choices: Leave, stay in a loveless marriage, or choose to love your spouse."
Dr. Jill Murray (author of But I Love Him: Protecting Your Daughter from Controlling, Abusive Dating Relationships) writes that if someone mistreats you while professing to love you, remember: "Love is a behavior." A relationship thrives when partners are committed to behaving lovingly through continual, unconditional giving — not only saying, "I love you," but showing it.