Poverty of 'love' in the English language

In the 2002 film Evelyn, Irishman Desmond Doyle is devastated when his wife and the mother of his three children abandons the family.

Doyle, a real person on whom the film is based, is further confounded when the Irish courts and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland place the children in church run orphanages.

The film follows Desmond’s courageous legal battle to have his children returned to him and his home. Evelyn, who is Desmond’s daughter, testified at trial and in standing by truth and in exhibiting her deep love for her father, influenced the Irish Supreme Court to rule in Desmond’s favor.

When Desmond initially meets with his lawyer, the subject of Desmond’s love for his children and their love for him comes up. A problem Desmond faces is that in the English language there is only one word for love.

In contrast, Greeks have numerous words to express the varieties of love human beings experience.

Among the words used in Greece are the following:

  • Agape (ἀγάπη), which means unconditional love. It can express a general affection or deeper sense of "true love." Agape is often used in the Christian scriptures to express a love that is sacrificial.
  • Éros (ἔρως). Éros is passionate love, and it includes sensual desire and longing though it is not limited to a love that is sexual in nature. It can be interpreted as a love for someone that is more intense than the love of friendship. Éros also can imply a very deep appreciation for beauty.
  • Philia (φιλία), which means friendship or brotherly love. It is a dispassionate virtuous love and includes loyalty to friends, family and community. It requires and understanding of virtue, equality and familiarity. Phillia denotes a general type of love as between family and friends and a desire or enjoyment of various activities, as well as between lovers.
  • Storge (στοργή). It means "affection," such as that between parents and children. It also expresses the tolerance necessary in order to get along with those whom you really don’t like.
  • In English, we have one word, love. I can love my spouse, my children and my friends. I can love my car or even ice cream or chocolate or macaroni and cheese, and there is but one word to describe it.

    In the movie, the lack of various distinctions for the understanding of love has led the Irish Catholic Church and Irish Law to fail to recognize the love of a father for his children is as equally valid as that of a mother for her children. Desmond has lost his children to the orphanage because few in authority can see Desmond, or any father for that matter, can love his children as lovingly as a mother.

    The lack of diverse words –- and understandings -– of love in the English language leads to many tragic circumstances in the English-speaking world.

    In the United States, we have made some strides toward granting fathers equal status with regards to their children in circumstances of divorce, though, when all things are equal, the children almost always find themselves domiciled with the mother even as the courts grant “joint custody.”

    A mother’s love is valued more than a father in our society. This often leads fathers to distance themselves emotionally from their children. Language, or the lack of adequate language, contributes to self-fulfilling prophesies about how we value paternal love.

    It is sad our definitions of love are encapsulated in just one word. It is silly that my love of ice cream and my love for my wife can be verbally expressed with only the word “love.” My only recourse is to force an emphasis by saying, “I love ice cream, but I really, really love my wife.”

    Beyond the silliness there is also the tragedy. Because we only have one word for all the various varieties of love, it creates a kind of leveling and equalizing of emotions in our minds and souls.

    Even though we know there is a difference between a love of ice cream and a love for a loved one our real, everyday appreciation for the things we love are leveled.

    So we have football and golfing widows and bridge club and shopping widowers. Even though we use the word “love” for the people we love and the things we do, a more truthful expression would be more fully conveyed in the word “like.”

    You may like football, golf, bridge or shopping and you may, at the same time like your spouse, but where is the agape love that is sacrificial? The leveling transforms love into like and the depth of love expressed in agape is lost.

    Besides the love of agape that often falls by the wayside, so too do other expressions of our loves.

    When we use terms like “falling in love,” or when we become enthralled with some activity or goal we use the word “love.” The more accurate word would most likely be éros if it were available to us.

    We have no words to differentiate passionate love from sacrificial love, or the love for family, friends or even our activities. We experience the passion of éros, but when the passion subsides and we have no words to express what it has been transformed into, too often apathy sets in.

    We begin to take for granted the loves that give our lives meaning. We begin to “live lives of quiet desperation” as Henry David Thoreau suggested. Passion is gone and we are at a loss with little to replace the passion except for the “like” that seems so little in comparison to what we once knew.

    Most of us, most of the time, are able to distinguish what we mean by love when we are fully mindful of our love in any particular circumstance. If we are really in touch with our feelings and purposes, we know when we are in storge love, philia love, erotic love or the love of agape.

    The problem is that being mindful takes practice and intention and most of us, most of the time are not living mindfully. When we begin to allow the word “love” to embody all of our various types of love, all the types begin to meld. When this happens, our lives are diminished, and we become a little less human.

    We cannot change the English language to accommodate the various nuances of love any more than we can change it to accommodate the various realities. What we can do, though, is to practice becoming mindfully aware of what we are feeling. If we know what we are really experiencing in our various relationships, we will begin to find our lives becoming more whole and full.

    Desmond Doyle overcomes a grave injustice that arose out of misunderstandings about the realities of love.

    The injustices of love’s misunderstandings, though, continue in our English-speaking world.

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