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On the Examination of Love

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The ancient Greeks had four words for love. They are storge (familial love), philia (friendship love), agape (selfless love), and eros (intimate love). By contrast, the Buddhist tradition teaches the four Brahmaviharas or the four immeasurables: metta (loving kindness), karuna, (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), and upekkha (equanimity). The former are types of affection. By contrast, the latter are attitudes towards affection.

I'm not going to dwell on the anxieties of modern dating like texting, facebooking, and catfishing because it's hard enough just to be myself these days. I'd like to examine the spark that happens in those precious moments when I've met another person that for whatever reason grabbed my unwavering and unconditional affection. The sticky parts, the moments that take real courage to confront this overwhelming feeling I had never felt before.

Love.

This stickiness is beautifully articulated in Gus Van Sant's 1997 film, Good Will Hunting. In the film, Matt Damon plays Will Hunting -- a brilliant but haunted janitor at MIT. It is discovered early on in the film that Will is a mathematical genius when he casually but anonymously solves a complex math problem while cleaning a classroom one night. After a run-in with the law, Will is given the opportunity to avoid jail time by joining MIT's math department and seeing a therapist, the recently widowed Sean (Robin Williams).

As their relationship develops, it is revealed that Will is afraid to explore the complexities and risks of his personal relationships. Will goes through what we all go through -- breaking down the walls built up by childhood trauma and life-changing events which forever shape our conception of love.

The film reaches its pinnacle in a scene in which Sean chides Will over his immaturity and inability to love:

And if I asked you about love, you'll probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone could level you with her eyes... You don't know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much.

Sean posits an important question. Can I love something or someone more than I love myself? Should I love someone more than I love myself?

I've observed my understanding of love evolve over the years. When I was in college, I was madly in love with love. I saw a glimpse of both my best and my worst self, driven by the thrilling vulnerability of meeting someone that could love both the good and bad parts of me. While it was heavy, restless, and all consuming -- as Frank Ocean states, "it was, [while] some things never are." I left college with a tremendous sense of loss, thinking that my best years were behind me and privately enshrined in dorm room walls and empty playing fields.

Upon entering my twenties, that narrow interpretation of love was upstaged by the love for friends and family. I left school and met new people, the kind that look you in the eye and tell you the truth because they no longer have to worry about college formals and sorority gossip.

I learned things I thought I could only understand by being in a romantic relationship -- that loyalty and honesty could also be examined and perfected without intimacy. And I returned home, spent time with my family and remembered the value of unconditional love. It doesn't ask questions or make judgments. It welcomes you home.

Maybe the Greco-Romans were right and there are different types of love. Or perhaps the Buddhists were onto something and it is the mindful way we strive to love that is important. I think both schools speak to the notion of patience. Sitting on it. Letting those feelings wash over you. Knowing it. For me -- it is a mix of all these things. Allowing the love I have for my family and friends seep into the way I treat my partner and my faith and vice versa. Realizing they are all interconnected and requires my fullest attention and affection.

American philosopher Robert Nozick offers a possible answer to the Good Will Hunting dilemma, that is:

People encompass what they love -- it becomes part of them as its well-being becomes partly theirs. The size of a soul, the magnitude of a person, is measured in part by the extent of what that person can appreciate and love.

Maybe I will never love someone or something more than I love myself. But I certainly hope to become a part of that which I love. I wonder if 66 years ago when my grandfather Sat first laid eyes on my grandmother Akiko in Manzanar Internment Camp during World War II he asked this many questions. It seems life was simpler then. My grandmother says he was shy, but a great dancer. He eventually asked her to be his date to a camp dance and they fell in love, got married, and moved to Southern California to begin a life together.

Judging by how fast information moves these days, I wonder if I'll be as lucky as my grandfather. But maybe if time slows down just enough or I have the patience to slow it down myself, I'll continue to find a person, or people, or things that create the enduring spark called love.