language

A Moratorium on the word "Love": A More-Than-Half Serious Proposal

Proposing a moratorium on a word as august, regal, and, well—important—as Love may seem strange, if not downright offensive. But it is precisely out of deference to love’s hallowed place in the English language that I propose, with tongue-ever-so-slightly-in-cheek, that we may have reached the point it should no longer be said aloud, or at least not how we are accustomed to saying it. 

If I have not lost you already, let me begin with an observation that is bound to slough off another segment of readers here from the get-go: "love is love" makes no sense--it is a ludicrous statement. But why it is ludicrous is part and parcel to my proposition.

What you love and how you love it makes all the difference. To paint a much too obvious picture, the leadership of ISIS loves the fact that a) there are 50 people they deemed unworthy of life now dead in Orlando, and b) that this horrific event is rending apart the already fragile semblance of a unity our country currently “enjoys.”

But we are not even required to paint diabolical pictures to make this point. Take any addict as an example: they love (really, love) their drug of choice. Take the unrequited and envious lover, who loves his beloved so, even though it is destroying his life and only brewing hatred toward the one he loves. Take the one who loves pleasure or wealth or fame, and you will see that she truly loves them, but in doing so loves a thing beneath her dignity, a thing that will not love her back.

To make the point theological: we love our sins. Otherwise, we wouldn't keep doing them. And this is what gets in the way of our love of God. (It would be quite a spiritual achievement if every evening we would come to terms with this fact: today, I have loved my sins more than God). Even loving people is not a zero sum game--how you love them and for what end (myself? them? an abstraction? God? etc.?) is of the essence when deciding whether your love for them is good or, indeed, wicked--and not just on your part, but for their well-being as well.

Because of this, because the-who-and-the-what-and-the-how of love are so important, no one—and I mean no one—is wrong to scrutinize love. Love is the unitive force that brings the best things in the world together, but it is also the force that tears many things apart. The worst people in the world and throughout history love their hatred, and that is why they can go to near mythical ends to spread human misery and pain, all because of love. Satan loves nothing but himself and his hatred (he also hates himself because of this), and that is what motivates him to drag as much of mankind down with him into the abyss as he can.

Even God's love is not all puppy dogs and rainbows and lollipops—the same fire of love that purifies in purgatory and makes the Saints refulgent in glory is also the punishment of hell fire. Although God's love is pure and admits of no defect, it is still a terrible and wonderful thing to behold.

It is ridiculous to blame those who would scrutinize love for the attacks in Orlando, or any other act of violence, for to wish that a generic "love" may be all pervasive in society and thus end all violence is nonsensical. Love is the root of all violence, because at the root of all human endeavors is love, ordered and disordered though it may be.

And thus to learn anything from the doings of humanity throughout the manifold ages is to scrutinize love—who or what they loved, and how they demonstrated that love. It is the root for all serious study of the human condition. To say "love is love" is to deny the ability to learn anything from anytime or be any different in the future. When we use love as flippantly as we do, we remove our ability to look deep into ourselves, as individuals, as communities, as a species, and speak honestly about what rests in the shadow of our hearts.

For this reason, I propose a moratorium on the word love, at least for a time. But I don’t mean that we simply give the word up, or act like we could do without it. For starters, we have a cacophony of synonyms for love (as we should—it only makes sense), and if what I said above is true, one cannot escape talking about love. I only want to make it more difficult to say, as it were. I want us to trip over needing to enunciate it. I want us to take our time whenever we would dare place the word on our tongue.

And so, I suggest we do something akin to what Jews do with the Tetragrammaton, the name of God in Hebrew. They will not pronounce His name aloud out of reverence, in fear that they will use His name vainly, and go to great lengths to assure they will not utter The Name. We should do likewise with love.

As Christians, we know from the Apostle John that “God is Love.” And yes language nerds, I know that in Greek there are many words for love, and eros and philos and agape and etc. all have different shades of meaning. But all the many words we have for love, it has been revealed to us that they have their primordial root in God. By using the word love with such glib ease, have we not used the name of God in vain?

So perhaps we should make symbol for the word (that would be an interesting design contest), or every time we see the word in print, be required to say something impossible not to stumble over, “the-word-God-used-of-Himself” or some such monstrosity. Anything that would make the word impossible to use on throw-away Hallmark cards would suffice. Indeed, if we ruin the economics of Valentine’s Day by rendering such frivolities impossible, we will know we have made a start.

Or perhaps this is all too much, when all that needs to be said is that love is never just love—it is, in fact, everything, and we should stop using the word like it is nothing to do so.  

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Moroder, Wikimedia Commons

The Power of Language-A Study of the Words Compassion and Solicitude

Want a fun first date tip? Try asking a person what their favorite words are. While you may come up with some pretty wild or silly answers, our choice of language reveals a great deal about who we are and what we think about the world around us. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a conversation about language with someone that I admire very much, and it was an eye-opening experience.

Our discussion revolved around three words: compassion, solicitude, and pity. While the two of us both agreed that pity was an ugly word, we differed in opinion when it came to the former two. I was fond of the word compassion, but he pointed out that part of its definition was “to pity” and preferred to use the term solicitude instead. This seemed bizarre to me, as I associated solicitude with solicitors and used-car salesmen. We agreed to disagree, but the conversation struck a chord in me. I wanted to understand why I had such a fondness for the word compassion despite the fact that it contained the word pity in its definition. Let’s be real: no one likes to be pitied. When we were kids, pity got us some pretty sweet band-aids at the doctor’s office, but as a whole, pity never really got us anywhere. Over time, I think most of us learn that if we acquire something via pity, it’s not really something worth having, and tends to be thrown out later with our old bandages. So, why my fondness for compassion, a word which the Merriam Webster tells me is synonymous with pity?

The answer lies within the root of the word compassion itself: compati, which means to suffer with. From this origin, we see a connection with others, as is implied by the preposition with.  It requires a certain understanding of the other and an authentic meeting. However, a truly compassionate person does not suffer with the other because he can fully understand the suffering, or even fully understand the other, but because he knows that suffering is powerful; it transforms us. He understands that suffering is the human gateway to mercy and an invitation to a fuller dimension of love. Rather than attempt to destroy or negate suffering, compassion validates the human person by accepting and embracing the whole of the individual, including its loneliness and its yearning. It does not look at a person and see a less valuable individual because of their circumstances, but rather, it sees a human being with an immeasurable value and potential to love and fullness. In this sense, compassion stands in sharp contrast to pity. Pity negates suffering and wishes to subdue it, but in doing so, it negates the one who suffers. In my view, no two words could be more dissimilar. Sorry, Merriam Webster.

How does compassion do this? How does the compassionate person know that suffering does not lessen the value of a person? The only way someone can have this kind of compassion, I believe, is by having experienced compassion. For a Catholic, this compassion is outpoured constantly in the form of mercy. We know that we are loved and transformed daily by a God who is fully human, who truly suffered, and who used that suffering to transform the whole world. Through the people around us and through the sacraments, we have experienced this mercy at our worst moments, and through it, we have experienced the mercy of God. Growing up Catholic, one grows up not so much on fairy tales, but on the stories of the lives of the saints and beatified - stories of real people who knew real suffering, and who constantly extended their love to others despite it. Images of St. John Paul the Second and Blessed Mother Theresa readily come to mind. We are raised on the word compassion. But, what about solicitude?

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
— St. Augustine, The Confessions

Let’s go back now, for a moment, to my conversation with my friend. He was, and still is, fond of the term solicitude. So, wanting to understand him better, I did some research into this word as well. The root here is sollicitus, which means to be anxious, worried, concerned, and restless. At first glance, the origins of this word did not increase my liking of it. However, I dug a little deeper into the origin of sollicitus itself and discovered that it is comprised of two words: sollus (whole, full) and cieō (to move, to stir, to call). When you break it down this way, sollicitus literally means to be stirred to fullness, to be called to wholeness. What better word is there to describe the human condition? St. Thomas Aquinas was certainly expressing this sentiment when he wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” From the day of our birth, we yearn restlessly for fullness.

While the Catholic is practically raised on compassion, solicitude is a term that we do not find in our vocabulary as readily. I certainly think, however, based on the meanings hidden within this word, that we should. Together, words like compassion and solicitude can both bring us to a fuller understanding of ourselves and a fuller understanding of God. Words, bursting with life within them, can transform us. After all, we believe that, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” as we pray in the Angelus.

Language is incredibly powerful, whether we are consciously aware of its power or not. Some words contain breadth and depth that go beyond our daily speech and straight into the yearnings of our hearts. I am no linguist, but through intuition and a basic understanding of etymology, it is clear to me that compassion and solicitude both fall into this supreme category. Each reveals the yearning of the human heart for connection, fullness, and relationship with the other and with God. Each has roots that reach through generations, languages, and cultures straight into the heart of life. How wonderful it is to be able to speak to one another with these words.