What's love got to do with it?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Around this time of year, we are forced to think about love. We even have to consider what it means as we sift through and choose from the hundreds of ready-made cloying sentiments about the subject.

It is something I actually think about all year long. As a psychologist, I book a lot of time listening to my patient's regale me with their experiences in the trenches of love. And it is something I always consider as your HealthSpan columnist since love is one of the most respected contenders in the long-life derby.

In a five-year study of 423 elderly couples, University of Michigan researchers found that people who gave no practical or emotional support to others were more than twice as likely to die during the study period as those who were "loving."

Many theorize that loving feelings like kindness "reboot" us, taking our focus away from anger and anxiety, and thus lowering our levels of stress hormones. These hormones are designed to help us when life changes. If their levels remain chronically elevated, they harm us; so you want that loving feeling to help bring them down.

OK, so love is a good thing. But what is it?

Perhaps love is just some silly romantic notion that sells boxes of chocolates and lifts our spirits in the middle of winter. Or maybe it is, as some anthropologists suggest, merely an evolutionary imperative: We go on reproducing our species and love has nothing to do with it.

Thankfully, philosophers and poets will at least try to be a bit more poetically philosophical about the subject. Like the great 13th century Sufi poet Rumi who concluded: "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere; they're in each other all along."

I would rather listen to someone who knows love more as a familiar action than a philosophical construct. Enter my friend Katy, 47; a natural when it comes to the tasks of love.

She laughingly admits that she knows a lot about it because she so much wants to be loved.

"But I learned a long time ago that love is not something you can demand or even ask for. It doesn't work that way."

So how does it work, Katy?

"By focusing on making your loved one happy. Whenever I see someone has split up, my first thought is 'they never learned how to make their partner happy.' I know that if I concentrate at all times on how I can make my Danny happy -- and not on what he is giving or not giving to me -- he will bathe me in love."

It is very practical advice, and wise. Katy instinctively knows that only happy people can love.

And she suggests that love is not a feeling or something we are entitled to. It is an intentional action.

When you consider it in this way, love is indeed radical: By our loving actions, we can change everything.

Pedro Arrupe, the famous Basque-born Jesuit priest, beautifully captures these sentiments when he said:

"What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude."

Father Arrupe was referring to the practical benefits of falling in love with God. But his words resonate so meaningfully for me when I try to advance love as an act of "practical radicality" in my life of human relationships.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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