Of Love and Its Shadow

Love is the most fundamental component of the human experience. Though often expressed in implicit ways, much of what we do on a daily basis is driven by the desire to love and to be loved. Who does not cherish a deep bond with fellow human beings? Who does not want to be liked, accepted, validated, welcomed, and appreciated? Among those who claim they have no such desire, how many are quietly motivated by the fear of rejection?

According to ancient Greek philosophers, love comes in four basic types: Philia is the bond between friends; eros, instead, is romantic and sexual love; storge is compassion, and agape is spiritually inspired universal love. Ultimately, these distinctions are superficial and, deep down, all four forms of love are interconnected. Yet even love has its shadow, too; this comes from the fear of being unlovable or not loved enough. In what follows, I examine a few examples.

Any anthropologist worth their salt will tell you that, if human beings have evolved so rapidly, they owe it to cooperation rather than competition. Philia is the bond among friends that induces them to support each other as they work together on menial tasks and important projects alike. Yet the shadow of philia is love as a mere reflection of the attention others lavish on you.

Make your fellow humans feel safe and happy, and they will usually return your affection. Stop giving, and some of them may turn their back on you—or so you may fear! And, as any teenager will tell you, a friend’s betrayal can cut deep into your heart, almost as deep as a lover’s.

If philia is foundational to the human experience, the flavor of love that often sweeps us off our feet is eros. For a young adult, love can be an all-consuming emotion. As the stuff of much poetry and daydreaming, eros is capable of giving you a fleeting taste of oneness and infinity; however, it can also just as quickly break you, at least for a time.

Much like philia, eros is rarely unconditional: we are often attracted to partners who can give us something we feel we lack; as our relationships deepen, our expectations pile up. Most of the time, what we want from our partners is to heal the wounds we cannot fix by ourselves. Hence, our love for them will depend on the amount of care they give us. “Make me whole, because I cannot!” is often our (and their) implicit cry. Successful, long-lasting romantic relationships usually entail the realization that, while your partner can be a friend and an ally, ultimately each of you will have to take charge of your own happiness and emotional wellbeing. How different is a pure form of eros from a balanced kind of philia?

As the matter of much attention in spiritual circles, what the ancient Greek called storge is compassion as the kind of connection with another human being that often entails feeling their sorrows as if they were our own. Storge can be a beautiful and quite healing type of love; the ego, however, is always lurking in the shadow.

How many times do we try to “fix” others in hope of feeling better about ourselves or even having the objects of our care conform to our expectations? Such is for example the case of those codependent individuals who sacrifice all they have for an addict family member. What looks like selfless care may, in fact, be driven by the egotistical desire for an ever-grateful spouse or child who will finally satisfy all of the caregiver’s needs.  

Lastly, as the type of love that encompasses all others, agape is the secret of the mystic’s bliss. Nothing could be more enthralling than the experiential recognition of the divinity of all that is; in this cosmic awareness, love emerges as the bond of oneness as well as the path to its realization.

Yet even agape has a shadow—one that lurks in the egoic desire for validation, prestige, and power that is so evident among many religious and spiritual leaders. True agape will never make you feel special. True agape will not induce you to convert others to your faith, because it will not fool you into believing in your own superiority. True agape will not compel you to “save” fellow human beings when, as a matter of fact, what you are really pursuing is validation. On the contrary, agape as truly unconditional love will make you accept and cherish others with no judgment. Ask the mystic: when all is one, nothing can ever be separated; to cosmic love, nobody can be really other.

In conclusion: if you want to learn how to truly love, your first step should be to become mindful of your needs and expectations. Next, start paying attention to how you are projecting them onto those you love; observe how this affects them; learn to listen—to yourself and others. This is not an easy task, but its rewards are well worth it. Once you become whole unto yourself, you will be able to both love without expecting and release without resenting. Why would you not want to experience this freedom?

Image by René Porter via Unsplash