We cannot escape love. Every language has a word that can be translated as “love.” Every person of every race, religion, and nation, has probably experienced it or at least know about it. It has been the subject of many songs, books, movies, and other works of art. Love is so commonly seen and heard, and yet, when you really think about it, it’s not easy to answer the question, “what is love?”
A lot of people probably would find it difficult to communicate their understanding of love, even though they have certainly experienced it. I have been in love before. And yet, it’s hard for me to explain what it is without using a dictionary. In fact, I tried to look up the definition of “love” on a dictionary, and I don’t quite agree with it.
An easier way to understand love, I believe, is through metaphors. In the book Metaphors We Live By (1980) linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argued that we make sense of the world around us by using metaphors, that is, using one thing to explain another thing even when they have entirely different characteristics. We usually talk and write in metaphors to communicate abstract things like concepts, ideas, or feelings through other things that we can sense with our eyes, ears, hands, or other physical means.
For example, the book mentioned the following metaphor:
TIME IS MONEY
You’re wasting my time.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By.
This gadget will save you hours.
I don’t have the time to give you.
How do you spend your time these days?
That flat tire cost me an hour.
I’ve invested a lot of time in her.
I don’t have enough time to spare for that.
You’re running out of time.
You need to budget your time.
Put aside some time for ping pong.
Is that worth your while?
Do you have much time left?
He’s living on borrowed time.
You don’t use your time profitably.
I lost a lot of time when I got sick.
Thank you for your time.
We use similar words to describe time and money. If someone said, “I’ve invested a lot of time in her,” we can instantly understand that the person is not trying to make a profit just like when we put money into stocks and mutual funds. However, we can see the relation between time and money here. Time is treated as a resource which can we have a lot of or not have at all. This is even though we couldn’t see and store time the way we can put money in our hands, count them, and put them in our wallets or piggy banks. If we try to describe time just as it is, we run into trouble pretty quickly since it is so abstract. And yet, when we use metaphors such as time is money mentioned above, we can instantly understand it through comparing two very different things.
In the same way, we might be unable to explain love through a series of definitions. Just like time, love is an abstract concept, so abstract that even similar kinds of people can have disagreements about what it is. This is where the beauty of metaphor kicks in: you don’t need to point it out explicitly, but you can get a solid grasp by comparing the thing you want to understand to a more concrete object. Lakoff and Johnson wrote several common and easily relatable metaphors about love:
LOVE IS A JOURNEY
Look how far we’ve come.
We’re at a crossroads.
We’ll just have to go our separate ways.
We can’t turn hack now.
I don’t think this relationship is going anywhere.
Where are we?
It’s been a long, bumpy road.
This relationship is a dead-end street.
We’re just spinning our wheels.
Our marriage is on the rocks.
We’ve gotten off the track.
This relationship is foundering.
LOVE IS A PHYSICAL FORCE (ELECTROMAGNETIC, GRAVITATIONAL, etc.)
I could feel the electricity between us. There were sparks. I was magnetically drawn to her. They are uncontrollably attracted to each other. They gravitated to each other immediately. His whole life revolves around her. The atmosphere around them is always charged. There is incredible energy in their relationship. They lost their momentum.
LOVE IS A PATIENT
This is a sick relationship. They have a strong, healthy marriage. The marriage is dead—it can’t be revived. Their marriage is on the mend. We’re getting hack on our feet. Their relationship is in really good shape. They’ve got a listless marriage. Their marriage is on its last legs. It’s a tired affair.
LOVE IS MADNESS
I’m crazy about her. She drives me out of my mind. He constantly raves about her. He’s gone mad over her. I’m just wild about Harry. I’m insane about her.
LOVE IS MAGIC
She cast her spell over me. The magic is gone. I was spellbound. She had me hypnotized. He has me in a trance. I was entranced by him. I’m charmed by her. She is bewitching.
LOVE IS WAR
He is known for his many rapid conquests. She fought for him, but his mistress won out. He fled from her advances. She pursued him relentlessly. He is slowly gaining ground with her. He won her hand in marriage. He overpowered her. She is besieged by suitors. He has to fend them off. He enlisted the aid of her friends. He made an ally of her mother. Theirs is a misalliance if I’ve ever seen one.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By.
As I said earlier, I don’t really relate to dictionary definitions about love since they are so abstract, and there are parts of those definition that I don’t agree. Metaphors such as these, though, are instantly understandable. I can relate these metaphors to my past love experiences, specifically my bad experiences with it.
When I first fell in love, I thought that I wasn’t behaving normally. Usually a rational kind of person, I suddenly became erratic. I couldn’t speak well, eat well, sleep well. Certainly, something was wrong with me. I have gone mad over that person. For me at that time, love is madness.
There were moments when I couldn’t point out why I was into that person. It felt as if it came out of nowhere. I did not become in love out of my own free will. In fact, I believed that I was bewitched. This was me thinking that love is magic.
At another moment in life, I was in love with a person that was loved by another person. I was constantly thinking about how to make the person I love to choose me over that another person, who I sorta kinda treated as an enemy. I came up with actions and clever words to impress that person (side note: I am a cis-het and was referring to girls all along; I just like to keep my references gender-neutral 😉). I had to defeat my enemy to win my love. When I didn’t get into relationship with the person that I loved, I thought of myself as a loser, while that other person became a winner. This was when I believed that love is war.
I could even come up with other metaphors. When I was a teenager, one of my favorite TV series is Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). It had tons of references and dialogues about how human beings try to connect to and also are hurt by each other. Episode 4 of the anime was titled Hedgehog’s Dilemma, which is I think another metaphor for love. Hedgehog’s dilemma basically states that two lonely people trying to connect with one another are like two hedgehogs in the winter that are trying to get some warmth in the winter by getting close to one another. Unfortunately, since the hedgehogs have quills, the closer they get together, the more they hurt each other with their quills. Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosopher who first came up with this metaphor, thinks that humans are like that, too. According to his Hedgehog’s Dilemma, humans cannot love each other without also hurting the ones that they love.
That’s not all! In early 2020, I happened to read a manuscript titled Djalan Sampoerna (or Jalan Sempurna Hidupku as it was titled in the National Library of Indonesia, where it was stored). I wrote a blogpost about the manuscript here. I haven’t finished reading it, but in earlier part of the manuscript, the author talked about his first love and how he lost him. Then, I came across this stirring passage:
So it became clear to me that love was of no use (tijada bergoena). Many are the Dutch sayings that show this plainly:
Liefde is vondervol (love is wonderful)!
Liefde is verschrikkelijk (love is terrifying)!
Liefde is zacht (love is soft)!
Liefde is brutal (love is brutal)!
Liefde is wreed (love is cruel)!
Liefde is heeld (love is happiness)!
Liefde is vuur (love is fire)!
Liefde is ijs (love is ice)!
And there are many other sayings that show how love can strangle those who fall into its toils. For love, many lose all their possessions. In some cases, even their innards leave their bodies. To say nothing of those who spend years and years in prison. And missing all of this because of the treachery of love. There are so many who spend their lives in misery, confusion, and suffering because their path is that of love. So it was clear to me that love was no use. For myself, there was now no room for love, for I had my own medicine (obat) for satisfying my desire. Even if I didn’t get married, it wouldn’t matter … I’d be like my friend, or the doctor in Kediri.Djalan Sampoerna or Jalan Sempurna Hidupku (ML 524). Translated here by Benedict Anderson.
Is it true? Is love just a feeling that is involuntary, is driving us mad, and has brought us into conflict? For the better part of my life, I sincerely believed in all of this. My past experiences, my failures, and my traumas has led me to think that there is nothing to be gained from love. However, I later found out that this doesn’t need to be the case.
Metaphors We Live By has a chapter that discusses how we can construct new meanings to the things that we have previously known by creating new metaphors. It does not matter what metaphors other people use. As long as our metaphor enables us to understand reality and helps us live through it, that’s completely valid. To demonstrate this point, Lakoff and Johnson came up with an unusual but intriguing depiction of love:
LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART
Love is work.George Lakoff & Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By.
Love is active.
Love requires cooperation.
Love requires dedication.
Love requires compromise.
Love requires a discipline.
Love involves shared responsibility.
Love requires patience.
Love requires shared values and goals.
Love demands sacrifice.
Love regularly brings frustration.
Love requires instinctive communication.
Love is an aesthetic experience.
Love is primarily valued for its own sake.
Love involves creativity.
Love requires a shared aesthetic.
Love cannot be achieved by formula.
Love is unique in each instance.
Love is an expression of who you are.
Love creates a reality.
Love reflects how you see the world.
Love requires the greatest honesty.
Love may be transient or permanent.
Love needs funding.
Love yields a shared aesthetic satisfaction from your joint efforts.
Understanding love as a collaborative work of art is certainly not something that we often see in popular culture, such as movies, songs, TV series, even commercials. We are used to the idea that love comes out of a sudden like magic instead of requiring a lot of work like creating a painting. We often act as thought love will come and grow naturally instead of having to be gained through dedication, compromise, and discipline.
This doesn’t mean that the previous, darker metaphors are not valid. After all, these depictions of love wouldn’t become so popular if people don’t relate to them. We don’t need to entirely discard our catalog of gloomy and destructive ideas about love. But we need to create new meanings.
Our prior impressions, woes, and traumas don’t need to mean that we are destined to fail and be miserable in love. Instead, by re-framing our love stories through brighter lenses, we could focus on the encouraging and more beneficial sides of love.