The Greeks had a word for it—“it” being almost anything.
And if they didn’t have a word for it, Greek words have enabled subsequent civilizations to fabricate a word for almost anything. For example, triskaidekaphobia, which, if you break it down to its roots, refers to fear of the number 13.
But simply being able to name things doesn’t mean the Greeks were always right.
I’ve spent most of my life taking for granted the Greek definitions of love:
• Agape: compassion, altruism, unselfish caring
• Éros: passionate, sensual, erotic love, lust
• Philía: friendship, loyalty, the affection between brothers and sisters
• Storgē: parental love for a child, self-sacrificing love for a less fortunate person.
Those are valuable distinctions. Teachers of the Christian faith often resort to the Greek distinctions to make clear that Jesus’ love for sinners, lepers, and small children was agape, not eros.
But recently, I’ve found myself thinking that the Greek distinctions aren’t perfect. They assume, for example, that all brothers and sisters share similar feelings for each other. And that just ain’t so. Especially if there’s a legacy involved.
I’d define three categories, not four.
There is, first, the love that says, “I love you because you can do something for me.”
Think of young children, reliant on their parents. Or of the hormonal teenager, seeking sexual satisfaction. I want your body, your ability to play the piano, your skill with words, your bubbly personality…
This kind of love expects—no, demands—that love be reciprocated.
Second, there’s the love that says, “I love you because I can do something for you.” That might well be parental love—helping children grow healthy in body and spirit. It might also be felt by social workers dealing with homeless street people. And by teachers or mentors.
It could bleed into something close to pity: I can introduce you to ideas, places, experiences that you have never had before.
This kind of love expects the recipient to change, to grow.
And third, there’s the kind of love that simply says, “I love you because of what you are.”
It doesn’t expect to change the other person. It doesn’t expect anything in return. It just values the other for what she or he is already.
I don’t mean hero-worship. I don’t mean a distant adulation for a figurehead who may have made the world a better place, or for an out-of-reach film star. Love has to be personal. You’re well aware of someone’s faults, weaknesses and shortcomings. But you love ’em anyway. For who they are.
I think of it as the highest level of love.
It’s tempting to assume that this third kind of love corresponds to what the Christian church calls God’s unconditional love, embodied in Jesus.
But Jesus’ love was not always unconditional. “Your sins are forgiven,” he said. “Go and sin no more.” Clearly, he expected something in response. And I’m pretty sure he felt he could do something for those he called to follow him.
Perhaps all three kinds of love weave together, sometimes with one thread dominant, sometimes another.