A PBS documentary on the late Nat “King” Cole featured Nature Boy, a song which rode the Hit Parade charts for an amazing 15 weeks in 1948. The song faded into the background for a video clip from an interview with the song’s composer, eden ahbez—a man who disdained capital letters and most of what was considered civilized life in the 1940s. He was a hippie, 20 years before hippies became a baby boomer fad.
As I recall that interview (I wasn’t taking notes at the time) ahbez said, “I’d had the words for a long time, and one day suddenly the melody came to me out of the mist in the California mountains.”
Musicologists suggest it actually came to him out of Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A, Opus 81, written about 60 years earlier.
The lyrics of Nature Boy are deceptively simple. And short. Just 74 words, broken into 12 lines. They end with this piece of wisdom:
“…the greatest thing you’ll ever learn
is just to love and be loved in return.”
The wisdom lies in the reciprocity—to love, and be loved in return.
I look, sometimes, at unlikely couples. I wonder what she sees in him, what he sees in her. From my perspective, not looks. Nor exceptional talent. But I’m asking the wrong question. She loves him because he loves her. And he loves her, because she loves him. That’s all that matters.
And the circle of love goes around and around, each act of loving resonating with the other’s love….
Conversely, it’s hard to love someone who doesn’t also love you.
The medieval concept of “courtly love” romanticized falling in love with someone who didn’t love you, who barely knew you existed, who didn’t belong to your social class. Love at a distance. Perhaps at a safe distance, a love that you were never expected to live up to.
I would call that infatuation. Or idealism. Less kindly, lust, or perhaps just envy—I want something I can’t have.
Other words might apply as substitutes for love in Nature Boy’s formula. Respect, acceptance, inclusion—they’re all reciprocal. If I want respect, I must respect the other person—whether or not I support his politics, her lifestyle.
If I feel contempt for someone else, they’re hardly likely to admire me in return.
Reciprocity lies at the heart of most religious teachings. The Golden Rule appears in almost all religions, with varying wordings. The Christian version says, “Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.”
Jesus condensed the laws of Moses to two principles (borrowed from a verse in Leviticus, much the way eden ahbez borrowed from Dvorak): to love God, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
Unfortunately, most study of this text detours into a legalistic point—who is my neighbour?—rather than focusing on its call for reciprocity.
What you give is what you receive. As you receive, you give back. That’s the essence of gratitude.
Reciprocity lies at the heart of conversation. Of hospitality. Of friendship. Indeed, of all social structures—of which love is simply the most intimate.