Thursday, December 26, 2013
Love, The Signified
While all words have a dictionary definition and a denoted meaning, some words have more weight that others. Words are symbolic markers for ideas, and when an idea itself is difficult to define, then the word which is meant to signify that idea is bound to be troublesome.
Take, for example, the following words:
"Lemon" needs little clarification unless you are cooking with lemons and need a particular type. A lemon is a smallish, roundish, yellow, waxy fruit. As long as the image that pops into your head when you read or hear the word "lemon" is something close to that, then congratulations, you are participating in the English language and should have no trouble with interpreting text as long as it pertains to lemons and what they look like.
"Tree" is a little trickier. There are a lot of types of trees and the word alone isn't a very helpful signifier without some clarifying details. If you tell two people to draw a tree and don't tell them which kind you will probably end up with different trees. It's not hugely important, but as a person and especially as a writer, its good to remember that not everyone pictures a pine tree, so if you're talking about pine trees you had better make that clear.
And then there's "Love". It has a definition, technically, but it means something different to everyone, and in some cases nothing at all. When given the assignment of finishing the sentence "Love is…" two people might come up with lists which not only do not contain any of the same words, but actually contradict one another. I do not doubt that the idea which the word "Love" represents does indeed exist. I believe in Love, the signified. However, because it means something different to everyone, it is alarming and absurd that we still cling to Love, the signifier, with such fervor.
Love as a word/symbol/signifier makes sense when it refers to parental and familiar love because to anyone (from a healthy family) "love" evokes safety, loyalty, support, and unconditional investment in one anthers well-being. These things, while commonly sought after in romantic relationships, are not necessarily part of everyone's understanding of what it means to say "I love you" to someone outside of your family. Attraction. Respect. Passion. Shared interests. These are all things that most people want with a romantic partner that are by no means expected from your family. You HOPE that your family respects you, but even if they don't they are required to support you anyway, albeit begrudgingly. The fact that we never developed a second word as powerful as "love" to differentiate between these two entities calls into question the words validity as a meaningful representation.
When two people enter into a romantic relationship and it progresses without incident, it is expected that at some point, someone will say "I love you". Either the other person says it back, or they don't. Either way, from that point on shit gets complicated. It really needn't, though. The problem is that people say "I love you" without knowing what they mean by it, or even if they do know what they mean they don't know how to express those specific feelings with the gravity they deserve. The other complicating matter is that if the recipient of the first "I Love You" doesn't call this proclamation into question and goes ahead and says it back, both people have now entered into a very ambiguous agreement. It's ambiguous because usually, both people assume that the other person's understanding of "I love You" is the same as their own, or at least they really want that to be the case and are afraid to find out otherwise. Either that or they panicked and said it just because they didn't know what else to say. There are a lot of things that can go wrong in the brief nanosecond after "I love you" but with the right approach, and an appreciation for the powers of words, the damage can be mitigated early on.
In most situations these potential problems don't actually become problems until later on. It feels great to hear "I love you". Even if you're only half sure that you feel it, it feels pretty great to say it, too. Especially if you're young and haven't yet watched the affection drain from a relationship enough times to be fearful of it happening again, the first "I Love You" is basically a drug. At some point though, if you really mean it, you're going to have to be more specific. Otherwise, both parties will go on assuming that they found exactly what they were looking for, because they had both projected their own connoted definitions of "love" onto the other person's words. Without clarification, lovers will abruptly find themselves unable to understand one another, and wondering what happened.
It doesn't help that most people we date as adults are people who we don't know very well. They weren't there for our childhoods (again, I said MOST), or our adolescence, and for a while in there simply isn't enough evidence to determine whether or not someone might be a pathological liar or at least a very strategic withholder of information. It's easy to fall in love (by your own definition) with the parts of a person that you can see early on. It's my own personal opinion that you should wait until you feel confident that you can really see all of a person before you know whether or not this person is going to matter to you in the long run. And that, by the way, is what I think "love" SHOULD signify at its very least; that this person matters to you, and will continue to matter to you on some level if you're not together any more. It's a hard thing to predict intellectually, but its pretty easy to feel.
It is natural to feel like your are quietly going insane during the time period when you're very enamored with someone but unable to reasonably identify your feelings. I fully understand how some people feel the need to express themselves IMMEDIATELY lest they suffer a severe brain hemorrhage. It's not that its impossible to feel what you perceive to be love mere weeks after meeting someone, especially if you have spent hours and hours talking to them. However, if someone tells you that they love way sooner than feels possible, you might want to ask a few follow up questions because that person might not fully appreciate the weight of their words.
Although I doubt that the role of the word "love" in our culture will be amended any time soon, it seems like an important time to call into question our willingness as a society to throw it around. Instant communication and access to all varieties of bad movies and TV only make it easier to get it all wrong. So by all means, feel your feelings, but make sure you know how to describe them in detail before calling it Love.