We all have a bad habit of tossing around important words without thinking about what those words really mean. One of the most carelessly used words in English (and probably in a lot of other languages, too) is “love.” We inject “love” into our conversations—personal, religious, political, whatever—and speak of it with vague reverence, but what we seem to mean is something like “nice feelings.” This kind of “love” is offered up as the silver bullet for ending war, hatred, prejudice, sexism, and any number of other evils in the world. But we’re fools if we think that nice feelings could stop ISIS or hatred or human trafficking.
In other conversations “love” seems to mean just sexual attraction, as if wanting to sleep with someone badly enough means that we love that person.
Kindness, good feelings, romantic attraction—they’re are all good things, but love has to be more. When we talk about love in a way that treats it as mere kindness or sexual attraction, we cheapen it, turning it into something that happens to us instead of something that we choose, something that we do.
Good feelings are too common, too natural, too ordinary to rise to the level of love. Love has to be a rare thing, an extraordinary thing. And if you look at the figures throughout history and literature who have given us the best examples of love, they all have one thing in common: they choose the good of others over their own good, even (or maybe especially) those who don’t deserve it.
I was reminded of all this when I read Wonder Woman #23 recently. At the end of that issue, Diana of Themiscyra has to confront Phobos and Deimos, the twisted, twin sons of Ares and Aphrodite, and stop them from freeing their father from the binds that imprison him and cure him from his war-lust. But instead of fighting them physically, Diana kneels on the beach, wraps herself in the Lasso of Truth, and tells the twin gods that she loves them.
But what really happens in this scene? Phobos and Deimos are left in a pitiful ruin at the end of the scene, just as if they’ve been beaten in a fight. Does that mean that Diana uses love as a kind of weapon? If she can use it as a weapon, then it hardly qualifies as “love,” either in the shallow sense of popular usage or in the deeper sense that I’ve described.
No, whatever is happening, it has to be love in the truest sense. We know this because Diana has wrapped herself in the Lasso. So how could love have the effect that it has on Phobos and Deimos? It has such a devastating effect on them because they have to receive love as something unearned, undeserved. Love feels good when we deserve it in some sense or when we think we’ve done something to earn it, but when someone loves us in spite of ourselves, then it might feel painful—much in the same way that being cured of a disease feels painful. So when Phobos and Deimos understand that Diana is telling the truth, they react as if they’ve been whipped with the Lasso instead of loved. Sometimes love feels that way––like pain. But if we let it, it will heal us.
In a time when real love seems in short supply, we could all learn a few things from Diana of Themiscyra.