What is this greatest of passions called love? There is no word harder to get a satisfactory definition of. Because, whatever you say about it, there comes quickly to your mind some one who loves you, or you think of the passion that burns in your own heart for some one. And, as you think of that, no words that anybody may use seem at all strong enough, or tender enough, to tell what love is, as you know it in your own inner heart.
Yet I think this much can be said—love is the tender, strong outgoing of your whole being to another. It is a passion burning like a fire within you, a soft-burning but intense fire within you, for some other one. Every mention of that name stirs the flame into new burning. Every passing or lingering thought of him or her is like fresh air making the flames leap up more eagerly. And each personal contact is a clearing out of all the ashes, and a turning on of all the draughts, to feed new oxygen for stronger, fresher burning.
There are many other things that seem like love. Kindliness and friendliness, and even intenser emotions, use love's name for themselves. But though these have likenesses to love, they are not love. They have caught something of its warm glow. A bit of the high coloring of its flames plays on them. But they are not the real thing, only distant kinsfolk. The severe tests of life quickly reveal their lack.
Love itself is really an aristocrat. It allows very, very few into its inner circle, often only one. The real thing of love is never selfish. Now we know very well that in the thick of life the fine gold of love gets mixed up with the baser metals. It is very often overlaid, and shot through with much that is mean and low. Rank selfishness, both the coarse kind and the refined, cultured sort, seeks a hiding-place under its cloak. But the stuff mixed in it is not love, but a defiling of it. That is a bit of the slander it suffers for a time, from the presence in life of sin.
Weeds with their poison, and snakes and spiders with their deadly venom, draw life from the sun. That is a bit of the bad transmuting the good, pure sun into its own sort. The sun itself never produces poison or any hurtful thing.
Love itself is never mean, nor bad, nor selfish. The man who truly loves the woman whom he would have for his own lifelong, closest companion is not selfish. He does not want her chiefly for his own sake, but for her sake, that so he may guard and care for her, and her life be fully grown in the sunlight of the love it must have. And, if you think that is idealizing it out of all practical reach, please remember that true love will steadily refuse the union that would not be best for the loved one.
What is the finest and highest love that we know? There are many different sorts and degrees of love revealed in man's relation with his fellow: conjugal, the love between husband and wife; paternal, the love of a father for his child; maternal, the mother's love for her child; filial, the love of children for father and mother; fraternal, or brotherly, meaning really the love of children of the same parents for each other, both brothers and sisters—the same word is used for love between friends where there is no tie of blood; and patriotic, or love for one's country. And under that last word may be loosely grouped the love that one may have for any special object, to which he may devote his life, outside of personal relationships, such as music or any profession or occupation.
This is putting them in their logical order. Though in our experience we know the father-and mother-love for ourselves first; and then in turn the others, so far as they come to us, until we complete the circle and reach the climax of father-and mother-love in ourselves going out to another.