Definitions of love

Between you and the universe, there are a host of places to put your love. Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

We all think we know what love is, in context.  But we all use the word love to describe so many different things, depending on what we want to achieve in a given situation.  This is an exploration of the types of things we might mean, and of why it might be important to choose our words, or our intentions, with a little care.


One of the main uses of love in world religions is to elevate care for other humans to a thing of utmost importance.  The usual boundary put around this exhortation is the human race.  Caring for other people is considered a high activity.  Usually, this entails a combination of physical care (making sure that the body as an organism has what it needs to function well, e.g. food, drink, medicine and social support), and spiritual care (making sure the person is offered teaching that in some way enhances their wellbeing).

Broadly speaking, the assumption is that humans are a separate category of being, and therefore need to be cared for by other humans in preference to animals, plants and objects outside the protected circle.


This kind of love looks similar to care for other humans, until we realise that the protected circle does not stop at the edge of one species, but extends to all things.  For instance, the planet Earth is considered an integrated unit whose functioning it may be bad to interrupt.  Pollution caused by man is considered difficult in its own right, not just because it gets in the way of human comfort.  Some extend this respect for nature to the universe, considering it a wonderful, balanced thing in its own right that we corrupt at our peril.

So this kind of love may well include respect for other human beings, but extends much wider to behaving with respect for all things.  An inherent problem is that its advocates pick and choose which aspects of the universe are artificial, and which natural.   It is often only the so-called artificial things (such as man-made pollution) that they have a problem with.  However, the general intention is to act in harmony with, and with respect for, everything.


Some societies look closer to home, and even say things like charity (i.e. love) begins at home.  The aim here is to prioritise close and familial relations over and above more distant and dissimilar relations.

An example of selective love might be what is sometimes called racism, where a social group (be it a family, a race, or other subgroup) makes a special effort to prioritise its own interests. In this context, supporting one’s own family is considered a priority, over and above supporting other more distant people, however in need.

A very selective love might be egotism, where the selection narrows down to just one person.

Another very selective love might be romantic love, where the selection extends to, say, one other, who receives a lot of care in preference to others.


How you arrange all this in your own mind is up to you.  But it is possible to create the idea of a kind of expanding circle, beginning with you.

First, consider self-interest.  Spend some time thinking of the ways in which you protect your own solitary interests at the expense of others (particularly, say, when you feel under pressure).  Then consider the selective care you give to chosen humans, perhaps a relative, or a romantic partner.  Maybe you also have social groups, such as your political friends, or your nation, which you prioritise.  Looking wider, perhaps sometimes you look to the human race, and try to extend your care to this species in its widest definition.  Finally, looking wider still, perhaps sometimes you are overwhelmed with a love and respect of the Earth, or even the universe, as you gaze at the stars.


Some people (arguably all of us) mix their options in practice.  Uncomfortable with making any specific choice of level of love, they fudge their bets, and do a bit of everything.  This makes for some very good drama.

Imagine Ellen.  She is highly anxious, and this leads her to protect herself most of all.  However, she has a partner whom she says she loves, and tries desperately to act in their interests too when she can.  She also seeks to love her family a bit, although this is hard because of their conduct when she was growing up.  But she also perhaps looks wider still, and goes on anti-racism marches, participating in a movement which seeks to stop people preferring their own kind at the expense of others.  In her more relaxed moments, particularly after a joint, she looks beyond the human race, gazes at the stars, and realises that all her petty problems are nothing compared to the vastness we are all part of.  Ellen, as a character, has much in common with all of us, in that she mixes and matches her views of love as she goes, depending on the context.


There is also a difficult decision to make, in every situation, which affects which level we operate at.

Imagine James.  James can expand his mind to the edges of the universe, and, doing so, realises that we are all nothing in comparison with that vastness.  His wisdom tells him to sit still and contemplate this, unpeturbed at any temporary suffering that people close to him might experience.  But James can also contract his mind compassionately into the present moment, and, doing so, realises that there is a beggar beside him that is everything in terms of need.  James experiences two things: the wisdom that says no need, and the compassion that sees need.

The difficult decision we face is an expression of this double talent we have.  In any situation, we can focus wide, on the whole universe in all its vastness, and do nothing.  Or we can focus close, on a piece of need, suffering, or damage, and offer active love immediately.  One is wisdom; the other is compassion.

We could say that compassion operates from the person outwards – in other words, we learn first to care for ourselves, and then to extend this care wider and wider.  And we could say that wisdom operates from the universe inwards – in other words, we learn first that the universe is vast, and then that our own situations are nothing from this universal perspective.

In practice, I’d suggest these two twins, compassion and wisdom, are our constant companions, and that we need both to be balanced.  Without wisdom, we get over-anxious in minutiae; without compassion, we get depressed with vast meaninglessness.  The middle way is to remain wise but compassionate, both together.  Some might even argue that anxiety is lack of wisdom/perspective, and depression is lack of compassion/meaning.  I couldn’t possibly comment.


Notice how your own mind deals with the twin influences of wisdom and compassion.  Notice how wisdom gives you a wider perspective when you get hung up on things close to home.  And notice how compassion gives your life meaning when you get overwhelmed by the vastness of everything.  Wisdom says ‘never mind’.  Compassion says ‘I care’.  Both are loving things to say.



Love means different things at different times to different people.  Each time we exercise love, we are making a choice as to whom or what to give preferential care to.  One way of seeing this, is to imagine an expanding circle, like a ripple moving outwards, going from your self, to those closest to you, and finally out to the universe.

In your daily life, you mix and match, sometimes helping yourself, sometimes close friends, sometimes wider interests.  Perhaps compassion is how we learn to move outwards from our self-interest to help others more widely, saying ‘I care’.  And perhaps wisdom is how we learn to bring the universe’s vast perspective to our narrow interests, so that we can say ‘never mind’.