you & me

The Word ‘Love’ Is Tricky Business.


The other day, I told a woman I had just met that I loved her. I’m not sure, but I think I freaked her out. Of course, why not?

I perhaps should have qualified what I meant, but that might have taken half an hour. Still, as someone who teaches and appreciates authentic and effective communication, I might have been more considerate. But I wasn’t. I wanted to say what I said. I was truthful, but maybe ineffective.

No doubt, she could fairly have thought any number of things: he’s a needy mama’s boy (honestly, I’m not), he’s out of his mind (I can’t argue that one), he is desperate (I don’t think so), he’s got an emotional hole in him as big as Greenland (it’s much smaller than that), he’s a horny bastard (hmm, I can’t argue that one either).

With no history or context, it would be reasonable for her to wonder what in the world I wanted from her. Nothing. I just was flooded with all kinds of delight while being with her, and “I love you” seemed like a good way to thank her for the delight. Funnily enough, I’m not a big “I love you” guy; I’m not a huge hugger.

I don’t have any inhibitions around those; I just notice I’m not a cheerleader with pom-poms at the ready. But that evening, I rocked it. And freaked her out. I never heard from her again.

The word ‘love’ is tricky business. According to sources, the ancient Greeks had numerous words for ‘love’, depicting various kinds of situations and relationships. Here is one brief summary I found online:

There are seven Greek words for ‘love’, and they are all slightly different.

‘Agape love’ is love without any payment in return. This refers to love in the purest sense of the word. ‘Philos’ refers to the love of a friendship. ‘Eunoia’ is love out of kindness, while ‘eros’ is a sexual love. ‘Hetairos’ is a brotherhood type of love, and ‘aphrodisios’ refers to the goddess of love. ‘Storgy’ is the love a mother has for her kids, or in more general terms, the love one has for their dependents.

There are many other sources, just look around.

Unlike the ancient Greeks, speakers of modern English have one word. It is woefully inadequate. I love wood-fired margherita pizzas. I love the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. I love kids (who belong to other people). I love puppies (duh, who doesn’t?). I love all kinds of things. I love the smell of clean hair and soft skin. I love the light in people’s eyes when they laugh. I love when people speak their truth.

But I’m particularly, and newly, aware of the feelings I have for people, one at a time, in all kinds of random situations. When I’m flooded with delight, I say, simply, “I love you.”

That is certainly a proverbial slippery slope, isn’t it? Good lord, we can’t just go around saying “I love you” to individual people, randomly, without wanting anything. Can we? I mean, if you told a co-worker or boss that you loved them, you’d have a lawsuit on your hands. If you tell a first date that you love him or her, I seriously doubt you’d have a second date.

If you tell your oncologist that you love him or her, well, who knows what might happen. I’ve thanked mine with gratitude, but have yet to tell him I love him. I might do that on my next visit.

I started studying Western philosophy in my mid-teens, Eastern mysticism at 19, and I lived for 10 years in an ashram, studying meditation and Kundalini Yoga. For most of my life, I’ve run into the L-word, sometimes even as a description for one’s essential nature and as the underlying truth of existence. You’d have to be a dead person to not have heard of unconditional love.

Still, and even with the limitation of our one word instead of the Greeks’ many words, I notice that when we say “I love you” to a particular person, without apparent cause or history or context, all hell is likely to break loose.

I know, you can say it in church, or at Burning Man, or in a spiritual satsang (maybe), but those are all contexts in which “I love you” can sail from your boat to theirs without too much fear of backlash. In these cases, “I love you” is granted asylum from fear due to the context in which it is said.

I took a pause in writing this piece after the above paragraph. I wanted to give myself time to appreciate that it may be socially inappropriate or ineffective to say “I love you” in such a random way as I have been doing. It might alienate or frighten people. Any number of things could happen. I’ve thought it over. And that’s just it. Any number of things might happen. Why do we assume they’ll be “bad”?

What, really, are we afraid of?

Following on from a terminal cancer diagnosis in January 2012, I’ve “lost” pretty much everything a person can lose. I’ve already died. I lost everything I owned. I lost everything I thought I knew. I lost all my ambition and goals. I lost my personal history, and time, and fear. Where I might have been certain of some things, now I am certain of nothing.

I do not live as if tomorrow or next month or next year is a given. I do not know if or when I will see the person I am with again. I guess I’ve become a preacher in the Church of What’s Happening Now. I’m not afraid of what might happen when I say “I love you.” I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t.

So, fair warning: I intend to keep up with my imprecise and perhaps inappropriate and ineffective way of speaking. When so moved, when flooded with delight, I will say: I love you. If you ask: What do you mean by that? Chances are, I’ll say, I’ve become deliriously giddy and joyful and excited and grateful, or I might say, I’m digging your soul. We’ll see. Who knows? Can’t we deal with it?

Isn’t it a kick to live on a roulette wheel?


RobertRabbinRobert Rabbin began his professional journey in 1985, after spending 10 years living and working with meditation master Swami Muktananda. Since then, he has developed an international reputation as a radically brilliant speaker and public speaking guru, as well as a distinguished self-awareness facilitator, leadership adviser, and personal mentor. Robert is the creative source and director of Speaking Truthfully, through which he offers masterclasses and private mentoring in authentic self-expression and public speaking. He has published eight books and more than 200 articles on authentic living and public speaking, leadership, self-inquiry, spiritual activism, and meditation. In January 2012, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and was told he had a few months to live. However, in keeping with his contrarian nature, he continues to thrive past the predicted use-by date. He lives in Los Angeles, and can be contacted via his website.


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