A conversation today reminded me of my childhood confusion about what love is. I was nearly 25 before I was exposed to the concept that love is not only a feeling, but an action. Just off the top of my head, I can think of many ways we use the word love in American English: as a feeling, an action, something you’re in, something you have, an expression of approval—and probably more. So my confusion was understandable, I guess, but I still remember how surprised I was.
The idea came to me in the pages of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey tells the story of a man who lamented that he just didn’t feel that magic in his marriage anymore. His response to the man was something like “love your wife, and the feelings of love will follow.” It was literally a life-changing thought for me. How could I have gone my whole life without even an inkling that love is a verb?
After I grasped the idea of love-as-action, other things followed quickly, and I felt as if my eyes were opened to larger, richer dimensions of meaning in everyday life, which previously had been small and flat, bounded by the limitations of my vocabulary. What other words do we (or perhaps just some of us) use as feelings, which could be actions instead?
With some thought, I made a list of four that seemed important: love, respect, honor, trust.
Each of these is something you can feel, and/or something you can have, but the something-you-can-do sense of these words is infinitely more powerful and important. In each case, I was startled to find that I’d never thought of them as verbs. I’d always thought of them as feelings—I hadn’t even had a clue that they could be actions you could choose. The novelty of these thoughts was so striking to me that I spent a lot of time reflecting on my inner reactions to learn more about the nature of the shallow, unexamined ideas I’d had as a younger man.
Love, for example. Before the revelation, when love’s meaning to me was just a feeling: what was that feeling, really? Was it a feeling of desire for another? A feeling of well-wishing towards them? A feeling of enjoying them? No. I was truly surprised to learn that when I thought I felt love for someone, what I actually felt was desire to be sure that they loved me. My so-called feelings of “love” didn’t even meet the culturally confused definition I thought I was transcending—they were actually fear. This discovery of my own dysfunction was, in retrospective, the beginnings of a lot of personal growth, eventually resulting in me learning to relate to others in new ways.
I had similar learnings and self-discovery from reflecting on respect, honor, and trust. Each of these helped me peel back a layer of the onion and see a little deeper than I had before.
It’s been many years since I first read The 7 Habits, but I still remember this and many other nuggets from it. Any number of other books could probably have opened my eyes to this stunningly basic concept too. And in fact, I’d been exposed to the idea before that—in the country song Something That We Do by Clint Black. But I hadn’t picked up on it, even though it was anything but subtle. The first time I absorbed it was in the pages of The 7 Habits. If for no other reason than that, I’ll always be grateful that I read it.