By Jackie Dobrinska
In her Sonnet 43, English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning muses passionately to her husband, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” She offers many descriptions of her feelings for him (a challenging task for even the most creative writer). The intrinsic need within all of us to love and be loved, of course, comes in countless ways.
The Greeks identified six kinds of love: erotic, playful, friendly, universal, longstanding, and love of self. The ancient Persians had 80 words for love and Sanskrit 96. These multiple words evidence the many nuances of love.
Those of us speaking English, however, really have but one word: love. As Robert Johnson acknowledged in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, we are close to dying of loneliness because of it. He suggests our limited vocabulary is indicative of the poverty of awareness that we give to the realm of feelings.
So how can we expand our vocabulary, and thereby our capacity, to love?
Our first step is to understand the meaning behind this simple yet confoundingly complex four-letter word. David Richo, author of How to Be an Adult in Relationships, characterizes love by the Five A’s: Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing. When given and received freely, these doorways to loving help us truly experience the joys of relationship. He also writes that learning to love this way can be a heroic journey. As we all know, learning to love can be rife with perils.
One common challenge is a perceived conflict between needs. If it seems your needs are in opposition to those of your partner, a fight of “you versus me” can ensue. We can get caught between two choices: selfishness and selflessness. And both lead to resentment. There is, however, a third choice.
I believe we live in a world where separateness exists only in our thinking, that in fact everything—and everyone—is interconnected. In essence, there is no “you” that exists separately from “me.” This is manifested in nearly all the world’s major religions in something commonly called the Golden Rule: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
Steve Torma, who runs “The Art of Intimacy” classes in Asheville, puts it this way: “It’s a weird abstraction to say I’m just going to love myself or just love you. It’s like saying I’m just going to love my right hand. I also need to love my stomach and heart, or the whole system will suffer. To love myself is to love everything.”
Steve calls living the Golden Rule “self-FUL” loving, the goal of “Compassionate Communication,” which teaches how to create a quality of connection where everyone’s needs are met through compassionate giving.
“(The) core to Compassionate Communication’s success is the belief that we all have the basic desire to make life more wonderful for each other,” says Steve. “This is a radical shift from our dominant worldview that says people are sinful, and therefore need to be controlled by an authority figure who doles out punishment and reward based on right and wrong.
“Making life more wonderful means following the inner guidance and staying connected to the flow of energy between another and myself. This energy has a name, a phenomenon called needs.”
Needs usually get a bad rap. Yet, Compassionate Communication teaches they can be universal. Positive feelings arise when needs are met and uncomfortable ones come up when needs are not met. Focusing on feelings and needs can bring a richness of awareness to your relationships.
As Steve observes, learning to live this way can create happiness, joy, and wonder that cannot be found by accumulating things, amassing power, or acquiring status. Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew this when she wrote:
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.