Small Wonders: Let me count the ways


Has any word lost its meaning more than love?

Frederick Buechner, from his whimsically insightful dictionary “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC,” offers that “the first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.”

And I think this is where we reside most of the time in our frenetic lives. Our minds overflow with time and task management: work, chores, money, health, school, after-school activities, meal planning and making, couch sitting and TV watching. Not to mention keeping up with Lindsay Lohan’s latest legal drama.

In our over-stimulated world of sound bites, targeted marketing and quick fixes, we don't have time to see things in degrees, to slow down and clarify — to embrace the particulars and individualities for what they are and what they are meant to be. In this world we declare our love of a hot dog, pair of shoes or movie, then turn and use the same word to describe our feelings toward our pet, child or partner.

“The middle stage,” according to Buechner, “is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them.”

Eros is that most natural and physically captivating form of love — the one that seizes us in the mid-regions of our body uncontrolled, or willingly uncontrolled. This is the one we profess with a wink and a knowing smile. To say we love in this sense is to conjure certain images that decency prohibits me from describing in detail here.

Philia, or brotherly love, speaks of camaraderie, of admiration and strong fondness for our partners in the human condition. Philia allows us to sympathize with each other, to bond with our fellow man or woman in civility, empathy and friendship. It is perhaps as naturally occurring as Eros, yet harder to maintain given the constant disappointment we can be to each other.

And then there’s Agape. Some say it is the highest form of love, and possibly the rarest. It is hardest for us to comprehend because it is a call to do what comes least naturally to us: give unrequitedly; hand over your body, soul and mind, asking nothing in return. Pure, generous, sacrificial. To love in the Agape sense is to lie down on the altar for the benefit of others.

“Of all powers,” says Buechner, “love is the most powerful and the most powerless.” Powerful because only love can pierce that most reserved and indefinable safe deposit box of humankind: the heart. Powerless because it can pierce nothing, accomplish nothing, without consent.

Which inevitably leads us to the final stage.

“The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.”

Returning to a reverence for the word with a deeper, yet simpler understanding.

Each form of love, not just Agape, calls us to lose ourselves in some fashion. In a lover's consuming embrace. In a friend's warmth of spirit and companionship. Suffering alongside those who suffer, next door or across an ocean. No less for the criminal than his or her victim. All the same.

Loving is being willing to work for the well-being of others — lover, friend, sinner or saint — even if that means just leaving them alone. That way it might actually be possible to love our neighbors as ourselves even when we don’t like them. But often, liking comes after loving.

Perhaps Agape is the only true form of love. Maybe all other forms of love, though important and valid in their own respects, should be rendered inferior; not called love, but some other strong emotion.

In this sense, love is less emotion than an act of will. To love is not simply to bring up a warm feeling as easily as we do a handshake or a hug; nor to proclaim how much we enjoy a glass of fine cabernet or a bacon cheeseburger with avocado; or even how much you appreciate George Clooney’s flair or Scarlett Johansson’s notable assets. It is to be willing to lose yourself in something else in order to find yourself.

Is that what we’ll be thinking about on Valentine’s Day? Will we have found a Hallmark card that somehow accurately captures the perfect words to describe how we feel toward the object of our love? Will the flowers and the chocolate and the jewelry say it all?

I don’t think so.

But saying it, and meaning it from a place you can’t locate on a map of the human soul, might.

PATRICK CANEDAY is author of the upcoming book “Crooked Little Birdhouse: Random Thoughts on Being Human.” Check it out at He may be reached on Facebook and at

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