by Ann Robson

Most of us are familiar with the quote “How do I love thee, let me count the ways” found in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 23”. Few can recite the whole sonnet which details how she loves Robert Browning. This opening question is one of the most common quotes about love, and one of the most copied by others to make their own list. It’s hard to find a better phrase to start a tabulation of the many ways we can love someone or something.

“Love” is hard word to describe in dictionary format. It depends on circumstance – who  is doing the loving, who is being loved, what is being loved, why love matters, and on and on. 

When I hear someone say they just “loooovvve” a particular food, or a movie, or a music star, or green eggs and ham, I want to ask “Why?” “Is it like loving your spouse or your child or your parents?” Tell me more. Why do you love things so much? Could it be you really just like them a lot? The word ‘love’ is tossed around so frequently that it tends to lose much of its real meaning.

Each of us has a different concept of love. Mothers (and fathers) love their children but perhaps differently for each child; although we tend to say we love them all equally. And, yes, we do try to love equally, but each child is an individual with needs and wants unique to each person. Most of us love our parents, blindly at first when we are infants depending on parents for every basic need. As we age we come to realize that all people in our lives are not created equal and perhaps our love for each of them requires different things of us.

The teenage years find us loving or hating lots of things and often hating something today but loving it next week. Life is more uncertain for us in this stage, and we often throw around “love” and “hate” willy-nilly. If we’re lucky we’ll learn that love is better than hate before we’re caught in the throes of one or the other.

“Hate the sin but love the sinner” is timeless advice from Mahatma Gandhi who knew a thing or two about both feelings. He also told us, “Where there is love, there is life.”

A glance at any bookstore shelf offering self-help books finds the word “love” in almost every title. How to love yourself seems to be the starting point for loving everything from your job to your spouse to your kids to your mother-in-law to your laundry and on and on. If love is the universal language then why must we have so many guidebooks? Maybe we’re a little fixated on knowing exactly what this thing called love is and how to handle it. It seems we don’t handle love, but it handles us. Just think of what you do for love – many things as simple as making coffee for your non-morning spouse to feeding the family pet to caring deeply for the welfare of another.

Mother Teresa left us with a wonderful observation: God will not ask how many good things have you done in your life, rather He will ask how much love did you put into what you did.

Ann Robson is the author of “Over My Shoulder: Tales of Life and Death and Everything In Between.” She may be reached at overmyshoulder@charter.net .