A proverb reminds us, “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.”
Indulge me, if you will, as I attempt to plant a seed or two.
What is love, anyway? Specifically, what is “old love?” As we age, we can look back on the many loving relationships in our lives. Maybe we vividly call up passion-filled romantic trysts and smile at ourselves in the remembering. But what is love defined and held close for someone in the final decades of life?
I will start at the beginning. Did you know there are three kinds of love? Eros is desire-filled, sometimes breathless love. There’s a lot of that when we’re young and hopefully some of it as we grow older. Although, the “breathless” part of that definition may require a different kind of execution as one ages.
Philia is affectionate love as well as friendship and shared good will. Older adults need a lot of that.
Agape refers to the highest form of selfless love. Some authors say it is “total love,” one for another, and “devours those who experience it.”
There are actually more kinds of love — maybe as many as eight, according to the ancient Greeks. There is stroge love, which is described as “familiar” or “kinship” love. Although if I told my husband, “I have stroge for you today,” he would probably think I wanted him to take out the garbage. “Playful” love is ludas. I consider that the exuberant hug from a grandchild. Enduring love is pragma. It might be the best kind of love as we age, but I’m still gathering evidence.
The kind of love to worry about is philautia or “self-love, selfishness.” Too much of that in its extreme form, and the other kinds of love that people may have for you erode, maybe even disappear altogether. If you do a lot of that kind of narcissistic loving and living in your life, you end up old and unloved by almost everyone.
There is also mania or “obsessive love.” It is thought by some to be an imbalance between eros and ludus. That too should be avoided if possible. Or at least get it out of your system early on.
I came upon a fascinating online document that is helping me with all this. It’s titled “Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History” compiled by Maria Popova. It is pure delight — full of humor and whimsy — and illustrated with partially clad, winged cupids cavorting in fields of heart-shaped vegetation.
The most memorable inclusion was lifted from a letter the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins sent to his 10-year old daughter. He was trying to explain to her the importance of evidence. He started with, “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give.”
The “evidence” that somebody loves you is taken from the tidbits of any given day, the revelation that your inside feelings come from the outside things that back up your experiences — a mother’s touch, a tender look, a returned favor. Love for the ages.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of the soon-to-be published book “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org