What is Love?

Better yet . . . what is love to me?

“He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals.” -Benjamin Franklin

 

 

 

I’ve blogged about friendship, fear, loss, sexuality and so on, and so I thought that it is time for love. Must be all this talk of Valentine’s Day, although it’s not quite as commercial here in Portugal. Maybe it is and I’m just not aware of it.

Who am I to speak of love? I ask myself this question because I have had several failed relationships over the past 40 years. Perhaps that makes me as qualified as anyone else to pontificate on love. It is essential to question and examine; searching for answers that will help us to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.

 

How do I know that I am capable of loving?

This may seem like an odd question, but it’s important for me to begin by acknowledging (to myself) that I am certain that I have loved and that I continue to love deeply. My earliest memory of a love that was extremely intense and painful, was a childhood memory. I was in first grade, so I believe I was seven years old. My father was taking a month-long trip to Italy, his birthplace, to see his family living in Bisceglie. He had never travelled overseas and he had never been away overnight.

Bisceglie, Puglia

 

In my mind, Bisceglie was far, far away, and dad was going on an airplane and he’d probably never come back. Where these thoughts came from, I haven’t a clue. I vividly remember missing him badly and praying for his safe return. This felt very much like love. It was a love so strong it remains with me today and probably will until the day I die — I think of my father daily. Admittedly, I never felt this same love for my mother. I did love my mother, however, not with the same intensity.

I use that experience as my “love barometer” and I can say honestly that I only feel that kind of love for a handful of people and Giorgio, my pet whom I lost a few months ago.

About Bisceglie:  I’ve never been. I want to go, but I have always said that I would experience my father’s birthplace with the person I intend to spend my life with. I think it’s time to let go of that notion and just go. I believe it will be an important journey.

 

When was the first time I felt love?

I was four years old and I remember my sister AnnMarie crawling into my twin bed. She was 11 years old at the time. She whispered “I love you” in my ear and I purred like a kitten; a feeling of love washed over me and I said, I love you too.

I believe I remember this particular moment because AnnMarie was a substitute mother to me when I was a child; she took very good care of me; I was her doll. Perhaps I am mistaking nurturing for love? Something tells me the two go hand-in-hand.

 

Can you teach people how to love?

I imagine this question has been asked since humankind recognized love and gave it a name. Love seems to be one of the characteristics we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. I’ve witnessed it in so many different ways in many different species. The love for a parent, a sibling, a friend and for others of our own species. We express this love in many ways and we do things, good and bad things, as a result of feeling love.

It appears that forces exist that attempt, successfully or unsuccessfully, to destroy our ability to love. I would say that we are all born with that innate ability; however, human beings sometimes, for whatever reason, attempt to destroy another human being’s ability or desire to love — it is the root of so many of our problems.

I have also observed that some individuals seem to be born with the great gift of a heart that is so full they inspire others to open up their own hearts. Love can grow larger just as easily as it can be extinguished. We can doubt, question, betray, harm, and walk away from love; this appears to be a trait that separates us from other animals.

 

The difference between loving someone and making love

I have never believed that sex and love are the same thing. Sex is an instinctual behavior. All animals have sex or seek sex with one another. I assume it all started as a way to procreate and then morphed into a pleasurable act. I won’t go into all that here; this is a blog about love. I do believe that sex is one way of expressing one’s love for another, but obviously love and sex are not mutually exclusive. I believe it’s dangerous to mix the two things up. Doing so has certainly created problems for me in the past.

 

How love changes as you age

Perhaps love doesn’t change as you age, but what does change is your understanding of love and your appreciation for love. I have become cautious and fearful. Opening myself up to love someone deeply:  something I’m working on; I have a long list.

 

The joy love brings

It was only a few months ago that I lost my dog Giorgio. When I think about unconditional love, it is Giorgio that comes to mind. I am skeptical when it comes to human beings loving one another unconditionally; I may have to be convinced. I’m fairly certain that no one has ever loved me the way Giorgio loved me. I was his human. I have come to realize that only those who have had a devoted pet truly understand the bond between an animal and a human. I know it’s not just because I fed him and took care of him. It’s unlike any other love that exists and I am forever grateful for having experienced that love at least three times in my life. I’m hoping I get to have it again someday.

 

Image may contain: people sitting, dog and indoor
Giorgio posing for my friend Mauro Fermariello, an Italian Photographer. So grateful Mauro captured Giorgio for me — this was a beautiful gift I will always cherish.

Scientific proof (link)

 

The Ultimate Love

I’m not sure where I heard it first, but I think Ru Paul says it best,

“If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

When I first heard this notion of loving yourself I thought it was rubbish and I dismissed it without much thought for a long time. Then in my mid-thirties, I was sitting with my therapist and she said, “Do you love yourself?” My immediate thought was I need to find a new therapist and then I realized how much I liked her and I seriously considered her question.

In order to answer truthfully I had to spend the entire week prior to my next session pondering her question. I returned the following week and told her that I unfortunately did not like myself very much. I figured out that this is how therapists get you to stay in therapy longer — it was a hook. I jest, she convinced me to consider where this was coming from and why. I could easily blame it on my mother; she gave me permission to do so when I told her I was seeing a therapist. It would be too easy to do that so I decided to try to alter my thinking. My therapist told me that I should look in the mirror and say, I love you.” I laughed about that for weeks and then I tried it one day. It was admittedly one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. Oh, I could say it easily, but not without laughing in my own face.

I made a conscious decision to say it to myself before falling asleep at night and to mention it in passing to myself at various times of the day — out loud by the way. After a while, like anything else, it got easier and I actually started believing it. I would buy myself flowers at the farmer’s market, put them in a vase and present them to myself with, “I love you Christopher.” Why is it so easy to do this for someone else, but so difficult for ourselves.

The newly enlightened me does it all the time now. I take myself to dinner, buy myself plane tickets, shop for new clothes and each time, I remind myself that I am giving myself a gift and a big hug. It no longer feels awkward or weird; it feels natural. The added benefit is this:

When  you love someone you want all good things for them. You want them to be healthy and happy and to feel appreciated. When you love yourself, you want all of those things for yourself. You begin to live a healthier lifestyle for the sole purpose of feeling good for yourself. And people notice this about you. They smile and say things like, “It’s great to see you so happy,” or “You look terrific,” or even better, they stop expecting you to have another person to complete you. They actually recognize that you can be happy and single at the same time. I came to this realization not too long ago and it is hands down one of the greatest life lessons I have learned. There are many more lessons to learn; however, the ability to love myself and forgive myself, makes everything else just a little easier.

 

 

 

What Does Happy Look Like?

[I’m traveling tomorrow, so I decided to publish this week’s blog early. Sunday, February 3rd’s blog will be all about the Canary Islands.]

 

 

 

Thoughts about happiness has been occupying a great deal of my time lately. I’ve been taking stock of my life and wondering the following:

  1. Am I happy?
  2. What makes me happy?
  3. What do I need to do to be happier?
  4. Is it okay to settle for happy moments versus overall happiness?
  5. Are my expectations reasonable? Why or why not?
  6. How do I assess my own happiness?
  7. Do others interfere with my happiness?
  8. Do I make myself unhappy?
  9. What does being happy feel like?
  10. What were the happiest times of my life?
  11. Who makes me happy?
  12. Why does being happy matter?

I’m not going to go through these questions and answer them one by one. I am instead demonstrating where my head is at this stage of my life and how might create my own present and future. I’ll be sixty in a few months and whether I like it or not, age factors into my happiness. It’s a milestone that forces you to take inventory and consider your future.

There are ways to address this milestone that may be helpful. The following topics will be tackled in order of importance in my life at this time in my life:

Health

Health is a difficult reality. On one hand I want to life as healthy a life as possible so that I can enjoy a good quality of life; on the other hand there are many choices that I make that bring me joy, however, these choices have a negative impact on my health. For example, my daily 5:00 p.m. cocktail. I usually only have one and I know that by itself, that is not a bad thing, but there are a couple of other considerations:  1) the cocktail contains empty calories with no nutritional value, 2) when I’m with friends, I will give myself permission to have more than one, and 3) I also have a glass (or two) of wine with dinner. I am not an alcoholic and I don’t drink to get drunk. Still, I know that I would probably drop a few pounds if I stopped drinking. Truth is I enjoy that time of day when I relax and have a drink and I enjoy the taste of the cocktail or wine. I have made the conscious decision to continue drinking and monitor my intake; try my best to keep it at two or three portions a night. I have a very similar relationship with food, which also brings provides for a good deal of my happiness. Most of what I eat is fresh, healthy and delicious; however, there is that ten percent of my diet that I know is unhealthy. Again, one has to know oneself and choose wisely. And get a regular check-up to be certain that your body can tolerate certain things.

Note:  It doesn’t help that two of my dearest married friends had cocktails at 5:00 p.m. and ate what ever they wanted and had/have very healthy and long lives. One of them just recently passed away at age 95 and the other is alive and healthy at 90. Of course I know that everyone has a different genetic make-up and many, many other factors contribute to a long and healthy life.

I have always said that I’d rather live to be 80 and enjoy the bounty of life, then live to be 90 and deny myself much of what I truly love. This lifestyle choice doesn’t work for everyone. I am happy to say that I am almost 60 years old and medication free. I workout five days a week and only suffer the normal aches and pains that come with aging.

It’s odd how little we talk about our own path. We usually talk about other people and their habits or we generalize about society as a whole. It seems that people are either ashamed of their choices or choose to hide them. I wrote about my drinking habits this week in hopes of getting feedback from my readers. Am I kidding myself? Do my habits seem healthy? Unhealthy?

Home

The first view is the backside of my apartment and it represents my morning view. This morning, I watched the lunar eclipse. I have a clear view of Faro, the mountains and the morning moon. This view inspires me and reminds me that I am alive and that each day is a new and different day. The morning light is filled with color and most of the year I can watch the sunrise from my terrace. I also have a magnificent view of the Ria Formosa. The Ria is every changing and dynamic.

The second view is just after the sun has set in the evening. This view is facing southwest from the front of my apartment. This view represents the quiet of the evening — soft, diffused light

 

 

 

Front views at different times of the day:

 

There is a spot in my dining room where I can see both views. Depending on the time of day, every view is different and new. It’s like slowly moving still photographs marking time. I stand in this spot at least once a day to marvel at the light and color.

Family

Family can complicate happiness. I love my family dearly and my happiness is all wrapped up in their happiness. I constantly consider the amount of control or the lack of control I possess related to their happiness. I can make my sister laugh or buy my brother a nice present; I can spend hours on the phone with my niece listening to her talk about esoteric adventures; I can daydream about how my mom would take us shopping as children, pass an underwear bin, grab a pair and put it over her head; and I spend a day remembering my three siblings who have left us, whose memories lift me up almost daily. What it all adds up to is how my family takes my happiness to a higher level. Without them I would be happy; however, not nearly as happy.

Friends

Good, good friends know when you are unhappy; they know it before you do. My friends question my emotional state of mind on a regular basis. My mind is always churning and when that’s happening I don’t always smile. When I’m not smiling, my friends get concerned and I have to reassure them that everything is okay. There are times when I am not happy — for my good friends, that’s okay.

I consider my good friends, my family. No doubt my good friends make me happy. Sometimes they make me sad, but I realize that peaks and valleys are a normal part of life.

Plans:  Travel, Entertainment, Dining and Adventure

Making plans and executing them is all about creating memories. I read an anonymous quote many years ago that went something like this:

“We don’t remember days, we remember moments.”

Those words stuck with me and I have always tried to create moments or cement moments into my memory. Like the time I was mountain biking through a dense wooded area in Mexico. For a few moments I felt as free as a bird and more alive than I had ever felt in my life. It was exhilarating, I remember this happy moment as if it happened yesterday. I have many moments like this one and I recall these moments frequently.

Since arriving in Portugal, I have been creating these moments on an almost daily basis.

The Future:  Goals and Aspirations

I have come to realize that no matter how hard I try, there are certain “life concerns” that occupy my mind. When I’m in total control, rested, and have plans for the near future, I can keep these concerns in check and focus on my positive future plans. I also know that there are times when no amount of positive thinking or intervention by friends or family, can help put me in a happy place. When this happens I make myself as comfortable as possible and allow my thoughts to organically flow. The unhappy stuff usually passes pretty quickly when I allow myself to just feel or think whatever it is I’m feeling or thinking. I’ve learned that fighting my natural inclinations only makes me more anxious — know thyself.

I have fewer aspirations today then I had when I was younger. I can live with that.

 

A Funny thing happened on the way home:

My friend Susan is visiting from Maine for a few days. Unlike most of my friends, she reads my blog (as Bianca del Rio would say, “I ain’t mad”). So we were on a train to Tavira and I was talking about what I needed to include in this week’s “happiness” blog.

“I need to remember to make a note about how happiness directly correlates with being grateful, in my blog.”

We talked about how fortunate I am to be living this abundant life in Portugal. Not long after this conversation, we were sitting in the backseat of an Uber and the driver took us through a section of Faro I had never seen. The driver was surprised to learn that I live in Faro. She looked back at us in the review mirror and said,

“Faro is a happy place.”

What more can I say.

 

Feelings

 

 

 

Your State of Mind

One of the many things that happen when you grow older is coming to terms with your feelings (if you’re lucky). Coping with your feelings, identifying your feelings, sorting out your feelings, embracing your feelings, allowing yourself to feel, projecting feelings; you can see where I’m going with this.

Why Your Biology Runs on Feelings (click for more)

Feelings are complicated and so is being human; it comes with the territory. Some people are so wrapped up in themselves, they neglect to consider the feelings of others. Is it social media, the pressures of life, family, coping skills, socialization? What is it about the world around us that has made us less empathetic? Some would argue that humans have always been this way. I’m not sure about that. I recall a time when people had more time for one another and seemed to care more; I could be wrong.

I’m sure the news media has something to do with it. Around the clock news covering the world. It’s easy to become numb. The “this doesn’t affect me” attitude is also pervasive. I certainly do not have the answers; I only know how I feel.

Anger
I hate it when I get angry. Mostly because I feel that it could have been avoided. Harnessing my anger has been a long-term goal. When I’m well rested and relatively happy, any anger I feel is short-lived and can be sorted out. On the other hand, when I’m tired and things are falling apart around me, anger becomes a ball and chain around my ankle; impossible to get rid of. I can usually take a step back to process my anger and that seems to help; however, let’s be honest, sometimes the stepping back part just doesn’t happen. When I react based on emotion, it’s usually an outcome I regret.
Not long ago I was having lunch with a friend and she started spewing what I thought was bigoted hate speech. You’d recognize it in a minute; when the words come from privilege and a lack of empathy. No matter how hard I sit on my hands and push the anger down, I find myself gritting my teeth and becoming righteous. I don’t like it one bit. The person sitting across from you does not hear the words you are speaking, they only experience the anger. What it does do is justify their feelings. What they hear in their head is:  it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, he always has to start an argument or why does he think he’s smarter or better than I am? None of this is productive; in fact, it is counter-productive. Now we’re both angry and not speaking to one another and we both feel justified in our feelings. I shouldn’t speak for this person, let me say, I feel justified.
We seek out like-minded individuals in order to avoid this kind of anger, but you have to ask yourself if avoidance is the right way to go. I’m not providing answers, I’m merely asking questions; processing for myself and hoping it helps others.
Tears
I am often moved to tears. I cry while watching movies, I weep while reading novels, I’ve been known to shed tears in the middle of a conversation with a friend, I cry in my dreams and at poetry readings, and I have cried myself to sleep a time or two. My father was a big man and he cried; he taught me that crying was okay and I am forever grateful to him for this. I feel sorry for people who cannot cry. I highly recommend it.
Loss of Control 
I have come to terms with being a control freak. I like to be in control. If something bad happens and it is beyond my control, I get angry. I have a difficult time processing:  how did this happen, why did it happen, who made it happen? I guess I believe that if I were in control, bad things wouldn’t happen. This is of course, untrue. Many bd things have happened while I was in control. The helpless feeling that I have when something is out of my control is unpleasant and frustrating. I am learning how to “let go” of situations, events, and reactions that are out of my control.
Pain
The hardest thing about pain, emotional, physical or psychological, is coping — not denying it, but feeling it. Let’s face it, pain in any manifestation sucks, but it’s unavoidable and must be felt. Make yourself as comfortable as possible and wait for it to pass. Unless we’re talking about a terminal illness, it will pass, and you will more than likely be stronger for having dealt with it.
Happiness
I hear about and read about happiness a lot lately. I was watching an old episode of the Good Wife last night and Stockard Channing (love her — did yoga with her in NYC once) was the guest star. Her character said this, “When you get older, the only thing that matters is your happiness.” I guess it struck me because I was in the middle of writing this blog. I don’t think it’s true. Life is so much more than my personal happiness. Yes, lots of things make me happy and I do often pursue my own happiness, but I also spend time thinking about the world, friends, family, cleaning my apartment, paying bills and none of that is necessarily about happiness. A good deal of the day is spent just doing what needs to get done. What makes me happy is just that, getting stuff done — it’s that sense of purpose I’ve discussed in earlier blogs.
Joy
I have to give myself permission to feel joy. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what it is. After a while, if you’re watching, you get to know yourself and your limitations; your proclivities. I can hear this little voice in my head reminding me to smile and enjoy the moment. I have stopped questioning why this is so. As with any habit, good or bad, you do something often enough and it becomes part of your everyday life. It’s a good habit I am striving to teach myself . . . live a life filled with joy.
“Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain… To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.”
Kevyn Aucoin
Gratitude
Feeling grateful is powerful. Replacing feelings of pity, blame, resentment, anger, heartbreak, and regret, with gratitude can be more powerful than just about anything else. Sweeping feelings under the rug doesn’t work. Taking pills or drinking alcohol is temporary relief at best. Sitting quietly and thinking about or even writing about, what you are grateful for, helps you to feel more joyful.
Tools
Tools are helpful when feelings become difficult or painful. Some tools/coping skills have been discussed in this blog or past blogs. What I have learned is that tools are at our disposal and can and should be used as often as possible — not as a way of hiding or denying, but as a way to guide us, comfort us, and teach us.
What’s Next for me?
This is the six million dollar question I often ask myself. The answer is:  I have no idea. For the first time in my life, I am not thinking past the next few months and I have to say, I like it.
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