I have thought about love so much it has become my obsession. I am convinced that defining love is a task so important that if I succeed at it, my life will have been worthwhile. Love has been my life’s ultimate answer—when life is good, of course, but especially during the difficult times. Love has put a smile on my face. When I was confused, it was the only thing aside from lying to myself or being delusional that could heal contradictions.
I had a moment filled with love that left me with an insight I wanted to share. Over time, and after a few iterations, I gained some conceptual clarity about the subject. I arrived at a definition of loving that made sense to me. The experience of discovering the meaning of love was itself an act of love. Rare are the instances in which concepts have that capacity to explain their own creation. Because I have been loved, I wanted to train myself to love. I wanted to learn the how-to of loving so I could love more.
My epiphany happened while I was improvising on the oud and contemplating my own death. As a stage IV lung cancer patient, I think about death frequently. I considered that when I die, I will cease to exist while others will continue. Realizing that I won’t be here, I wanted to do something that is meaningful purely for others. I asked myself, What can I do that is essentially for them and not for me?
As I was searching for that gift, I discovered that what I was operating within is exactly a conceptualization of love. Love manifests when we act purely for the sake of someone else. I did not know if many people used this concept with such clarity. I know I didn’t before that moment. So I decided that developing this conception of love and writing a book that would help me master the idea is what I wanted to do. This book is my ladder to a purified act of love. But who knows—maybe handing this ladder to others will be my ultimate act of love. I wrote this book to find out.
Love is so important, especially today. I speak in an American context at a historic moment. There are extraordinary tensions at all levels of society. People are divided into camps; they do not talk to each other. There are unprecedented degrees of dissociation and repulsion. Every person tries to distinguish themselves from people who are different from them. “I am not them” and “They are not me” are claims you hear every day. The I is not the other, and the other is not the I. The subject and its other are so separate or, as some dare to say, “beautifully distinguished.”
The word beautiful may seem odd here, but further consideration will reveal why it’s relevant. If we believe recognizing the other is a prerequisite for loving, then maybe the conditions are ripe for love. Today is the right time for love. The tensions we live in could dialectically bring people to an awareness of their shared condition—being human. However, this will not happen on its own. Someone needs to start with a love attempt, and I am here to do my part.
In the global context, the pandemic has made us all feel vulnerable. We have all felt the exposure. We have felt the loneliness—the longing for the other. We have ached with desire for what we missed. People have developed a hyperawareness of themselves as isolated subjects who seek another.
There are many lessons to be learned from the pandemic. But I have chosen to focus on the metaphor that ideas are like viruses. If an idea takes hold of you, it has the power to reorient your thinking processes according to its own framework. If we can find an idea with this capacity, one that provides a meaningful response to the innate existential struggle that became so apparent during the pandemic, maybe we will have learned something useful from our suffering. I think this idea should solve conflicts and should be recognizable to everyone as a common ground. I cannot think of an idea that fulfills these criteria with as much influence as the idea of love.
Everyone wants to encounter love. We’re so desperate for it that we are frequently willing to receive it in any deformed shape. But what if we could establish a developed and genuine form of love and make it available to every person? Yes, if I achieve that goal, my life will have been worthwhile.
But who am I to talk about love? People speak about a matter when they have become an expert on it. I am someone who is learning about love; I have no expertise; I just want to love—and I write this book from these perspectives. I have yet to master the art. But I can offer my perspectives to others who have not yet mastered the art. I’m not a saint, nor am I in any privileged place. I am like everyone else, and that is my true privilege; speaking about love is only right from a position of equality. I write as one of the many, from a perspective available to every one of us.
True, I have lived four years since my diagnosis with stage IV lung cancer, and that’s not common. I hope to live till I’m eighty-eight. This is the case even though the fear of dying from cancer occupies my mind constantly—the fate of most people in my situation. Thus, I have the vantage point of someone who is aware that my end may be near. I have no children. I am agnostic and live my life with the understanding that death is the end of it all. I have access to an understanding of love based on a personal awareness of human finitude. I imagine that if I die anytime soon, all those I know will still be here. This notion clarifies how I conceptualize love as an action that relates primarily to others. That’s where my thinking about love started. But as a result of my earlier epiphany, I have decided to pursue my ultimate acts of love before I die.
I want to start today.
This book does not contain a personal account of my love attempts—sorry to disappoint the nosy people. And it’s not a summary of studies or philosophical positions on the subject of love. A Love Attempt offers my reflections and perspectives on the matter, meant to help me learn. In that sense, this book truly belongs on the self-help shelf. I wrote these exercises to deepen my own understanding, and I am simply sharing them with others.
This is my third book. The first was Roads to Meaning and Resilience. The second, Being Authentic: A Memoir, was released only six months before I completed the first draft of this project. I felt I needed to say something else to complement my work on authenticity. In my first book, I explored ideas about love but did not develop them sufficiently. So this book is an attempt to complete the first two projects.
Just as in every other endeavor since my diagnosis, I’m writing this book as if it is the last thing I will do. I intentionally maintain a grip on this hypothetical attitude as a privileged position available to me. When I was once asked, “Imagine you’re going to die in a few minutes; what would your last act be?” my answer was “I would call those I love to say, ‘I love you.’” So, if this book is the last work I publish in my lifetime, I will have written it exactly as I imagined my last act. Writing this book is an act of love, a means of reaching out to the others I care about. It is an act of love dedicated to every person who reads it. I write the book as a love attempt, with no dedication page. If you’re reading these words, the book is written for you.
My attitude in writing the book also has practical implications. I think of the other and imagine I am listening to them. I try to take their position to understand what is meaningful to them. In my writing, I act with love. I speak and share, and I don’t shy away from offering occasional advice. At the same time, I enter this writing journey as a love experience to become more authentic, with love this time. I write to learn about myself with a clear orientation toward and cognizance of others.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter without further ado. In all honesty, I believe everyone has the capacity to love. I write this book to demonstrate that idea. I argue that every one of us, whether we admit it or not, has been loved by someone. Having loved and being loved are proof that you can love. When you read the book, you will receive my invitation to choose to love more. The book makes salient our native competency for loving so we can orient our subsequent actions toward embracing love.
But for the book to achieve its purpose, the reader has to participate. A Love Attempt is an invitation to dialogue and reflection, and openness and vulnerability are required to engage in genuine dialogue and reflection about love. You need to be open to seeing yourself, at least for a while, as a stranger. Imagine that you can act differently from the way you have before. I am changing as I write these sentences, and I invite the reader to embrace change as well.
I dare to ask you to engage so you love more exactly because I am in the position of someone may not be here for long. You can wait until I’m gone if you have doubts about my intentions. You can wait until I am dead—and then start loving more. This project is not just for me; it’s for you and for the others in your life. Loving your others is universally good. If you reflect on what you do to become more oriented toward authenticity and love, you will discover that it is good for yourself and others. Do it for yourself and for them, and forget me when I am gone.
I do my best to write in a style that is accessible to every reader. I break down some philosophical concepts to make them practical and usable. I provide examples and anecdotes to support the ideas. I want to walk the talk by bringing love into every detail of the book. You should feel my heart’s warmth as you read. However, remember that love is not only that warm, fuzzy feeling but includes a mix of other emotions. I will let you feel my fears and self-doubt. I will give you some of me, and I will accept the offer to receive something from others.
This self-help book has four chapters. The first is about love and what the concept means to me. The subsequent chapters are, respectively, about listening, acts of love, and becoming authentic with love. I consider these three concepts essential to developing the competency for love. My goal in the following chapters is to take you, my reader, on a journey. At the end of the book, I want you to say, “My next act is A Love Attempt.”
Seattle, May 2, 2021
What Is Love?
You already love—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this book. Your presence with these pages is itself an act of a love for which someone will be grateful. You have been graced with another’s love, and you may wish to reciprocate. Your learning about love is love.
I am sure you have done things many would consider the antithesis of love. Yet, the totality of your acts will show that you have the ability to love. You wish to deepen this capacity and to love more.
You already know love because you have received it. You can reflect on a relationship with a person in your life who loved you and taught you about loving. But don’t ponder how they felt; rather, think about what they did. As you read this book, I hope you will reflect on love in this way: what do we do when we love?
Rather than thinking about what occurred to you when you loved someone or about your feelings and desires, think about the person who loved you and reflect on their actions. Think about what they did and what they said. If you want to love those who have loved you, then do to them what they did to you.
We have a native understanding of love; that is, we each have a kind of intuitive sense of what love is, and that intuition typically works just fine. We use the word love in our day-to-day conversations; some may say we overuse it. While people may disagree about the definition, you will often hear someone saying, “No, this is not love,” when another is claiming the opposite. In such a conversation, people may be surprised to learn that what they thought was love actually is not. And if they disagree, each could explain why they took the position they did. The two can continue the debate until they agree on whether an act counts as one of love. In other words, people may in fact agree about what love is and is not even when their definitions of love use rather different words.
As a concept, love is inherently related to a recognizable action and not to a solipsistic, self-absorbed experience. That’s why others can understand what you mean when you speak about love. For example, if I asked you, “Have you been loved before in a genuine way?” I bet you would say, “Yes, I have been loved at least once.” You may think immediately of a parent, a lover, or a pet. If I inquired further into what made you think they loved you, I would expect you to list some of their actions that had your well-being as the focus or end goal. You may say something like “They did this or that for me.” “They were interested in knowing me and doing stuff exactly as I liked,” you might add. Or you might say, “They gave me attention.”
When you are loved, your happiness lies at the heart of the other person’s intentions. Because every person has been loved at least once. I argue that we all have an innate conceptualization of love.
Love is about action rather than a state of being or a set of feelings; the latter two arise as a result of the action. I am not taking up the position of those who would criticize someone who “loves” but does not act enough. My goal is not to encourage lovers to express their feelings. Rather, I am advocating that we flip the relationship between action and feelings.
We act with love and then feel the love—not the other way around. Action is the start; feelings come later or may never come. We genuinely love when we act with love and devote less attention to the feelings that accompany it. The feelings that arise in the context of “loving your enemy,” which may seem like the opposite of love, are completely irrelevant. Moreover, to maintain an authentic bond with a partner, a person must understand that the warm, fuzzy feelings wax and wane and that they should always take actions toward their loved ones that a third party would consider acts of love.
We humans have the capacity to learn how to love, and thus we can intentionally love more. We can accept the obvious fact that when we were newborn infants, we had little capacity for social actions. Yet, even early in life, we learn how to give back. We learn how to give some of ourselves to others. A child offering a painting they composed to their parents is one example; sharing a toy with a friend or sibling is another.
We are socialized differently, and some are more fortunate than others. The fortunate ones develop the capacity to recognize and listen to others, as opposed to being focused on themselves and hearing only their own voices. Some have a better talent for acting with others’ interests and values in mind instead of solely on the basis of their own. Some have developed a stronger ability to reflect and have conversations with others to check their understanding and refine their actions.
Still, everyone can become better at listening, acting, and reflecting with love. Even the less fortunate can name at least a few, and can sometimes name many, occasions when they acted with love. On the other hand, a person who habitually acts with love can name some occasions when they could have acted with more love. Everyone can say, “If I could do it all over again, I would do this or that differently. I may fail in the next attempt. But I can reflect on what I did, ideally with the other person, determine what I could do differently, and try again.”
We can all learn to love more. That’s why I want to recognize the possibility of love in every moment and emphasize that you should make that choice. A love attempt is about precisely that—recognizing you have a choice and making the choice.