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I have defined love as the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.” – Dr. Peck, The Road Less Traveled

I’ve been reading this book and finding it both thought provoking and disturbing in my realization that my approach to “love” is radically different than what it ought to be. Peck talks about the various things that masquerade as love, but in reality are all selfish impulses. He defines love as desiring the spiritual betterment of an individual, to the extent that they mature enough not to need us; only when two individuals reach a point of spiritual and physical independence from one another can love be genuine, because “Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other, but choose to live with each other.”

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Being needed is not the same as being wanted. Having someone say, “I need you,” invokes a very different emotional response than, “I want you.” Need is simplistic, a matter of course; we need food or we die, we need companionship or we become lonely; our needs negate choice, but our wants are optional and therefore place significance on the things we choose to frame as important. Dependency means we are a parasite on another individual; we require another person in order to survive, and become suicidal or despondent over that person’s abandonment or rejection.

Love is not an emotion, but a choice. It is the choice to love, to let someone in, and to direct all our energies toward an individual. Love involves courage as we face the fear of rejection, loss, and disappointment; and love involves work, as we commit to a steady framework of behavior that creates a safe environment to let the other person to grow spiritually and emotionally. Love is not a feeling, because many people possessing a feeling of love and acting in response to those feelings, act in all manner of unloving and destructive ways. Love is also not an action, since a person can act loving towards a person they despise, without feeling any love for them at all.

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He says that sometimes, our intense agony for others can actually be an extension of our own emotions; we are not truly empathetic to their plight, but incapable of differentiating “us” from “them,” which he brands as narcissism at its worse. Narcissism, according to Peck, is not an obsessive love of self, but the inability to realize that other people are not extensions of oneself. Since I am so used to the mental picture of Narcissus admiring his reflection in a mirror, that narcissism is not excluding others so much as including them as part of oneself blew my mind.

One cannot actually fall in love, because the act of falling is an accident; love is a conscious decision to focus energy and feelings toward another individual. True love does not direct that focus for the purpose of self-gratification, but the earnest desire to see that person improve and grow. Any love that does not desire what is best for the other person, even if it means they no longer need us, is not love at all.