Well, to start with it’s a strange word. It’s like ‘God’ – in the sense that it’s used an awful lot, abused an awful lot and misunderstood just as often. When I was a kid it simply confused me. Very occasionally I’d be taken to the cinema, either just by my mother or occasionally with my step-father as well. And in most of the films we went to see, at some point, a man and a woman, close together on the screen, would look into each other’s eyes, kiss each other on the lips in a rather wooden, self-conscious way – this is a long time ago, remember – and one of them would then say, rather breathily to the other, “I love you,” and the other would respond with, “I love you too.” They would then very likely hug each other. The whole exchange seemed to do them good – it always made the pair of them just a little more at ease and smiley.
“I love you” – but what do the words actually mean? It wasn’t much use asking either of my parents – my mother would have spluttered, cleared her throat and told me not to bother with such things because, “You’re not old enough.” And my step-father, always happy to re-assert his macho male credentials when attempting to cover his embarrassment, was more likely to have come back with some harmless but slightly off-colour joke he’d heard when he was in the Navy than with a serious attempt to enlighten me. So I had to try and work it out for myself.
You see, there were things that I too loved – like my dog, Rex, my best friend in the whole world. And I loved those infrequent occasions when Aunt Daisy would pick us up in her car and take us for the weekend to her real Romany-type caravan in the country. Then there were those exquisite sticky, brown toffees you used to be able to buy, each individually wrapped – I loved them to pieces. But how could the words spoken on the screen, as the man and woman gaze into each other’s eyes relate in any way to things which were the objects of my love?
A few years later, when I was about ten, I would go occasionally to stay on a farm run by friends of my mother. They had a daughter – Joan – a couple of years older than me. One evening, she and I were sitting on the sofa in her room – they had money and a big house – watching TV. Quite suddenly, I felt her shuffle right up beside me. I turned to her. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, stumbling and tentative, but in an appropriately husky tone, “I love you.” I panicked. Being older than me, she knew things I didn’t. What did she mean? What did she want? It wasn’t a toffee.
Even as an adult, those words continued to puzzle and bother me. I had a fair number of girl friends. But however close we became, I could never find it in myself to look any of them in the eyes and say to them, “I love you.” I still hadn’t worked out what the words really meant – and to say to another human being in such intimate circumstances something that you either don’t understand or don’t mean – or both – felt wrong in some fundamental way.
‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’ – wrote Shakespeare – surely one of the western world’s greatest philosophers. I’d read those words many times at school and at university, and although I could sense their touch on something deep within me, their full import eluded me. It wasn’t until I came across them again some years later that the light, quite suddenly, came on – ‘An ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.’ In other words, love – real love – is a thing beyond affection and beyond need. And further, some intuition was telling me that it was also beyond the personal.
When you see, on TV news, children crying with often dreadful wounds inflicted in yet another of the world’s pointless military conflicts, tears spring to the eyes along with a terrible sense of helplessness; and I remember reading that when passengers jumped, at a height of around 100 metres, from the German airship ‘Hindenburg’ when it caught fire on arrival in the US in 1937, people on the ground, quite unable to help them in any way, just watched, crying.
As a spectator of such horrors, you have no familiarity with the actual person, the individuality of any of the victims. But something deep inside you responds to that same something deep inside each of them; you experience their horror and cry on their behalf; for you and they share the binding connection every one of us shares with every other one, regardless of race, colour or creed – a kinship, a Oneness. We are like beads, all of us strung on the very same necklace. When one hurts, we all hurt; hurt another, you hurt yourself. And that Oneness is not, nor can it be, an object of knowledge, for it is beyond both mind and intellect. It’s ‘love’. It’s not individually personal nor has it any needs. But it’s there, deep inside every one of us, linking us all together. ‘Love alters not with time’s brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.’
And as the old song says –
"Be sure it's true when you say I love you, It's a sin to tell a lie. Millions of hearts have been broken Just because these words were spoken."