Small Wonders: Let me count the ways

February 11, 2011|By Patrick Caneday


Has any word lost its meaning more than love?

Frederick Buechner, from his whimsically insightful dictionary “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC,” offers that “the first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.”

And I think this is where we reside most of the time in our frenetic lives. Our minds overflow with time and task management: work, chores, money, health, school, after-school activities, meal planning and making, couch sitting and TV watching. Not to mention keeping up with Lindsay Lohan’s latest legal drama.


In our over-stimulated world of sound bites, targeted marketing and quick fixes, we don't have time to see things in degrees, to slow down and clarify — to embrace the particulars and individualities for what they are and what they are meant to be. In this world we declare our love of a hot dog, pair of shoes or movie, then turn and use the same word to describe our feelings toward our pet, child or partner.

“The middle stage,” according to Buechner, “is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them.”

Eros is that most natural and physically captivating form of love — the one that seizes us in the mid-regions of our body uncontrolled, or willingly uncontrolled. This is the one we profess with a wink and a knowing smile. To say we love in this sense is to conjure certain images that decency prohibits me from describing in detail here.

Philia, or brotherly love, speaks of camaraderie, of admiration and strong fondness for our partners in the human condition. Philia allows us to sympathize with each other, to bond with our fellow man or woman in civility, empathy and friendship. It is perhaps as naturally occurring as Eros, yet harder to maintain given the constant disappointment we can be to each other.

And then there’s Agape. Some say it is the highest form of love, and possibly the rarest. It is hardest for us to comprehend because it is a call to do what comes least naturally to us: give unrequitedly; hand over your body, soul and mind, asking nothing in return. Pure, generous, sacrificial. To love in the Agape sense is to lie down on the altar for the benefit of others.

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