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Over the last couple of months, it seems like more and more of my friends are thinking about how to prepare themselves for marriage and family life.
This youthful time of preparation can be a gift, but it pains me to see my friends become distressed about relationship issues. In a world where mass media colors our understanding of love with phrases like “true love” and “the one,” it can be very difficult to remain detached as we try to learn about someone’s true character.
Many young men and women have very intense feelings about each other, and often mistake those feelings for love. If anyone were to ask them how they know that they love someone, their answer might be that love is a feeling they get—but is love a feeling?
Marriage, among the mass of the people, is a physical bond, and this union can only be temporary, since it is foredoomed to a physical separation at the close.
Among the [Baha’is], however, marriage must be a union of the body and of the spirit as well, for here both husband and wife are aglow with the same wine, both are enamoured of the same matchless Face, both live and move through the same spirit, both are illumined by the same glory. This connection between them is a spiritual one, hence it is a bond that will abide forever. Likewise do they enjoy strong and lasting ties in the physical world as well, for if the marriage is based both on the spirit and the body, that union is a true one, hence it will endure. If, however, the bond is physical and nothing more, it is sure to be only temporary, and must inexorably end in separation.
When, therefore, the people of Baha undertake to marry, the union must be a true relationship, a spiritual coming together as well as a physical one, so that throughout every phase of life, and in all the worlds of God, their union will endure; for this real oneness is a gleaming out of the love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 117.
I am sure we have all experienced how fleeting feelings can be. Happiness, sadness and anger all come in a flash, and can pass away in an instant. So if love is only a feeling, and feelings don’t last forever, how can we love someone or something eternally?
From my experience, the intense emotions I have sometimes felt for another person were not love, but infatuation. My feelings were so strong that they actually warped my perception of the other person. I couldn’t see clearly. As a result, I ignored many signs that things would not work out. I believed that the power of my emotions could overcome any issues, but I was wrong.
After some experiences with these intense emotions, I realized that they were actually hurting me. My attachments to people were leading to a lot of pain at our inevitable separation—separations I could have foreseen had my mind been clear and free. I began to realize that these emotions could not be love; love is limitless, but these emotions always changed in the end.
So rather than seeing love as an emotion, I decided to look at it as a virtue.
If love is a virtue, we can show it to everyone without emotional strain, in the same way we could show patience or kindness to everyone. We may show more patience to a child because we know that they do not have as much experience as an adult, but the virtue of patience itself does not change depending on the recipient. In the same way, we may find it easier to love people who are closer to us, but that does not mean we cannot practice the virtue of love with all who cross our path, and the virtue of love itself does not change depending on the recipient, either.
In this sense, marriage becomes an opportunity to learn to show and appreciate love in more ways. Marriage does not change the virtue of love, just the way we express it. In this way, saying “I love you” would not be considered a milestone in a relationship, because we should already care for everyone on the planet. By making this phrase so significant we enforce the perspective that our love is exclusive and should only be shown to a select few, rather than all of humanity.
This shift in my perspective on love helped me be more conscious of the difference between real love and infatuation. By being aware of when intense feelings would start to arise, I found ways to remind myself that these feelings were not love, and that I could channel such intense emotions into positive, meaningful actions. It also helped me remain detached and try to be more inclusive in my interactions, rather than only spending time with one person.
Seeing love as a virtue makes a lot of sense to me. It means that the love between friends, love between siblings and the love parents and children share are just as important as romantic love, which seems to be considered paramount in today’s society. As a virtue, the love we show each other stems from God’s love for every one of us, as explained by Abdu’l-Baha:
Just like with other virtues, we can learn to be purer and purer channels of God’s love to the world. I am sure that as we learn more about the true meaning of love and put these realizations into action, we will build this foundation of actual love and unity that the Baha’i teachings—and all other great Faiths—encourage us to develop:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7