Theodore is in a dilemma.
Over the past few months, he has fallen head-over-heels in love with Barb. She is the woman of his dreams: beautiful, affectionate, gentle, and compassionate. Whenever he treads in Barb’s presence, Theodore’s heart is close to bursting within him. Never before has he loved such a woman as this. The world must know! More particularly, Barb must know, and he must be the one to tell her. His lips feel compelled to reveal to her the secrets of his heart: “Barb, I love you.”
But…enter Theodore’s dilemma: his sensitive conscience.
An Honest-Abe character from his youth, Theodore can’t bring himself to say something that’s not 100% true. As his passion for truth and his passion for Barb meet, his judgment is caught twixt the twain. Does he really love Barb, or does he really just love the feeling of being around Barb?
Theodore became aware of this distinction after auditing a philosophy class at The Punxsutawney School for Cognitive and Intellectual Arts. There, he learned a thing or two about love: namely, that to truly love a woman means to desire her good, not for the sake of possessing her, but for her own sake. In other words, his philosophical musings have led him to discover what is at the core of true human love: not a selfish delight in the one loved, but a selfless commitment to the welfare of the beloved.
But Theodore’s new-found knowledge has paradoxically cast a pall upon his romantic enthusiasm. He can’t tell whether or not he loves Barb herself or if he really just loves delighting in Barb—in her beauty, her affection, her gentleness, her compassion. So here he is, stuck in his dilemma: can he truthfully tell her, “I love you”?
How can we advise Theodore? On the one hand, he has a good instinct. He’s concerned that he has a selfish rather than a selfless love. He’s afraid that in saying “I love you,” he really means “I delight in you,” which to him sounds a lot like “I love me.” But his problem is that he doesn’t realize that love and delight are essentially related. It’s natural to delight in the one you love. For delight is the natural response of the heart when it engages with goodness.
The key to loving selflessly is to keep delight from becoming your main motive in acting. The pleasure you take in your beloved can’t become the primary reason that you love her. Why not? Because this kind of love (delight-driven love) focuses on the beloved as an exclusively personal possession, that is, merely as the locus of your affection rather than as a person with intrinsic dignity. When you treat someone as an object in this way, you start to see her goodness only in relation to your pleasure: Barb is good because she makes you happy. The higher road is to love someone as a subject, such that you see her goodness as something good in itself: Barb is good regardless of whether or not you find her delightful.
In Theodore’s case, he shouldn’t try to prevent himself from delighting in Barb’s goodness. That would be impossible, for “I love you” always includes an implicit “I delight in you.” Rather, he should acknowledge the delight he takes in her, but put it in a secondary place, recognizing that it is something that results from Barb’s being good in herself. He will be able to selflessly say, “I love you,” as long as he makes his primary focus Barb-the-person and only secondary Barb-his-delight.
Image: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Meeting