This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 16 table of contents.

Love as Unfailing Response

A teacher of mine (Paul Wagner) once defined love as unfailing response. This was not intended as an airtight, logical definition, and it is not. But it is an interesting way to expand on Fromm's idea of love as existential affirmation. To respond unfailingly to something is to find yourself moved by each encounter with it. When something moves you, it breaks through the barrier between the ego and the outside world; it overcomes existential loneliness.

What was Paul Wagner's definition of love? To what sorts of situations might it be relevant?

Unfailing response can occur with pets (you can love your dog and it can love you, in the sense of responding to you unfailingly). It can occur with friends. You love them by always responding to them, even if you do not love them in a romantic way. It can even happen with scenery.

During the week we talked about love, you gave us a definition of love as being an unfailing response to something. For years I've been saying I love the lake where my family lives, and when you gave that definition, I knew exactly what you meant. When I think of the lake I automatically think of peace and beauty. Then I begin to picture the rolling mountains and the color of the water and the smells in the air. What I miss most since coming to college are the weekends I would normally be spending at the lake. It's very relaxing and no one has to worry about a thing. Now when I say I love the lake, I'll know I truly love it, by one definition of the term.

The definition of love as unfailing response sheds light on bad relationships, too. As long as somebody consistently responds to you, even in a negative way with arguments and put-downs, your existence is affirmed. You are in contact with something outside yourself. Any response is better than none at all. Even the misery of joyless dependency may seem preferable to the withdrawal syndrome caused by breaking a long-term relationship.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey