What is Love, Anyway?

Trying to describe a seemingly intangible feeling, local author Darwin Ward turns to lyrics to help reveal the language of love.

Trying to describe a seemingly intangible feeling, local author Darwin Ward turns to lyrics to help reveal the language of love.

In a college English class, I wrote an essay about love by explaining the lyrics to the song, “Cupid’s Got A Brand New Gun,” by Michael Penn. This is an obscure little track off of the 1989 album March. The chorus of the song goes like this:

“And you may notice that

this quick opiate  

might wear the wings of angels; 

that’s when you realize

you’ve been shot down, 

wounded unto death by

something called love.”

This song was perhaps a morbid topic for a 19-year old, but the teen years are meant for nothing if not angst.

When I sat down nearly twenty years later to write this essay about love, I found myself at a total loss. It isn’t that I haven’t experienced plenty of love in my life. My family has always been very supportive of me, and I’ve been fortunate to have a long history of good friends and caring lovers. I’ve been with my current partner nearly 12 years and our relationship has been healthy and fulfilling. But to explain what the word love means is no easy task.

Thinking about what love means, I find myself returning to the realm of love songs. Maybe that means that I haven’t matured much over the last twenty years. I don’t dispute this possibility. When it comes to love, do still seem to make the same mistakes now that I made when I was a teenager. I occasionally get too emotionally attached to people and screw up dealing with that. The mistakes are harder to get away with now. I no longer can write them off to the inexperience and the folly of youth.

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to learn the lessons of love. Maybe I’ve been poisoned by the thousands of love songs that I’ve listened to over the course of my life, just like Rob Gordon was in the movie/novel High Fidelity. I’ve always been drawn to music as a way to express my emotions. I think this is because love is supposed to be something magical and sacred, and somehow regular words just don’t do it justice. When words become a song, they are somehow transformed into something special. And I think that most of us expect love to be something special.

When I really critically try to define love, though, I think it ends up being much more mundane than the lyrics to a love song. Love is pretty much just about being nice to other people and about occasionally sacrificing your own wants or needs for another person. But love is also about making sure that you take care of yourself and preserve your own identity. It’s really just a balancing act: just enough for yourself, just enough for others.

So often, though, we all want or expect love to be so much more. Love carries a heavy burden and high expectations. It may even be true that LGBT folks expect even more from love than the average non-LGBT person. We sometimes risk more than the average person when we express our love, and so we expect a bigger payoff. It can be a dangerous emotional roller coaster.

Getting back to lyrics, there’s a song written by local Madison musician Pam Barrett of the band The Motor Primitives that goes like this:

“I ain’t got nothing that you need. 

Still I’m just wonderin’ could I just hang here silently till you leave? 

Every time you go I’m thinking ‘bout when you’re coming back. 

Every time you go I’m hoping that something brings you back to me.”

It’s the kind of love that we’ve all felt, the desperate romantic yearning for and emotional dependence on another person. So often that’s what we think of as love. It makes for good soap operas, movie story lines and love song lyrics, but it makes for lousy living. It’s the kind of love that my teenaged angst played into really well, and that still gets me in trouble sometimes to this very day.

Ultimately, the most romantic thing that we can all do is care about and for ourselves. It will make us stronger as individuals, stronger as an LGBT community and better able to love other people. That kind of love will help us as LGBT people to weather the harsh social environments that we still, unfortunately, so often find ourselves in. It’s a lesson that I’m still learning.