What better subject to explore during Valentine's Day week than the meaning of love in our lives?

Earlier in the week I offered thoughts that focused on the difficulties of forging and maintaining human relationships. The nature and definition of love, although part of any romantic relationship, in its own way can be even more confusing.

I had no idea what to call the feelings I had for my family as a small child, I knew whatever I felt was a natural and intensive connective bond with my father and mother--especially her, probably because she'd carried me around for nine months and was my primary nurturer day in and out.

Later I was taught we human animals call these feelings love.

So it became easy to use the word as I grew into and past puberty to describe the familiar warm bond I felt for others, especially with those of the opposite sex.

At 14, I might tell my best buddy I "love Betty Gail" to describe the pleasurable feelings when she was around, amplified by surging hormones and 45 rpm 1960s love ballads. Thus the term love was embedded in my psyche in a most sincere yet immature way when it came to feelings of heady romance and passion.

The affection I held overall for members of the opposite sex was much different physically and romantically than the intense bond I had with a favorite female who'd agreed to "go steady."

Meanwhile, I maintained a much different form of affection with close friends in all the other things most guys share, like watching sports, fishing, hunting, playing pinball and hanging out.

At that stage, none of fellas I ran with would ever have considered using the word love to describe the close bonds we shared that proved stronger with some friends than with others. Instead, we made up affectionate nicknames, razzed and back-slapped each other a lot, and called each other friends, buddies or pals.

Early in my career I noticed how often we all generically use the term love to describe everything from cheeseburgers and fries, to clothing, pie, chocolate cake, a shade of lipstick, pets, favorite films, our families and cars, the change of seasons and even a fresh snowfall ... well, you get the drift.

At that point the heavily overused word began losing meaningful definition.

After all, if we could supposedly "love" virtually anything, what then did it truly mean to say I also loved another person?

Knowing I couldn't have been the only one to notice the differences, I went searching and discovered the Greeks of old not only noticed, but took the effort to categorize different forms of love, which assured me I was on the right track.

I also learned of Stephen G. Post's 2003 book "Unlimited Love" also divided distinct forms of loves to include: Companionship, forgiveness, compassion, correction, celebration and care. He says the differing textures of these kinds of love make us more aware of the fine-tuning of emotions when we say we love someone.

This is useful, he adds, because this kind of analysis allows us "to appreciate the fine gradations of our feelings when we talk about this grand thing called love."

Post, who heads the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love in New York, said perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that love, as with all positive emotions, borders on the spiritual. I'd say love, as described in 1 Corinthians 13:13 and 1 Peter 4:8, without question, is in fact intensely spiritual.

Back to the Greeks, many centuries before Post offered advice and observations, their deeper thinkers developed the following definitions for eight specific types of love that endure today.

Eros, the familiar romantic and passionate for their god of love and desire, or an intense form that instills emotions, according to psychosexual and relationships therapist Cate Mackenzie, quoted by Emily Gulla in a 202 Cosmopolitan article. "With eros love, people let go of their boundaries and get very physically and emotionally involved. This can be a time when people can't get enough of being with their partner or lover."

The ancient Greeks considered eros a dangerous type of love because of how it made people lose control.

"It's a very physical form of love, and it might just last between six months to two years, depending on the relationship," Mackenzie explained. "For some people, this intense attraction might burn out and cause the relationship to end, or it may transform into a deeper or different type of love."

The platonic love between friends, philia, can be as significant as romantic love. "Philia can mean love between equals, love connected with the mind, and love between people who have shared hard times," said Mackenzie. This is derived from the Greek philosopher Plato from roughly 400 BC.

Ludus is playful and affectionate, as in the love and excitement one feels when they have a crush on someone or the flirty rush of discovering who they are.

The Greeks believed agape is intensely spiritual, a selfless and unconditional, empathetic and forgiving love for everyone, as in the Christian Gospels.

Pragma is an enduring love that involves compromises along with a focus on remaining in love, rather than the temporary stirrings of falling in love.

Philautia refers to self-love or self-compassion, and the Greeks believed it meant you possessed a wider capacity to love others. They also realized it also can become a negative type of self-love in the form of narcissism, but it's possible to healthily love one's self without becoming narcissistic.

Storge is love between family members and the security and shared memories that brings, as between parents and children, siblings and friends who feel like family. Storge also describes feelings of patriotism or allegiance, whether to a country or a sports team. (Well, then, I say Go Hogs, and God bless America! Sorry, momentarily carried away.)

Mania, ancient Greeks believed, was the most destructive form of love, consisting of obsession, control and jealousy (often rooted in insecurity). It reportedly shows up when one has feelings of codependency and is "incomplete" without another. I believe this form is far more toxic, destructive and unhealthy than positive or desirable.

I find it interesting at my age how comfortable my close straight male friends and I all are earnestly saying we love each other and meaning it in a philia way, like brothers, which is something none of us would have remotely considered admitting at 16.

Incidentally, I've now gone to using cherish, adore and treasure as my favorite words for intimate affection. I still love my friends, Benji and good movies.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected].

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