Wisdom Wherever You Find it
First love teaches two things: 1) I can choose to love and 2) I can be chosen for love. Sen. Chris Coons
Most of us, I hope, grew up with parents who loved us. And if any of you doubted it, I hope you were fortunate enough to have a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or family friend who was uncompromising in their love for you. The kind of love you find in a family is called, in Christian circles, storge (rhymes with “chore day”).
There are other kinds of love that are described in Christian thought, including philia (“brotherly love,” hence Philadelphia), agape (God’s love, which is selfless) and eros (romantic love).
Those descriptions of love come from Greek culture, and whether you accept the distinctions or not, this much is true: the love you experience as a recipient (in this case, storge, philia and agape) is a different kind of love than one you experience as a partner (eros). And it is eros that is the subject of this wise observation by Sen. Coons.
“Eros” has an association with “erotic,” which has tainted the meaning and, to some minds, cheapened the experience. But giving your heart to another, the more innocent meaning, is not necessarily sexual in nature. It is, however, a gift that comes with frightening vulnerability most especially the first time. Almost everyone survives first love. Almost everyone has it reciprocated. Almost everyone loses it.
If you are in a relationship that is not your first love (as I am for more than forty-four years as of this writing), you know that unique as it may be, it is not as uncomplicated as it felt in that original rush. Lasting love has elements of all four types and, just to make things more complicated, is not always pleasant. But you never forget the first time you fell in eros, and in many ways it becomes the template for all subsequent relationships. It is worth not maintaining a romantic relationship with that first romance unless, of course, you are still in that partnership.
With all those disclaimers and explanations behind me, it is worth considering this remarkable understanding of what first love opens in its blossoming.
The first is liberation. There is, of course, no physical location of love, but when it is offered it nonetheless is taken from a place deep inside. You can give someone a gift that you buy, but it comes from a store. You can give someone a toy, a book, or a keepsake, but you received it from someone else. You can give someone a pie, a photo album, or a bunch of flowers, but the ingredients came from somewhere else. The lesson of first love is that you can make a free choice to surrender a part of yourself to another. It is nothing you can take from elsewhere, and it is something that cannot be returned or, I would argue, replaced. The gift may be considered or impulsive, but it is only yours to give.
“I can choose to love” makes you the agent of your own life.
The second is affirmation. No one is obligated to reciprocate a profession of love, of course, if they don’t share it. (That’s not to say some people don’t do so, but I don’t recommend just being polite in these circumstances!) But there is no denying that nothing nurtures a sense of self-worth more than knowing someone holds you in the highest level of esteem and affection. To love is to put the needs and desires of the other person ahead of your own. That someone would offer to set you ahead of themselves? Amazing.
And it’s true, I think, that when you are the recipient of a parent’s love or even God’s love, there is an inclination at certain moments to think, “Yeah, well, they sort of have to love me. But if they had an actual choice…” Not so with that first person to offer you their heart. Mutual or not, it takes your breath away. Suddenly, you are aware of your own worth in someone else’s eyes.
“I can be chosen for love” makes you appreciate your ultimate value.
I know not everyone has the great good fortune to be swept away by first love. Sometimes it comes at the wrong moment, or not at all. But mostly, we learn to love better and more deeply by paying attention to the remarkable moment we discover love’s possibilities. We learn about ourselves and our agency, our identity and our desires, our value and our values.
“First” only comes once. I hope it is (or was) wonderful.