What is love?

Mitsuo Aoki

Mits told us the story of the time he met Martin Buber, the Hassidic existentialist, or the Jewish phenomenologist--he is known by various such descriptions--the author of a book that is much loved by seminarians of all faiths, "I and Thou." This was thirty years ago, in Mits' class, "The Meaning of Existence," at the University of Hawaii.

Buber was standing in a line at the front of a stage with other dignitaries, and Mits was among a number of young men and women passing along beneath that line and exchanging hellos and remarks. Mits told us that when he was a boy on the Big Island of Hawaii, Buber had been his idol. When he had this opportunity to be in his presence and actually say something to him, his knees began to buckle and he stammered and couldn't get anything out.

Buber stepped down off the stage he was standing on with the other dignitaries and came over to Mits, and he put his arm around him. From this encounter, Mits was given an invitation to go over to Europe (I think it was Germany) to study with him.

Mits promised us that he would be sharing with us the definition of love that Buber had given to him during that time. But first, he said, he wished for each of us to have ample room to come to grips on our own with this same question that he had posed to Buber: "What is love?" He gave us that as a homework assignment.

"Press into it," he told us, with that stern look that he could effect, and we knew just what he meant. He wasn't interested in impressive intellectual things that we could dash off on paper for him. He wished for us to really "sit with" his questions. Hang around with them, "just be" with them, as he was so fond of saying. He was looking for more than a brilliant answer, He wanted to hear experiences that we could share.

I remember hearing other students talking about the question as we were leaving after the bell. This was an interesting one. What is love, anyway? When we foregathered two days later, I was still grappling for my "answer." I felt that everything that I had been coming up with was rather cynical. Love, huh? Something like that. I felt that maybe my experiences had not been so compatible with the beautiful ideas that always revolve around a word like "love." This was thirty years ago, I don't remember the answer that I brought with me that day.

Mits made the rounds of the class, calling on this one and then that one, nearly to the end of the hour, whoever he could coax into taking a stab at it. "What is love?" Eventually he called on me and I said something. I don't remember what it was. And to each of us, no matter what we said, he responded with something like, "That's good!" "Beautiful." "That's interesting!" "I like that." Things like that.

There was someone for whom love was having those exotic feelings that one has when one knows that one has "fallen in love" and she shared an experience of that. Both members of a Chinese couple, recently married, insisted that the meaning of love was in their experience of wanting to always be together. Someone said it was nothing but "animal attraction." And he shared a vivid personal experience about a time when . . . To each of these sharings, Mits gave an encouraging response--even to the person who said, "I don't believe there is any such thing as 'love.'"

Mits said that all that we had shared was true enough, and beautiful, too. He merely tacked on Buber's definition to the long list that we had generated, as if in afterthought. I can still remember like yesterday, hearing his voice as he told us: "Buber said, 'Love is caring enough for the other person that one takes the sometimes painful experience of letting the other person be who they are.'"

There was an astonishing silence in the usually playful classroom, and then I heard someone sobbing softly. And I realized that I was on the verge of crying, myself. And I heard others softly chiming in with their tears. And then I cried, as well. Before long it seemed that the whole classroom of us was crying together, softly, yet audibly, far and around.

Yes!!! *This*, I realized, was how I wished, from the very bottom of my heart, that all the other people that I'd known during my life had treated me. My parents. My schoolmates. My friends. My lovers. My bosses. My fellow workers. The people that I had known. Yet, the very thought of this meant that I, too, couldn't love in this way! This was the touching enigma that brought tears welling up in my eyes.

Taking "the sometimes painful experience of letting the other person be who they are" (when we are wanting so much for them to be somebody else, to be who we'd prefer them to be). It takes presence of mind for most of us to be able to do this kind of thing--awareness --waking up and being present with the other person in the here and now--so that we can become able to "see."

Paul McCartney

It's a story I won't get into now, about how my City Editor Tom Caton, with his ever-present cigar and green eyeshade, sent me out onto the streets of Los Angeles to write stories that made fun of the hippies in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, that first day Tom saw a grown man with long hair wearing bell-bottomed pants and a shirt with flowers printed all over it.

But it led to my discovery of the Beatles. This was years after most living humans were already so familiar with their works that they were regarded as pre-eminent in the field that they were working in. Someone barefoot had unexpectedly turned me on to a joint (in my crewcut, blue suit and red tie, with a press credential over the pocket), and I didn't have the presence of mind to just "say 'no.'" And "Sgt. Pepper" was playing at the time on a stereo nearby. I didn't know what I was in for, and I've loved the Beatles ever since.

About three years after that, Paul McCartney recorded "Let it Be." And that became my favorite Beatles song. It was, in fact, the last song that the Beatles ever recorded, in early 1970. It was the end of an era. The 'Sixties were no more.

And it was a few years after that when I was able to realize how closely Paul's lyrics in that song seemed to parallel so many of the things that Mits (who was a Buddhist master and a Christian minister) was to be talking about in his class. "In times of trouble . . . Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, 'Let it be.'" Yes, this sounds like what Buber was saying, too. Not only in terms of relating with other people, but in terms of "the whole darn shootin' match" of existence, love is learning how to "let it be."

Now I saw Paul recently, on the Oprah show. After all these years, he is still a man of love. Oprah was trying her darndest to get him to explain "the meaning" of his work. You know how it is with artists. They never like to try to put into words what for them is a purely experiential endeavor. And Paul was just that way. He even said at one point that he didn't care to know. Graciously, and even lovingly, he paried her continuing persistent questions.

And finally, he relented. (She honestly adored him so much, after all.) As best I remember, he said he guessed the meaning of his work was that, "People ought to stop doin' all this funny stuff, and just love."

That's what Buber might have said. Mits, too. That's what I say when I'm teaching the kindergarten class here. In fact, that is the *motto* of this web site. People ought to stop doin' all this funny stuff, and just love.

I mean that mostly as a reminder for me.


a philosophy, continued: The practice of imperfect mastery.

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