Love as a Basic Human Need
In one of his encyclicals, Pope John Paul II states a profoundly human, existential truth; one that affects human beings in their here-and-now, lived experience, which is:
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”1
In other words, human beings cannot live fully human lives without love. Of course, they are still human beings without love, but love makes their lives fulfilling, meaningful. Living without love is dehumanizing, treating human beings as though they were not human, as if they were inanimate, insensate things, such as rocks or objects, which have no feelings.
Love as a Universally Human Need
All human beings need love. They need to give and receive it. For example, even brave and strong men and women, such as soldiers, need love. They need to know that when they return from war that there is another human being waiting for them, someone who loves them or a person whom they love. Human beings, then, even the strongest of them, never outgrow the need for love, as though it were some kind of infantile or adolescent form of development.
Even prisoners cannot live without love. That is why solitary confinement is such a harsh, dehumanizing form of punishment. It is being without other human being, without some kind of human contact that may develop into love. That is also why prisoners, in general, are allowed visits, because they need to know that someone on the “outside” still cares about them; that, in a limited capacity, they can still give and receive love.
Even in the most miserable conditions — situations which are a virtually a “living hell” — such as concentration camps, human beings need love. It was, for example, in a concentration camp that psychiatrist Viktor Frankl discovered the deepest meaning of life, which is love, when he wrote,
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”2
Even refugees — those men, women and children who have been compelled to leave their respective countries for fear of persecution, the threat of violence or the danger of war – need to love and to be loved. For similar reasons, immigrants, too, need love. As the Jewish Scriptures declare,
“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV).
Love as the Highest Human Virtue
What is the life of a human being without love? It is like appetite without food, thirst without water and lungs without oxygen. As with other human needs, love is a natural need that must be fulfilled or satisfied. Without love, life is, ultimately, absurd, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Without love, life is “a rimless zero” and “an empty bubble, floating on the sea of nothingness.” Without love, life is incomprehensible, unsatisfying, lacking meaning. A loveless life is contrary to the deepest aspirations of a person’s being, with the capacity to give love and receive it from others.
Love is the greatest virtue, the highest or best value that can be exhibited by human beings. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
“I still believe that love is the most durable power in the world. Over the centuries men have sought to discover the highest good. This has been the chief quest of ethical philosophy. This was one of the big questions of Greek philosophy. The Epicurean and the Stoics sought to answer it; Plato and Aristotle sought to answer it. What is the summum bonum of life? I think I have an answer, America. I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos. As John says, ‘God is love.’ He who loves is a participant in the being of God. He who hates does not know God.”3
Love is the most powerful force in the universe, more powerful than the most powerful atomic bomb, which is meant to destroy and decimate human lives, while love is meant to heal, strength and restore human beings. The power of love, then, is greater than the love of power. Love reverses the devastating, dehumanizing effects of racism, indifference, prejudice and hatred. Love is the ethical basis of human civilization. It is a humanizing force in the world, making it “a kinder, gentler” place; one which is worthy of humanity.
1. Pope John Paul II. 4 March 1979. Redemptor Hominis, no. 10. Vatican/The Holy Sea. [Web:] http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_04031979_redemptor-hominis.html [Date of access: 6 December 2018].
2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), pp.48-49. Italics are the publisher’s.
3. Martin Luther King, Jr. 11 November 1956, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” a Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Stanford University: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. [Web:] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/pauls-letter-american-christians-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church [Date of access: 6 December 2018]. The letter, of course, is fictional. In other words, it is what Dr. King thinks Paul would write to American Christians in 1956.