I took another personality quiz the other night; I find these irresistible. This one was part of an online course a magazine article on happiness had directed me to, and the quiz’s 96 questions of the “How well do you feel this statement applies to you?” variety, promised to rank 24 attributes in order of my personal strengths and weaknesses. Here, in order, were what the course called my “signature strengths” (i.e., the top 5 most applicable):

  1. Creativity
  2. Love of Learning
  3. Judgement
  4. Curiosity
  5. Leadership

These felt accurate, by which I mean they flattered the things I like to pride myself in (when I feel I’m able to). I noted the image of the person they pointed to; he’d be most comfortable in an ivory tower. Out of curiosity, I looked at the rest of the list to see what, at #24, was the attribute ranked last among all possible attributes.

It was Love:

Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.

I thought two things when I saw that: I’m not surprised, and then, Shit is this a wake-up call?

Here are two stories from the closet, both set in Pittsburgh, 2000-2003, the years after I graduated college.

One night, I was browsing the Barnes & Noble in Squirrel Hill, looking at the stacks of face-up paperbacks on the New Releases table, and one in the corner caught my eye: Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto. I read the back cover: the author profiled famous people who chose solitude in life and all the same gave art and wisdom and beauty to the world. I remember one of them was Haruki Murakami. I had just read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it was one of the finest novels I’d ever seen, and as I held the book in my hands, I thought This is me. This is the path in front of me.[*]

In those years, I lived alone for the first time in my life, in an attic apartment heated by an old gas-fed box, built before my parents were born, which I had to light each cold night with a match. The friends I had were, for the most part, in heterosexual couples. I, too, was a heterosexual, waiting, I felt, for the right woman to come along, without having an idea of what that woman would look like, or be like. I was a loner (fated, I understood) who hated spending a lot of time alone, so I met these friends 4 or 5 nights week at a handful of bars in town. Usually it was me on one side of the booth, and them on the other, a boy and a girl, and these triangulated nights of drinking and talking were such a high point of my life that I began to feel expert at this. A professional third wheel, that’s what I would be. I was the guy that any couple could call when they wanted to get out of the house and needed some new energy. I took it each night as a point of pride, and then I drove home, took off my own clothes, lit four or five matches to get the tricky gas box going, and fell into bed. I lay in the dark, staring into the orange flame of the heater, and soon my breath would catch in my throat, once, twice, and again I’d be sobbing. Just sobbing and sobbing loudly into the room. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to know what.

The morning after I took the personality quiz, my therapist asked me what it meant by “Love”. Did I recall? I went home and looked it up:

Love as a character strength, rather than as an emotion, refers to the degree to which you value close relationships with people, and contribute to that closeness in a warm and genuine way. Where kindness can be a behavioral pattern applied in any relationship, love as a character strength really refers to the way you approach your closest and warmest relationships. Love is reciprocal, referring to both loving others and the willingness to accept love from others. 

This helped. I hadn’t, it seemed, been given evidence that I was a person incapable of love, I was just a person who was a little dumb about it, the way I’m a little dumb about car mechanics and mortgage financing. I thought of those Pittsburgh stories and remembered how, like a toddler drawn to a power outlet, my mind is drawn to lonerism and solitude despite all the hurt it’s caused me.

What’s left now are questions: If it’s untrue that I don’t value close relationships with people, then whence this result? If love is reciprocal, is there a breakdown somewhere that led me to respond to such statements as “I can accept love from others” and “I am good at expressing love to others”[**] in the negative? Why didn’t “I have the ability to make other people feel interesting”? Why wasn’t I “good at sensing what other people are feeling”? And, of course, the big Haddawayian question: What is love?

Somewhere as a kid I picked up the idea that love is going out of your way to help another person, troubling yourself to benefit them, the way hate was troubling yourself to hurt another person. There was something neat (meaning tidy) about this labor-exchange system, and I felt able to take on that role. Duties, assignments, and tasks energize me. In writing classes, I taught the objective-correlative by telling students that the words “I love you” don’t signify anything. Love has to be shown in details of doing, actions characters can take to reveal the love you say that they feel.

I’ve read Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages (shocker: mine’s “acts of service”) and I’ve read Lewis’s The Four Loves (I was chiefly interested there in “Philia”, the love among friends), where he distinguishes early on between what he calls Gift-love and Need-love. The former lines up with my whole labor-exchange idea: it’s the things we do to improve the lives of those we care for, materially or emotionally. Need-love, on the other hand, is as he writes, “that which sends a lonely or frightened child into his mother’s arms.”

Since we do in reality need one another … then the failure of this need to appear as Need-love in consciousness—in other words, the illusory feeling that it is good for us to be alone—is a bad spiritual symptom; just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because [we][***] do really need food.

This bit makes me think of expression versus discharge, a distinction I learned to make from Dewey’s Art as Experience, who is talking about it in terms of the impulse—when hit by a need or urge, to discharge it is to carry it right to its innate end, but to express it is to consider the shape/structure/experience of the means by which you reach that end. I think of this because food metaphors are useful: discharging food hunger is grabbing whatever powerbar is at hand; expressing it is considering what sounds good to eat and then cooking it with a recipe you can make your own.

I don’t care for cooking, particularly without a recipe, and I’m bad at figuring out what sounds good for dinner on any given day. Perhaps I’m a born discharger, hasty to get to the end of an experience, driven to resolve any errant need. But Lewis’s bit now raises a tough question: When I need love, what do I do about it? Or, more to the point, how can any healthy expression of love (i.e., a thing I do to get me the feeling I want) be anything but one-sided?

This is likely the basis for the reciprocity that the personality quiz points to. Need-love and gift-love aren’t the same, but any expression of love always carries both, the way every spermatozoon carries both sex chromosomes. Maybe love is the domain or experience of that kind of reciprocity, where giving always also feels like taking. And maybe those for whom Love is a “signature strength” are skilled at seeing in any expression of love both halves of that reciprocity.

But that’s what sex is, that giving = taking experience, or at least so I’ve written here and elsewhere. So wait, is this how sex and love aren’t so easily separable for people? Is that my wake-up call?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I didn’t buy the book. Presciently?
  2. And “I often express love to others” and “I can express love to someone else” … the quiz was nothing if not repetitive.
  3. I corrected Lewis’s gaffe for him; this originally read “men”, and it’s interesting to watch the patriarchy flout the needs of grammar and usage, in this sentence that opens in the first person and then ends in the third person, just to keep asserting that “men” stands just fine for all human people.