Photo by Lorryn Smit
Or so crooned Mr. Lennon back in July of 1967. Elsewhere, that same summer was dubbed “The Summer of Love” because 100,000 “hippies” converged on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco to celebrate free love, drugs, self-exploration, and self-expression. “Love the one you’re with,” advocated Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1970. New Agers say “God is Love.” A search online for “true love quotes” yielded 36 million results. So, as this issue of Gwangju News coincides with Valentine’s Day, let us take a closer look at love.
In 1849, Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Consider these lines; what do they mean to you? Did you know that, in actuality, Tennyson was talking about the brotherly love he felt for a male friend, here, and not romantic love? So, that brings us to a crucial question: What is “love”? First of all, the Greek language distinguishes between four distinct types of love. Sanskrit denotes 96 words for love. For those of us from the West, the English word “love” was birthed from the Old English “lufu” in roughly the 12th century. Yet, although a thousand years old, we must still add qualifiers to express its complex nuances. “I love her as a friend.” “I love him like a brother.” We talk of “romantic” love, “Platonic” love, “maternal” love. We “like” him, but we definitely do not “love” him. It seems we do not really have a handle on this vast, amorphous concept at all. So, when we say, “I love her, and am going to marry her,” what does this mean? And, importantly, does it mean the same thing to you as it does to me? Love in this sense – the Romeo-and-Juliet, “true love ’til death do us part” sense – originated in England in just the 16th century. It connotes libido, physical desire, lifelong monogamous devotion, and transcendence of the individual, all rolled into one. A tall order, it seems to me.
Finally, there is also a scientific aspect to love (the romantic version): brain chemistry. Did you know brain dopamine levels, responsible for euphoria, are elevated during the first six months of a relationship? Ever hear of oxytocin or vasopressin? Both are involved in long-term pair bonding. It seems Gibran, Shakespeare, and Garcia Marquéz (not to mention Hollywood) left this part out of their stories. Read about biological anthropology if you want the full story.
Then Comes Marriage
Do you remember the elementary schoolyard song that taunts two kids by chanting, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage”? We were unwittingly proselytizing the Western life narrative in which you marry and have kids; furthermore, you marry someone you love. We do not consider things like one’s income, emotional stability, intellectual interests, communication skills, or religion, right? Wrong. In the end, someone is “a good catch” for at least some of these reasons, and it is foolish to think that marital bliss is guaranteed by love alone.
Until 500 years ago in the West, there was little, if any, correlation between romantic love and marriage. Matrimony was all about considerations like bequeathal of wealth to bloodline children, economic survival, physical survival in the cruel world, and the merging of family power and lands. Just two generations ago, a large percentage of Korean marriages were contrived by “matchmakers.” Today, for millions worldwide, marriage means “arranged” marriage, based on factors like social class, age, and family wealth (a “love marriage” is specially termed so). Think dowry, sometimes from the bride, sometimes from the groom. In Korea, plenty of grooms are still expected to buy an apartment for the newlyweds.
Elsewhere, many cultures today still promote polyamory for economic, social, and gene-mixing reasons. In the animal kingdom, all but one primate species are polyamorous. It is simply a cultural convention that for the last 500 years Western culture has promoted the ideals of “true” love, “The One,” and “happily ever after.” As a result, it has also invented the concept of divorce, which runs at a higher percentage of marriages entered than Shakespeare would have us imagine.
Anyway, let us say you have found someone who fits your concept of love and you want to marry them. How old are you? Well, in the United States, women and men on average espouse at 27 and 29, respectively, up from 20 and 22 in 1960. In Korea, brides wed at 30, grooms at 32. “More than half” of Korean men “in their thirties” were unmarried in 2010, with 30% of women also single. Economic considerations such as low salaries, an unstable job market, the cost of raising children (200 million won until the age of 18), and exorbitant real estate prices contribute to young Korean men and women delaying or avoiding marriage altogether. The phenomenon is so common that a new term has been born into the language: sampo. Meaning “the three releases,” the Sampo Generation has given up on courtship, marriage, and childbirth.
Then Comes Baby
In 2014, Korea’s birthrate ranked 219th of 224 nations worldwide. In contrast, humanity as a whole took only 12 years to birth the last billion earthlings. With 7.47 billion people currently sucking at Mother Earth’s teat (and expelling all kinds of waste into her air, earth, and water), it seems that begetting children is not as straightforward a proposition as it once was. There are new sociological and ecosystemic consequences to consider.
Look, I just like thinking about things, and I hope I have incited you to do so as well. We all certainly need to feel and express love in all its forms. The Inuit people of Alaska have some 30 words for snow because each has its own important characteristics and distinctions. I think it would be grand if all languages could use distinct words to verbalize thoughts like I “love” humanity, I “love” Mother Earth, and I “love” my wife. Such usage would reflect a deeper understanding of love, in all its epistemological forms. We would love our global brothers and sisters more and shepherd our beloved Spaceship Earth better. Correlatively, marriage is no longer something that “you just do,” and its connection to love has never been iron-clad. Its role in organizing society and people’s lives has evolved significantly over time. How will love and marriage evolve henceforward, you ask? What am I, a clairvoyant here?