Love in the Time of COVID-19

Our Word for Love is Inadequate in Times Like These.

Photo by Author.

We were supposed to get married on May 30th, it was too much of a risk. “It is with regret but with laughter and love that we must let you all know the inevitable,” my partner wrote to the guests.

We’ve been isolating for 14 days so far, maybe 15, I’ve lost count. I never thought how much I would enjoy it. It still feels wrong to enjoy it, but I do. The news is grim of course. Asia and parts of Europe — those places that were “ahead” of us — are still reeling.

The peak is coming. Our society is treading the upward slope of that ominous bell curve we’re trying to smooth out by avoiding one another. We’re acting together by staying apart.

On Thursday nights at eight, people open their windows and clap for National Health Service workers. The air erupts with applause, whistles, people banging pots and blowing into trumpets.

We get one ration of exercise a day. I’ve forgotten how pleasant walks taken together with no destination in mind can be. The streets are still. Parked cars packed in, unused for days and weeks. We cross the street when somebody is coming along the same sidewalk.

The hush of the city is tangible, and some mornings have been beautifully clear. There’s barely a plane passing in the sky, fewer contrails scaring the blue. The drone of distant traffic has turned down a few notches. We hear more birdsong now, trills and whistles are more noticeable.

Our home is in a Victorian suburb of London, long swallowed up by the city. People take pride in their front gardens and the symphony of springtime bloom is underway. We’re walking over fresh blossom. The Magnolias are flowering. Those big, waxy, fruit-like petals in shades of pink and purple fall straight below the trees, their curves form little waves of pastel oceans.

School children are putting painted rainbows in the windows of their houses, symbols of support for healthcare workers. We hear that two nurses have died in the past 48 hours, one was 39 years old, the other 36. The country mourns, the country gives thanks.

One of the many messages of help from volunteers that you can find.

Definitions of Love

Love in the English language is a strange, catch-all word. Our one-syllable word’s inadequacy is made plain by a crisis of this magnitude. The Ancient Greeks had many words for love, since a whole spectrum comprises deeper emotions of affinity and affection that can sometimes be difficult to tell apart.

Éros, is intimate love, feeling sexual desire for a person. In our society, sexual desire is frowned upon as unbridled animality that we reign in with real love. But Plato argued that Éros has a spiritual dimension, since beauty is a means to appreciating the pure forms of the real world that Plato believed lies beyond ours. Beauty is not an ends in itself, but the means by which we can attain our only claim for immortality: reproduction. Eros is the love of physical union. Commentators are predicting a Coronavirus baby boom thanks to the boredom of isolation.

Philia is the love of friendship. Aristotle wrote a great deal about Philia. Philia is love for your friends but also more broadly your community. It is a love required for collaboration, for considering those not related to you as brothers or sisters. Philia is the love that has mobilised millions around the world to take volunteer for their community, no matter how broadly they define it. Signs are stuck to lampposts offering help to those who are vulnerable or cut off and isolated, these people are our brothers and sisters.

Storge is the natural affection that comes with belonging or possessing. The unconditional love a parent can feel for their child and vice versa is storge. In the time of COVID-19 it is most apparent in that feeling of dread and concern we feel for our families and loved ones, it’s the ache of missing somebody.

Philautia is self-love. We often associate self-love with narcissism, a pathological obsession with one’s own perceived beauty, or with egoism. But philautia is important, especially now. Taking care of yourself is natural — no right-minded person puts themselves in harms way for no good reason — but indulgences and simple pleasures that gradually hurt us need this special kind of love to foil them. Philautia is also a foil for bullies, to love what you are — your creed, your sexuality, your identity — is important for our freedom as citizens and for garnering respect for those that are like us.

Agápe is a divine love. When we read the word “love” in the Bible, it’s usually translated from agápe. While philia is conditional, agápe is the commitment to universally and unconditionally loving all people. Agápe is a love that only a few will ever acheive, a goal for the most sage among us. It’s the kind of love that a condemned prisoner can give to their executioner. It’s also perhaps the most important form of love to try, especially now; a love that witholds judgement, bias and discrimination, one that pours out no matter what, a love that keeps giving, a wellspring of kindness.

My partner and I sit in long comfortable silences, we also have fits of talking breathlessly, especially on our walks. We talk about what the world will be like after this, if any much different. Pessimists are calling long recessions, great depressions, the beginning of the end. But we’re getting married next year.

Of course, we’re worried about everybody, but we can’t help but be optimistic about the future, it’s a pact we’ve made. The point of crises is that they must come to an end. A crisis without an end is an end. Our power as a species is cooperation, our strength is imagining the best that can come out of this.

We feel some grief for the summer that never came to be, but we also feel immense gratitude for everything we have. I have the constant company of my best friend, my family are safe, I have a job, my modest garden is a slice of paradise.

The quiet and our isolation remind me of our holidays in the south of France: the long walks and cooking together, taking time to breathe and notice the changing light.

In France the sunlight waned to a vast sprawl of stars so numerous that you couldn’t live long enough to count them.

One night we laid on our backs and gazed up into that ocean of stars and I saw a meteor pierce the sky, a whip of glitter that seems imagined when it’s gone. As I looked out into the stars, I knew that eternity is real, that “forever” isn’t such a leap for the imagination. I also knew I’d spend the rest of my life with her that night.

No matter how faint a whisper our love may be in the grand scheme of things, it’s an echo that will last forever. The love you give out today — no matter what kind of love — is a love that will last forever.

The stars are not so visible from the city streets, but if you stare long enough your eyes adjust and you see them. I suppose these days will feel imagined when they are gone.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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