The following essay was meant for Writing class, and is so cheesy it would give Gus Gus indigestion. So bear with me now.
When you fire an M-16 rifle, you are required to nestle the stock firmly in the concave between your scapula and your chest. Properly done, you release a well-aimed shot – albeit with the disorienting sensation of temporary deafness – and you are satisfied. But if in an unfortunate scenario in which the stock is not well supported, you feel the backward momentum of the rifle push back against you as your bullet is fired. The miniature explosion forces you backwards a couple of centimeters and you land with your face planted firmly in the soil, hands and legs akimbo. Glass breaks in your upper chest and the electrical impulses fire.
That, ladies and gentleman, is what it feels like when someone says “I-love-you” to you.
Robert Solomon said it first, and he said it best. The romantic ‘“I-love-you” doesn’t fit into our conversation. It interrupts them. Or ends them,’ (p. 22) he argues in his aptly titled article, ‘I-Love-You’. It is no surprise, really, that trying to express the essence of an emotion that was never meant to be expressed in anything human language can devise would only end in disaster.
But what of familial love? What of friendship? Does their ‘I-love-you’ sound like a gunshot too?
I vaguely recall sitting in the living room with my diapered rump on the marble floor back when I lived in Taiping, my mother ensconced on the mattress in front of me, cradling my baby sister. She would entertain the both of us; my sister only required the occasional pat or two while my mother had to take to questioning me to keep me occupied. Her favorite inquiry was the one that would cause my three-year-old person the most emotional anguish:
“Who do you love more? Mummy or Papa?”
What a question to ask a toddler.
I would pause for a while, racking my small brains for an answer that would cause me the least grief.
“Both also same.”
I would give myself a mental cheer for being such a diplomatic child. But my mother was not finished with me. She would give me a coy smile and ask:
“Show Mummy how much.”
I would hold out my pudgy arms as wide as my physical structure would permit and try to roughly estimate, in terms of arm span, how much I loved my parents. Needless to say, the effort was futile.
Parental love, familial love, and friendship – these variations of love do not require that I say anything per se. This ‘I-love-you’ is not – cannot be – said. This ‘I-love-you’ is silent and unassuming. It does not herald its coming with the great blast of a rifle; it does not want for attention. And like the kind of ‘I-love-you’ that characterizes them, these relationships do not demand that I openly proclaim my love and loyalty, and neither do I expect it of them. There is simply too much seen together – felt together – that neither the meager proclamation of ‘I-love-you’ nor the arm span of a child is sufficient to encompass everything that connects us. After all, what is saying ‘I-love-you’ but a poor, clumsy attempt at quantifying emotions that were never meant to be quantified?
The people who love me and the people I love stake no claims, make no accusations, and expect nothing in return. I am silent, and I love them. They know. There is no ‘perhaps’ to it. No words can excuse the breach of the sanctity of silence when you love someone so wholly, nothing seems enough to describe the emotion of it. It simply cannot be ‘nailed down’ (Tesich, p.2) in three words pretentiously connected by hyphens. I ask you – how do you orally express the love of a woman who steps into a room smelling like sour mother’s milk while her daughters trail alongside her, leaving the powdery scent of talcum powder behind them? How do you capture the quintessence of a friend who has been by your side through thick and thin? So in lieu of language, ‘I-love-you’ is substituted with care, advice, company, understanding and shared experiences beyond the reaches of even the most expressive phrase human language can craft. ‘I-love-you’ becomes ‘I = Love + You’.
Solomon has the right of it. ‘I – love – you’ is ‘a terrible thing to say to someone’ (p. 23). It subtracts, taking away the magic, ripping off the suspense. It is a bullet, rushing to tell what can only be shown, and it compresses and binds true emotions to mere permutations of the English alphabet. ‘I = Love + You’, however – ‘I = Love + You’ is selfless and unassuming. It does not want to take, and neither does its presence need to be announced, because it just is. It needs no justification, no defense, no nailing down. ‘I = Love + You’ only wants to give, to add to the beauty of the relationship. And in my silence, rest assured that you hold a special place in my heart – beyond the reaches of the spoken word and everything else in between – for there can be no me if I do not love you.
PS: ‘I-Love-You’ is also like blue cheese. It takes a particular sort of palette to stomach its sheer pungency, and I have not been so fortunately/unfortunately endowed.