The words “I love you” are terribly vague.
Obviously, I’m not the first to point this out. There have been countless books and poems and movies and lousy episodes of lousy TV shows that thrive on this concept.
Saying “I love you” to someone is an exercise in risk — not just because of the commonly considered reason (that you may not be loved back), but because what you say may not be what the other person hears.
Take a simpler sentence. I have a dog.
Many of you out there have no idea what my dog looks like. Or maybe you’ve forgotten. By my telling you that I have a dog, you’re forced to go into your own experiences of what a dog is, and what it means to you. Some of you had bad experiences with dogs, and you’re picturing a mean, growling, angry beast. Some of you are picturing the dog you own now, or the one you grew up with. Some of you have almost no experience with dogs and you’re picturing one from television, or a friend’s house, or even a cartoon. To some of you, there’s no picture at all; it’s just a statement that doesn’t require you to really consider it, because you honestly just don’t care (and that’s okay).
And all I said was, “I have a dog.”
“I love you.” But wait. How? Like your parents loved you? Like you wish your parents had loved you? Like a sibling? Like a best friend? Like a boyfriend? Like a husband? How does a husband or boyfriend or best friend or sibling love? How have you been loved before? Are you stuck on romantic love and you assume I’m hitting on you? Are you a person who says “I love you” all the time to anyone you really dig, and so it doesn’t occur to you that maybe I mean it differently? Have your experiences with love been good ones? Bad ones? Are you unclear on just what love means to you? Is it even potentially a sentence you don’t have to consider because you, frankly, just don’t care?
It’s common to hear that we all just want to be loved… and while I think there’s truth to that, I think what we all want first — and maybe, maybe, what we want more — is to be accepted.
And I don’t just mean accepted for being whatever we are — nerdy, or gay, or a little dumb, or downright weird. I mean accepted the way that people look at houses, find the faults, and mortgage thirty years of payments to move into anyway. I mean accepted with all of our little screwy behaviors and beliefs intact, even if they don’t fit in quite right.
We want to believe that if we screw up, the people who love us will still be there. That kind of acceptance.
The word “love” doesn’t have to be only about passion. I love my wife and my daughter to an extent that I can’t even begin to pretend to explain.
I also love my friends. It’s not the same meaning, and it’s not the same intensity. But I love them. And I don’t say it enough, because what if they think I mean something else? What if I accidentally trigger their own neuroses and they think I’m being too aggressive, or creepy, or even just too personal?
Well, tough. You know what? Friends: I love you. I wish I told you that more often. I wish I had said it to a lot of people. For some of them, I’ll never get that chance again.
Life is often like improv. You can think you know what’s going on, but until it has been said, it might be something else. (Or, if you’re a bit nerdier, it’s Schroedinger’s cat. Until it’s observed, it has more than one state.)
Pick someone you know. Not even a super-close friend or relative. Pick someone that you really think is awesome. Tell them that. Even if you can’t use the word “love,” or you’re uncomfortable phrasing it that way, do your best to let the other person know that you are a big fan of who they are and what they do.
Because you may one day regret not saying it… but I’ll bet that you would never regret saying it.