In one of his books, the literary critic Terry Eagleton, points out that “I love you” is always a quotation. Other writers offer the same warning. No one says “I love you” for the first time ever. And yet, no one (sincerely) says, “I love you,” while thinking about all the times it has been uttered—by others, or by oneself. Each utterance feels original.

I added the proviso “sincerely”—and who’s to judge if someone is really sincere? Some people, I suspect, must have this phrase slip over their tongue the same way they order tacos at the drive thru. They mean it in ways I can’t imagine. I don’t know. And I don’t know it the same way that I cannot know whether they feel it. The words rise above sea level like the tip of an iceberg, or the keel of a capsized ship, or the dorsal fin of a dolphin. I can make a guess, but what is below the water is a mystery to me.

Oh, I know the general outlines as well as any, perhaps better. Years of life, of watching those around me, and reading—and what else is reading but learning about life captured in words—have helped clarify the varieties of emotions. “Love is not love,” writes Shakespeare. And no, it is not. And it is. If anything, I have learned too much, both in watching, in reading, and in living about love—or at least too much to think I know that there is one love, one way, one answer. The shapes beneath the water could be anything—the way the fin of an ocean sunfish has nothing to do with what rests beneath the glassy surface.

What preoccupies me is less what is beneath some other surface, than what is beneath mine. I can hardly utter the first word, “I,” without replaying every other time I finished the phrase. No matter how many versions of love I have seen others act out, or that I have seen portrayed, my single clearest—or least clear—vision of love comes from my own experiences. I am sure this is true for everyone. Who, in the final moment before she or he declares her or his love, trusts anything other than the one set of experiences that illuminates only one heart?

What follows will be about me, but what else do I know? I may be well informed, but there is only one about whom I can speak with even fair, if inevitably dubious, authority.

I do not recall if I ever said, “I love you,” to my elementary school sweetheart. I know that I said it and felt it—in varying degrees—from when I was seventeen years old up to a few hours ago. I wonder how my love—my capacity to love and be loved—has changed in the intervening 41 years. The first ten of those years I was awash in joy and pain and frustration. I knew so little about myself and the world—let alone how to love, or what the person I loved actually felt. We grow up so selfish—I did. I was perfectly attuned to my desires, by which I mean, I did not feel there was any difference between what I deeply desired and the love I thought the universe should place at my feet.

It wasn’t until I started teaching—when I actively had to think about how what I said and did would further the progress of my students—that I began to have a serious idea about love. Teachers never think about themselves. Okay, that’s clearly not true. Great teachers think about their students, even when they think about themselves. I don’t know how I learned that—probably from the examples that great teachers gave me. I do know that the first serious relationship I had in graduate school was made more potent, and ended more peacefully—if not less painfully—than any romantic relationship I had up to that point.

When one teaches, there is a realization that some students simply will not get it. No matter how hard a teacher tries, it takes two (to make a thing go right). A teacher learns a kind of detachment—self differentiation. This is incredibly helpful and healthy for teachers—we care about, even love our students, but we do not engage them in unhealthy ways. Well, most of us do not. And learning that distance is hard for some teachers, because there is an impulse to care for our students. It is a human feeling.

Learning to self differentiate helped me when I loved—I knew there were proper differences and distances between me and the people I loved. There is, of course, a big difference between knowing and knowing. I never stopped longing for the kind of fully romantic immersion that I dreamed about when I was younger. My relationships after graduate school went from degrees of immersion to degrees of differentiation. Is it possible to do both? I have friends who will reassure me, and tell me that all I have to do is wait. I am 58 years old, waiting gets harder, and easier—I have had so much practice.

There is another essay about how children and becoming a parent affect all this.

So, I wonder what I carry, how I have loved, and how that shapes my expectations and capacities now. In many ways, I still feel infinitely young at heart. I may recall much, but I do not bear scars. I do not feel broken. Still, I wonder what it means when I say or write, “I love you”—whether that other will know what I mean, that I am not ordering tacos, but saying a prayer. For eleven years I worked for a church that claimed no doctrine or creed, but my faith is love—deep, enduring, self-effacing, self-affirming, life-affirming, other-affirming. I try to differentiate myself from those I love, but I dive in head first—falling then flying—out of the depths, unknown, but wholly knowable.

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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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