Magazine

A Point of View: Putting a price on love

  • 27 September 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Rope heart on beach

Our loved ones are worth more to us than gold - but do we understand love's true value, asks AL Kennedy.

We're told it's a good thing, a many splendoured thing, all around and what the world needs now. Love. Just four letters to name something commonplace and yet unfathomable.

It fascinates us, apparently. Our media earn their keep by telling us Miranda supports Orlando and Prince Felix has just married Princess Claire and Downton Abbey has a new romance (and me and popular culture, we're like chalk and fire engines) but even I've noticed, love sells.

Just as light beguiles physicists by behaving like both a wave and a particle, love beguiles us by being a verb and a noun, behaving like a gift and an amputation, an impregnable defence and the destruction of every safe place we've ever known.

As someone who often says "I think" and almost never says "I feel", I don't personally welcome love's ability to make me fear not only for myself, but others. My loves.

A few days ago, Stephen King announced the advent of his sequel to The Shining. While touching on the challenge of making modern, savvy readers satisfactorily terrified, he expressed the belief that people can still be reliably scared by a narrative threatening characters they've come to love. He said: "Love creates horror."

I can only agree. In my 47 years of being alive, love has been, like light, a sustaining energy. Yet the more I know about it the less I understand, the more it consoles me the more it threatens, the more I try to love well the more plainly I fail. I become, as we might say, dazzled in the light.

Access - that's the problem, or one of them. Love opens the way for itself deep into our bones. And it doesn't close the door behind it. Love not only heightens the perils besetting a novel's protagonists, it makes us newly sensitive to all reality's possible risks. I don't mind much if a figment of someone else's imagination is swept away, or to be honest if Liam has moved on really quickly after leaving Miley.

Image caption Young love didn't run smooth for Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth

But I may mind very much if someone I love is in trouble, or wanders off. And I may prove remarkably susceptible to buying a new brand of toothpaste if it might make me more loveable, or taking out insurance that shows I care for my relatives, or obtaining a well-nourished cat, a car, a chocolate bar that will somehow replace an inconveniently autonomous lover with dependable sweetness and purring.

Whether we grow up loving them, or meet them later, we don't want to lose the people we love. Once they're in our lives, we'd like them to stay, not least because then we can know if they're OK. More than that, we hope they'll be well and happy and flourish in all the best ways and our expectations of reality can become unreasonably demanding on their behalf. They have an access to us which makes us use words like soul and heart and forever and then run out of words entirely and move on to proving how beautiful we find them in ways that might seem foolish if they weren't also private.

Using "soul" and "heart" and "forever" to sell me a haircut or a manifesto, feels like an intrusion on my privacy. And I am inherently suspicious of people who make public use of love, whether they're leading round an appetising boyfriend like a prizewinning Swaledale ram, or insisting that I love my country without giving me enough information to establish what that means. Love made public can seem cheap, manipulative, not love at all.

We value what we love and it feels unpleasant when others appropriate that value and attach it to products, or ways of thinking. And I find love does bring horror at a personal level - the vulnerable joys it offers, panic me right to my shoes but even so, I do think there's a place for love in the public domain.

Love does make me easy to influence. I could momentarily ponder having plastic surgery in order to impress my beloved, or buying a sofa to match his eyes - but love also brings immutable values. It immediately reminds me that I wouldn't, and don't, love a man who'd insist I have buttock fat injected into my crumpling lips, or that I redesign my interior in any sense. Love is about loving a person for who they already are. Love makes us altruistic, humane.

We would find it bizarre if a parent was more worried about dropping a vase than dropping their baby - even a Ming vase and an ugly baby. An absence of love within a family or a relationship is taken as a sign of something having gone very wrong.

Image caption Seven astronauts were killed when the Challenger Space Shuttle broke apart

But an absence of love in the world we help construct around us - that's regarded as a form of common sense. We are used to making decisions, or having them made for us, which would save the vase and not the baby. We tell each other there's no room for sentiment. In seeking to establish, acquire and maintain what's valuable to us, we can ignore the usefulness of affection in determining value and employ numerical and financial calculations of worth.

So when, say, the performance of rubber O rings on the space shuttles was analysed, statistical warning signs were addressed on paper but a pressing danger was allowed to remain in the real world. And at low temperature an O ring failed (predictably) on the Challenger and seven human beings died in what became a burning coffin, far from home. Not enough people in the right places remembered that caring about people more than figures would be essential until it was too late.

We could say an absence of love means a school may coach children to pass a set percentage of tests, rather than helping them learn how to live. An ageing population becomes a burden, a problem to be tucked away and not prioritised - but our own older relatives, friends? We would usually do anything, spend anything, to let them be healthier, stay longer, keep holding our hands. The phone I cling to so I can express my little slivers of devotion is full of conflict minerals from the Congo. I didn't know when I bought it that its manufacturer takes decisions that don't seem to value, to love, human life. So I currently love my love using something that harmed or destroyed the loves of others who were deemed to be less precious than tantalum, tungsten, tin, gold.

I love you more than gold. It would be a corny thing to say, sounds extreme, but would you genuinely want to stay around someone who didn't love you more than gold? Would you really replace those you love, their long-term well-being, their happiness, for any amount of gold? For any amount of anything? It's unlikely. And I say that as the most unromantic, cynical person you'll hear, truly.

It's just that, like most of us, I do know - if I pause for a moment - that values aren't about price. We would find it odd, if not insulting, if we cooked someone a meal at home and they insisted on paying us for service and ingredients. We would give a grieving friend our time, not a cheque for the equivalent hours at a standard rate, or a copy of our mission statement. We wouldn't leave our partner a heavy tip after an especially lovely night.

Love really can be like light. It lets us see each other and what matters. Dying declarations, last messages, when we know we don't have long, we tend to use all that's left of ourselves to name our loves, send them our souls, our hearts, our forevers. We do what matters. And, yes, love scares me and I'm bad at it, but trying to love better, preferably before I'm dying, makes me better too, reminds me of what matters. Love is the best measure in every case. In our wider lives, it's something upon which I feel we might insist - if not for ourselves, then for all of those we love.

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