Why is love so paradoxical? As part of our animal nature, we have physical desires that we want fulfilled. As social beings, we have emotional and psychological needs to be met. As rational social animals, we have the ability to sacrifice these desires for another. That is why Aquinas defines love as “to will the good of the other.”
That seems odd, doesn’t it? From a merely biological perspective, it does not make sense to sacrifice something, say a nutrient or resource, that could be useful for oneself — unless, for instance, a parent makes sacrifices for its offspring to protect its genetic lineage. In biology, all events are balanced.
Ecosystems, organs and organ systems all work to maintain homeostasis — a natural harmony. Larger animals overcome their prey, and the prey feed the predators. These systems maintain their stability through a complex interconnected network.
Man is a part of this struggle for equilibrium, too. He may also become subject to a fierce bear or an unrelenting hurricane. He has, however, a mental strength over creatures. More importantly, he is elevated on a higher dimension through his rationality. It gives him the ability to choose, for better or for worse.
The paradoxical nature of love can be found in this — man’s ability to choose. The conflict arises when his good desires are confronted by his passions and emotions. Fallible and weak, his will may often become subject to these fleeting affections.
The better man chooses to sacrifice his goods for the other. As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). As the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi further states: “It is in giving that we receive.”
Man raises himself above his animal nature, soaring to higher heights, among the celestial beings. The angels do not encounter this struggle because they are outside of time. They had one choice, which they made at the moment when 1/3 left God and 2/3 remained with him in heaven.
But man, in his temporal stay on earth, has countless chances to choose. Each day, each second, he must choose.
What is the value of love, why sacrifice for the good of the other? If you choose to love yourself, to will your own good, you become caught in an infinite cycle of searching for fulfillment. It turns one inward, searching for self-satisfaction. If you give of yourself to another, you can find the beauty of emptiness. It is the precursor to fulfillment. To be filled, one first must be emptied.
In the self-centered case, you are not empty because you just pile pleasure on pleasure. There may be want, but no vacuum is created. Giving of oneself creates that vacuum that naturally attracts another’s love. This motif can be seen in the Holy Trinity. The Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the Father are suspended in an endless relation. Actually, it is so strong, that it produces a third being, the Holy Spirit, which also participates in the relationship.
Nothing can be lost from love. Sure, there can be hurt when one’s love is unrequited, but the act itself does not go without impact. There is a giving of self, an emptying that opens more room up for another to come in and provide even deeper fulfillment than any self-gratification can provide.