Yet the real thing of love can be recognised surely and not slowly. It has certain characteristics that never fail. They are often imitated in part, but they cannot be imitated successfully enough to befool the thoughtful eye, or to stand the sharp test of actual life. It costs too much. The imitators balk at paying.
Love's first characteristic is this: an intense longing to do something for the one loved. Love must do something for the other. It abhors inaction. There is a constant thinking even in its sleep, of what can be done for the other; a constant restless seeking to do it. But mark keenly, the thought of any return never enters in, not even by so much as the shadow of the toe of the boot at the crack of the door. This is the first and last and chief characteristic of love. It lies at the very tap-root of all else. There is no love whenever, underneath whatever else may be there, this is not the mainspring of all that is done.
A second characteristic grows naturally up out of this love: love is utterly self-forgetful in its planning for the other. That is the common way of saying it. And yet it isn't the best way, not even a good way. For there is a self-forgetful-ness that is not good, and so is even bad in its effects. There is something that is higher than self-forgetfulness, and that is self-remembrance for the other's sake; thinking of yourself, and then deliberately putting yourself aside for the sake of the other. This is really the meaning that people have in mind many times, maybe most times, when they use that word "self-forgetful." The real meaning is really the reverse of the word so commonly used for it.
Love thinks of itself; and then thoughtfully puts itself off to one side, so far as may be good or best for the one loved. It thinks of itself that it may the more intelligently give the other one the preference. And there is yet more: it thinks of itself constantly that so it may not become in any way a burden or a hindrance to the other.
A third characteristic is a willingness to sacrifice for the one loved. This is simply the second characteristic in its next and finest stage. Sacrifice is the voluntary giving of yourself out for another to the point of pain; that is, until you feel it, really feel it. It must be voluntary; for if you can't avoid the hurting thing or experience, it is only suffering or privation, not sacrifice. It must bring you real cutting pain, else it may be merely selfish adjustment, or self-gratification. Sacrifice is choosing to let a knife cut in until you wince, and maybe have to rally all your power to hold steady, that so the other one may be helped. There is a great deal of suffering that is not sacrifice; because it can't be helped, or avoided. Love can avoid sacrifice; but for the loved one's sake, it won't.
There is another mark that is peculiar to love, and is unfailing. Love never fails to play the part of the surgeon when need be. It will unhesitatingly stain the razor-edged blade with some of the life-blood of the one loved, if so purer and stronger life may come. Yet it is always done with love's own unequalled skill. This is a great test; the severest, would you say? the surest? There is nothing harder to do, and harder yet to do skilfully, cutting as deep as the bad growth, not too deep, swiftly, surely, steadily, and then with equal skill binding up the wound, and nursing it until healed. Many a life has been badly hurt because love was not allowed a free hand here. Love itself never faileth in its faithfulness, nor its skill.
And love longs for fellowship with the one loved. Yet here again the longing is up on the highest plane. There may be a longing for fellowship that is selfish, that desires it for its own enjoyment. But the driving, controlling purpose under love's longing for fellowship is that the loved one may be brought out into fulness of life, and of the enjoyment of life, even as the flower under the sunshine. And if this seems like getting the thing keyed up too high for true music, remember that love will deny itself fellowship if that would be better for the other.
"Love:—What a volume in a word, an ocean in a tear,
A seventh heaven in a glance, a whirlwind in a sigh,
The lightning in a touch, a millennium in a moment,
What concentrated joy or woe in blest or blighted love!
For it is that native poetry springing up indigenous to Mind,
The heart's own-country music thrilling all its chords,
The story without an end that angels throng to hear,
The word, the king of words, carved on Jehovah's heart!
Count selfish craft for wisdom, and coward treachery for prudence,
Do homage to blaspheming unbelief as to bold and free philosophy,
And estimate the recklessness of license as the right attribute of liberty—
But with the world, thou friend and scholar, stain not this pure name;
Nor suffer the majesty of Love to be likened to the meanness of desire:
For Love is no more such, than seraphs' hymns are discord,
And such is no more Love, than Etna's breath is summer." (Martin F.) Tupper.)
These are some unfailing marks of love. Whenever they are lacking love is either absent, or, is being so crowded down into a corner that it can't show its real self. This real thing of love with its roots down in the choosing power, knows no break, no sagging, no end. The tugging of its strands by the common frictions of life only make its fibre tougher. To keep this fine face of love clearly before us all the time will make us keener and quicker to recognise the things that are not the real thing, but that use its name.