There’s a trope in teenage romance movies where one of the young lovers will drop the L word at the wrong time. Worse, they might even say, “…forever.” After that, you know the relationship’s going to bomb. It’s too early, and the kids don’t know each other. They haven’t yet uncovered how much they doubt themselves and the future. They’re moving too fast.

Sometimes it seems like love can only be understood by process of elimination, by figuring out what it isn’t, or by testing theories of what it is against experience. Recently at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova tried to parse its meaning with the following excerpt from poet/philosopher David Whyte:

Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.

We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.

…We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.

Whyte’s language here is ‘slant’, to avoid specifying the kind of love he’s imagining. Naturally, though, I was reminded of divine love. The obliqueness, the open-endedness in his description calls to my mind a force, something beyond total comprehension that nevertheless impacts real life in very personal ways. When we try to name it, we try to own some part of it and to control it. The result, Whyte suggests, is so often our own disillusionment.

I was reminded of all the ways I’ve tried to define God, for example, by equating divine love with wish fulfillment — ‘if God was this, my life would be that.’ I see this at the root of so much modern burnout. When the locus of authority is ourselves, we have more to judge, and more to name. We expect to be able to distinguish quickly what is and isn’t love.

For the Israelites, the name of God was unspeakable. God was who God was. Later, John revealed that “God is love.” Neither of these definitions do much in the way of illuminating God, or love, except to underscore their fuzzy “other”ness (see also: Ethan’s fantastic essay “God Is Love, Tell Me About Love” in The Faith & Doubt Issue). Jesus, though, puts a force to a name; his is the name for the unnameable. And as confining as a name might seem, it can also be familiarizing and disarming. This doesn’t mean we know everything about God. Certainly our expectations do not confine God. The truth remains, God is who God is.

So I think, when it comes to love, real love, we need not fear naming it. In real love, it’s never too soon to drop the L word. In real love, the dice are there for rolling; even “before we can utter the right words,” as Whyte says, love has “happened,” regardless.