50 shades of grey

I think that our cultural definition of “love” is a little messy.

Of course, maybe it has been that way for a while. However, the recent release of “Fifty Shades of Grey” automatically associated the film with the things that Valentine’s Day is traditionally meant to celebrate: romance, tenderness, generosity and so forth.

News outlets often threw around the word “love” when describing it. What the film itself celebrates, however, is something totally different: lust.

I’m not here to get on a soapbox about “Fifty Shades of Grey” as that’s something the rest of the Internet has already done. But, I think it’s time we talk about the messages that culture is sending us about human intimacy. The thing we call “love” — what is it?

Well, first it’s not lust.

Lust is something totally different from love, though we tend to associate the two feelings because they so often accompany one another.

We entangle them in our minds and we see that entanglement reflected back to us in popular culture every day. It’s important to point out here that both love and lust are normal feelings.

But, it’s crucial that we understand the differences between them so we can identify them for what they are: Two totally separate things. Here are the distinct qualities that set them apart:

1. Love is emotional; lust is physical.

Love is an emotional desire to connect with and be close to another person. It creates within us a feeling of attraction to someone not based on his or her outward appearance, but the qualities that encompass his or her inner self.

It is, in a sense, a bridge between two souls. Being in love with someone is to see him or her in a new light, as if he or she suddenly became the center of the universe.

It is a yearning for the complete existence of that person to accompany yours across time and space. It runs so deep that we often struggle to describe it.

Lust, on the other hand, is skin-deep. It is based on another person’s physical aspects that are most readily available from our eyes. By nature, lust requires no work. Its satisfaction is easily obtained with a glance or a brief interaction.

It doesn’t take getting to know someone to be lustful toward him or her.

While it certainly is ideal to be physically attracted to someone with whom you’re in love, a loving relationship cannot be established on physical feelings alone.

A temporary rush is not love, and it cannot ever permanently satisfy our desire for interpersonal intimacy. Rather, it just leaves us wanting more.

2. Love is selfless; lust is selfish.

It’s as simple as that. No matter what lies are marketed to us about love being perfect and blissful at all times, it’s really not. Selfless is not always sexy.

What happens after the main characters get married at the end of a rom-com? They have to live entire lives together, but that’s not the part we care to see. We only want the good parts.

The real-life truth is that loving relationships require work. Love, in its purest form, is completely and entirely void of self-promotion and self-indulgence. Instead, it is a choice to perpetually build someone else up and make him or her better.

That can sometimes take a lot of willpower. If you’re someone who gives up on something when it gets difficult or doesn’t go your way, love will be tough for you. It’s important to put yourself second when you love someone.

Granted, by no means should you neglect your personal well-being. However, if you love each other mutually and tend to each other’s emotional, mental and physical needs, it’s possible to be happier than either of you would be if you did those things for yourself. That is the beauty of selflessness.

Lust, by contrast, aims only to satisfy the self. It seeks complete bliss and often finds fleeting imitations. It’s the voice in your head that asks you every day, “What can I do for me?”

It is possible to listen to that voice so intently that we tune out the part of our consciousness that reminds us to do things for others.

That’s when it becomes dangerous because it leads to destructive decisions that can affect the hearts of those we love.

It really takes a strong sense of self-awareness to know when we are making those decisions and have the foresight to understand how our selfish behaviors will affect both us and our loved ones in the future.

This is why so many relationships falter or implode completely. When we indulge the voices that invite us to look out for number one, many times, we are not looking out at all.

3. Love is conducive to long-term happiness; lust asks for a short-term fix.

It is love that makes our relationships fulfilling, and it is our relationships that make our lives richer and happier. Humans are social beings; we need real intimacy with others to function at our highest levels.

Belonging and love make up the third level of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When we have a sense of emotional connection with another person, we feel accepted and valued for who we are.

Lust does not always lead to emotional intimacy. Perhaps for a short time, the satisfaction of lust can be enough to suppress our innate desire for belongingness, but that pattern of behavior alone is not enough for long-term fulfillment.

That type of ongoing happiness can only exist where there is love.

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