SUDBURY — “Do we love romantically in order to be happy? Or do we love in any sense primarily to be happy ourselves?” These are just some of the questions that Jason Lepojärvi, also known as “Dr. Love,” poses to his students during class on Monday.
Lepojärvi, an assistant professor at Thornloe University (a federated school of Laurentian University in Sudbury), is teaching a course called Ideas of Love II. This week’s lectures, appropriately enough, deal with romantic love.
Born in Lapland, Finland, Lepojärvi now calls Sudbury home. The 38-year old, who completed a Ph.D. at the University of Helsinki in 2015 in religious studies, held a fellowship and taught at the University of Oxford for three years, serving for a time as the president of its C.S. Lewis Society. Ideas of Love II involves sustained discussion of two books by Lewis: The Four Loves and Till We Have Faces. (Ideas of Love I, taught by associate professor Mark Scott, has a more historical focus. Both classes are part of the religious-studies program.)
For this Valentine’s Day, TVO.org asked Lepojärvi for his thoughts on friendships, relationships, and love.
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How did you get the nickname “Dr. Love”?
When you defend your dissertation at the University of Helsinki, you're given two things. You're given a diploma, and you're given a sword. The diplomas are ugly, unremarkable. I don't have it on my wall. I do have a sword on my wall, and I may be one of the only professors in Ontario who does. The responsibility to actually purchase and obtain the sword falls on the oldest living male in direct lineage in your family, which happened to be my father. He got it for me, but it's the university who bestows it. When I got it, I saw my father had engraved an inside joke on the hilt. It says my name, date, and then there's “Dr. Love.” So that gave me a good chuckle. I don't take it seriously. It's fun.
How do you define love?
I define love as the appreciative and responsive commitment to the other’s flourishing or to the beloved’s well-being. And this is the common denominator of all forms of love: despite the differences between different kinds of love, this is what they all share — this is the heart of love, the essence of love. And the other, the beloved, can be anyone or anything including the self or god or the enemy or animals or even Canada. So that's my definition, and it’s eternally applicable to any kind of love.
Why are so many people lonely?
People are lonely for different reasons. The extended family has splintered into supposedly self-sufficient units of nuclear families. This is causing a lot of trouble. We've lost the support and company that the extended family provided, so, as a result, we are a bit lonelier, and parents are shouldering burdens that used to be shared among many more people. And I think this is the root problem leading to divorces, which further exacerbates the problem of loneliness. Lewis’s advice would be that you need to develop an interest or passion in something, whether it's a hobby or a profession or a religion or whatnot. And only then, through that shared interest, could you possibly ever make a friend.
But friendship must be about something. I think expanding the definition of love, the way my definition does, it opens your eyes to the myriad ways in which love and potential love surround us all. So that is one of the reasons I like Finnish Valentine's Day, which isn't about romance — it's about friendship. And so people who are single and want to be, they don't need to feel like crap on Valentine’s Day, because there are many other forms of love out there, and they're just as valuable.
What can C.S. Lewis teach us about love in modern times?
Lewis provides us with a kind of a grid of the different kinds of love, their strengths and their risks. He has taught me not treat the experience or the emotion of falling in love as the ultimate good, as the highest value that trumps other values. When we worship this romantic impulse, make it our highest value, we become a hazardous lover. We wreak havoc wherever we go. We leave a trail of broken hearts behind, because we're constantly obeying this impulse over the responsibilities and other values and commitments that we may have. And, as a result, we cheat on our spouses and neglect our children, and we break up families — all because this emotion of falling in love is so powerful and promises happiness on a really deep level. So I think reading Lewis will make you a better, more reliable romantic lover as well.
What’s the difference between friendship love and romantic love?
Lewis uses images or imagery to describe the difference. Romantic lovers look at each other eye to eye. They stand eye to eye; they are absorbed in each other. Friends are shoulder to shoulder. They are absorbed in something together. Whatever that common interest is, they're travellers on the same path. They may not agree on the answers, but they're interested in the same questions. And a friendship love is slightly less carnal. It doesn't grip the body as romantic love does. There's no flutter. There are no butterflies in the stomach. It’s a bit more spiritual, at least on the experiential level. It doesn't mean that friendship love isn't physical: it can be, and it probably should be. Even Lewis in the ’50s and ’60s, when he wrote, recognized the inability to sustain touch or close proximity with people of your own sex. He found it difficult to express physical affection to men. He thought it was a modern problem not shared by our ancestors and not shared by other societies — you'll find Indian men happily walking hand in hand on the street.
Do you consider yourself a good lover?
Am I a good lover? Let's just say that I have fewer excuses not to be. I think I have the same challenges as everyone else. It's just that I should probably be judged more harshly because with knowledge comes responsibility. I have fewer excuses to suck at it.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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