In the town where I live, I’ve noticed the word “LOVE” cropping up in sneaky places, spray-painted on highway signs and under bridges. Under one particular bridge, it’s repeated over and over, almost urgently: LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE, as if it were—and I think it is—the key to life.

What makes Jesus one of the great moral teachers, right up there with Gandhi and MLK, even to atheists and agnostics, is that love was of utmost importance to him. On the night of his betrayal, he spoke to a small group of his most trusted followers: “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another” (Jn 13:34). He was just hours away from being handed over to the authorities and crucified, and this was his final word, his plea, spoken with great urgency: Love one another.

The trouble is that this commandment, in practice, is just like the others, though it supersedes them: it’s just words. It’s an injunction to love, but not a game plan for how — much less an enabling force. We read Jesus’ words and are left not so different than we would be if we saw “LOVE” tagged on the back of the Route 250 road sign. We know that love’s important, but also, elusive.

Sometimes it escapes us because, when it comes to love and not-love, we can’t always tell the difference. Was it love or not-love that dropped atomic bombs in 1945? The jury’s still out. Was it love or not-love that led Saul to slaughter the Amalekites in God’s name? What about hellfire preachers, speaking with hate but ultimately hoping to save people from the eternal pit? And…bear with me…wasn’t it Bella’s love for Edward that forced her to not-love Jacob?? If only thruples had been viable in 2008. I jest. What I mean is: we know of course that love is the answer, but practically speaking, love and not-love can be so closely tied that we can’t always disentangle them, let alone distinguish which is which.

On Monday, over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova posted an excerpt from You Are Not the Target, by Laura Huxley (wife of the beloved Aldous). I have since discovered that Huxley’s book (from 1963) was a trailblazer in the self-help movement. So it’s an unlikely source—my favorite kind—and yet what she writes about love is true:

Total love has been recommended for centuries as the total panacea: obviously true, obviously unattainable. Theoretically we all know that total love is the solution to all our problems, but in practice most of us behave most of the time as if this truth has never been discovered.

Whenever love is outweighed by not-love the organism is in trouble. Not-love may be brought about by the wrong inflection in a voice today, or by a nutritional shortage which began years ago. It may be the result of a sexual relationship with a companion whose chemistry does not blend with ours, or with one whose chemical affinity is harmonious with ours but whose mental and emotional being is inharmonious.

Not-love may be due to a loss in the stock market, to the non-arrival of an expected letter, to weariness and fatigue at the end of yet another day of dreary routine. Not-love may be the beaming smile with which a salesman must meet an important client, or a hostess an unwanted guest. It may stem from a serious loss or from some obscure endocrine reaction to climatic or atmospheric conditions. It may be due to too much of something or too little of something. Not-love may be the result of fanatical belief or secret doubt about the deity, church, party, ideology that we have chosen or have somehow been manipulated into choosing. Not-love may spring from a sound or a color, from a form or a smell. It may be a painful ingrown toe-nail or the release of the atomic bomb.

In all its manifestations and however it is produced, not-love tends to beget not-love. The energy of love is needed to reconvert not-love into love.

Not-love, Huxley suggests, is often unintentional, and it can spring from anywhere, at any time. We prefer of course to love, but it is extremely easy for us not to, even by accident. I have rarely felt so not-loved as when a Christian was trying so hard to love me that he perceived me to be a ‘project’; an object. Huxley continues:

Disguised in a thousand forms, hidden under an infinite variety of masks, love starvation is even more rampant than food starvation. It invades all classes and all peoples. It occurs in all climates, on every social and economic level. It seems to occur in all forms of life.

[…]

In a family, love starvation begets love starvation in one generation after another until a rebel in that family breaks the malevolent chain. If you find yourself in such a family, BE THAT REBEL!

In Stephen King’s It Henry Bowers is a bully, and King accordingly describes the dysfunction of his home life: he comes from a love-starved family. No wonder he picks on the kids in the Losers’ Club, and no wonder he becomes a pawn in Its evil scheme. I haven’t finished the book yet (…soon!), so I don’t know if Henry ever becomes the kind of rebel that Huxley describes above, but I’m not counting on it. I don’t believe people can create love in themselves. When I feel not-loved, I’m not inclined to love others; I’m inclined to scowl, avoid, compare, and judge.

As Huxley says, not-love stems from not-love, and love stems from love. The friendliest kids in school are most often the kids whose parents clearly love them, while the bullies are usually being bullied. The Bible says as much in the first letter of John: “We love because he first loved us” (4:19). If we are ever able to break the chain of not-love, it is not because we elect the higher moral choice but because we are first changed by love.

And yet we know that Huxley’s rebel exists, because we know that love exists. We’ve experienced love at some point or another, maybe often. Maybe it came from the look in a person’s eyes who, it seemed, really saw us in a particular moment. Maybe it came from an encouragement or the physical presence of someone we trusted. We know what love is because somewhere along the way, Someone broke the chain. And it wasn’t me or you. It was the main character of another very long book. He came out of Nazareth, from shamed parents, from a family tree fraught with love-starvation, judgment, and harsh justice, and yet he stood before crowds of people and fed them and healed them and washed their dirty feet. His love was of course seen as an offense, and he was sentenced to death. On the third day, he broke the not-love chain once and for all, rising from the dead and setting off a chain-reaction of love, the gift of God, which is undying.