We use this word constantly. What does it actually mean?
The English definition is something like “closeness”—particularly emotional or romantic closeness.
A more poetic, and so somehow more accurate, definition might be “the kind of connection that has you elated, perhaps terrified, and absolutely certain of a shared existence.”
But on the level of etymology, the origin of the word is the Latin word intima, meaning “innermost” or “secret.”
So this meaning of closeness, especially romantic closeness, is somehow naturally emergent from the idea of what is secret and most within.
Now clearly there is such a thing as physical intimacy—an experience of physical closeness, or experiencing physically with another what is usually kept secret.
But since intimacy is connected to the idea of the innermost, what is most secret, its truest form cannot be merely physical, because there is still something further within the physical. You could be as close as possible to another person physically and still not touch the things in them which are deepest. They could be completely naked, literally on top of you, and still have secrets.
Now, we don’t quite have a single English word for the desire for intimacy (“love” might be the closest).
But there is an Ancient Greek word that means it precisely: Eros.
Eros can mean love generally, but its more primary meaning is romantic or sexual love. It is the experience of not merely loving, but of being in love. And the experience of being in love is characterized fundamentally by this certain yearning—a yearning to experience the innermost parts of another human being, to witness their truest nature, to come into contact with their deep and secret self.
Wanting to tear your beloved’s clothes off, to be inside them or have them inside of you—these are the physical expressions of the root desire, the desire to tear away the conventional human trappings and touch the deepest, tenderest things beneath. These familiar cravings are a true expression of eros on their own—and, they point towards something even truer.
There is a certain story regarding the origin of flowers. It goes something like this:
There was a time when nearly all of the earth’s creatures trod on the Grass with no care whatsoever—or, at best, laid upon it as a soft bed to rest at night.
In fact, most of the earth’s creatures paid no heed to any other being whatsoever except their own kind, and whichever it needed to eat or run from.
But one creature, accustomed to flying over the valleys, began to take true notice of something as it flew—the grass below. It was so beautiful as a sea of green when flying high above, and even more beautiful in its uncountable but perfectly distinct blades when flying low.
This creature, the first to take true notice of the grass, was the butterfly.
Every day she began to fall more and more in love with the sight and smell of the grass, and every day began to spend more and more time resting on its blades.
Other butterflies of glorious and handsome colors courted her, but all her captivation was with the grass, and not with her own kind.
And one day, after alighting on a particularly perfect blade of grass, she stayed.
Night came and went, and the morning, and another full day. But she would not leave the blade of grass on which she laid.
In the morning she drank dewdrops from her grass, and all day she stayed alit upon it and softly beat her wings in joy.
Other butterflies came and entreated her to come with them, to play, to dance, but she would not go.
And she stayed for so long, in perfect love, that as time passed the grass grew into her body, and she grew into the blade of grass, and they became one.
And that was the origin of the first flower.
When you fall in love, there is an intangible quality to the beloved. There’s just something about them.
You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there. In a way, it’s the closest thing to a “reason” that exists for you being in love.
But then there comes a time—maybe in 6 months, maybe in 6 years— when you can put your finger on it. You really understand your partner. The mystery has gradually, and now perhaps nearly completely, disappeared.
This naturally leads to a deep and quiet disappointment. The mystery that drew you in to discover it, on being fully discovered, can no longer draw you in. The attraction, the in-love-ness, evaporates along with the secrets.
Different kinds of love can replace that former eros that was so full of fascination and fervor, but none of them are quite the same. Something has been lost, and it has been lost precisely because you found what you were looking for all along…