Of Love and Syphilis

My wife shared with me the other day that she had a dream in which she asked me to write about the quantification of love…she said she didn’t know why it came to her in this manner, but once she offered the suggestion, it was strong enough to keep me awake for quite a while that night, tossing and turning with the rampaging thoughts of what I might do with the topic.  I looked for parallels and analogies in some of the arenas of my life where measurements were taken and given, shared, discussed, and relied upon for whatever reason…and I couldn’t help but come to the idea of comparing the quantification of love to the act of measuring or marking the intensity of a syphilis infection.  Yeah, that’s kinda strange, but it seems to work…a little, anyway…kind of…we’ll see.


A revered book and source of comfort and wisdom for many people, the Holy Bible, says in the King James Version of John 15:13 that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  I’m not asserting that the book offers an accurate standard by which to measure things like love, because I’m only too aware that the same book also describes a certain god’s exhortation to a certain people to go into the lands of several other certain peoples and kill them, and it tells parents to stone their impudent children, and it tells husbands to kill their disobedient wives, and it tells the tale of the last godly man in a ‘wicked’ city offering his virginal daughters’ bodies to the nasty (male) denizens so they would stop bugging him to let them have carnal-knowledge with his angelic visitors, and it tells of…well, you get the picture…but for Literature’s sake, the Psalms, Proverbs, and the book “The Song of Solomon” are mostly beautifully written and offer much in the way of describing love, compassion, devotion, etc.  So, having said all of that, when we go back in time and reflect on the above saying, that there is no greater love than a man laying down his life for his friend, shouldn’t we look into the context of the writing?  Shouldn’t we evaluate the saying against what we know of the people or society and literal time in which it was written?  Can we also evaluate it against what we know of social relationships in other parts of the present world that are still ‘morally governed’ by yet other holy texts that are as relative to the same Abrahamic God as is the chief personality in the Christian holy book?  If we’re allowed to do that, then we can look to parts of the predominantly Islamic Middle-East and see men walking arm-in-arm with each other while their wives walk behind them….  So, was the Biblical verse, John 15:13, in reference to only a man laying down his life for an adult male friend, or was it speaking symbolically in referring to anybody laying down their life for someone else, i.e., male, female, child, friend, or stranger?  And, before we leave this point, can we assume that the man who would lay down his life for his friend would do the same for that woman or child who walks behind him?  We know the Bible speaks harshly of women and children’s lesser roles, lesser value, etc, so can we align this concept within this context, as well?  Maybe this is taking things too far….


We can also consider a mother’s love for her children, or a father’s love.  We know that women will/can instantaneously develop a blind, animal rage and herculean strength to protect their children from immediate dangers and fathers will forget the civil order in meting out punishment, themselves, to those others who have harmed or abused their children…we know these things…but how do we measure them?


When diagnosing syphilis, as opposed to love, medical practitioners can clean the crud off of a lesion and express some of the clear fluid from within to examine under a special microscope and then actually see the little cork-screw shaped bacteria, called treponemes, which cause the infection.  They can also perform a blood analysis where the sample of blood is spun, separated, and then treated with a substance that will react to the syphilis antibodies in quantities that can be presented as ratios, with the stronger or higher ratios indicating a greater immune system response, which we typically translate into meaning a larger or more profound infection.  As communicable disease investigators with the county’s public health clinic, my partners and I would get excited when we found a person with classical symptoms who also had really high ratios or titers on their blood tests.  It meant that we had found a likely source or a spread from a particular disease incidence we were investigating.  Typical reactions on the blood tests would range from a ratio or titer of 1:8 or 1:16 to 1:32 or 1:64, with the numbers doubling as the strength of the reaction increased.  Occasionally, when a person tested as high as 1:512 or 1:1024, we’d get really excited.  We’d hit the mother-lode!  Imagine our wonder and amazement when we had the one patient with a titer of 1:8192!  Holy shit, let’s go find some more cases!!!  If only we could perform a similar test on someone, or ourselves, when we wanted to see how ‘in love’ we were.


The ability to quantify love in the same manner that we quantify a syphilis infection would give us the scientific and statistical means of identifying and comparing strengths and types of love.  We could measure love’s strength between individuals in a romantic relationship, male or female, straight or gay, young or old, people in one national or geographical area against another, platonic love among same sex and opposite sexed individuals; love for parents, siblings, biological children versus adopted children, step-children, step-parents, (pets – cat lovers vs. dog lovers?) etc.  But this probably isn’t going to happen.


We might have the scientific ability already to map the intensity of a brain’s neurons firing when the patient/subject is shown certain visual stimuli or told to think about a particular person or topic, but how will we apply this to love itself?  Will that mapping be able to account for the cultural and familial differences between people who were socialized with different concepts or notions of love and its expression?  Will it be able to discriminate through the healthy and unhealthy life experiences of the individual being tested, weighing the good against the bad, or whatever?  I don’t know.  Imagine the following from a respected medical or psychological journal: “According to Smith and Jones (2009), people from the United States have an average ‘self-love’ titer of 1:32, while Japanese have a titer of 1:4.  The same study revealed that Irish adult males have an average titer of 1:8 in love ‘between themselves and their male childhood friends,’ while adult males from Labrador Island demonstrated an average titer of 1:2 in the same category.”  Hmm…it’s probably not going to happen like that.


I think we might simply be left with the wisdom and truisms that we already have in such songs as Randy Travis’s Deeper than the Holler:    


My love is deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers
Higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill
My love is purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December
And honest as a robin on a springtime window sill
And longer than the song of the Whippoorwill


Ok, or maybe from the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You, by Sam McBratney, or Love You Forever, by Robert N. Munch, or maybe better yet, we’re left with the old argument of – “I love you more than you love me,” he said.  “Not so, I love you more than you love me…,” she responded, or, “Why don’t you love me the way I love you?”  And on it goes…. 


Maybe we should just leave well-enough alone and go with what Paulo Coelho said in Warrior of Light, “…love is neither great nor small.  You can’t measure a feeling like you measure a road,” or syphilis….  J

12 responses

  1. byronHj

    I do think that context is crucial in understanding what any writer writes and what any speaker speaks. When it is written that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, it is inside the cultural context that encouraged the greatest love as one reserved for my friends. Today, that’s the people I hang out with, go fishing or hunting with, or drink beer with. In the context of that kind of friendship, thinking of maybe William Wallace of Braveheart lore, it was the ones with whom you went to battle. I am not sure most of my beer drinking buddies and buddettes are ready for that. I can think of a couple maybe. But we have yet to, intentionally anyways, really risk life or limb covering one another’s back as the bloody battle rages.
    I am not sure that in today’s context, “my friends” is what would have been written. Hmm, interesting.
    I guess when I ponder the measurability (is that a bud light commercial?) of love, what comes to me first is sacrifice. What am I willing to give to ensure the good of the object of my love? As a father, that love has no measure I can find, my life would be a small price, given without consideration in the right (meaning really wrong) circumstances. My fiancé, same thing, maybe not as instinctual a reaction, but very quickly I would pay any price. Most children and women? In life or death with equal consequence, I would like to think so, but it gets more dependent on the situation.
    My male friends? Haha, maybe if we have been drinking long enough!
    Seriously though, I am not sure that love is measurable, and I am fairly sure that it is more than just a feeling. But I am not sure what it is. Wow, Immeasurable and indefinable? I guess that I am comfortable with there being things in my universe that are bigger than what I can fully grab hold of. There is something bigger than me out there and more important than I am, and love might be part of what it is.

    September 15, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    • seekraz

      I agree with you that context is important, especially when referring to historical and ‘holy’ texts, and it was in that light that I offered the earlier comments. I enjoy your Braveheart analogy, too, as it is one of my favorite stories. I believe those combatants and friends were joined in a battle of a larger scope than we would normally yoke as equal with ‘simple’ or common friendship. That is part of the ‘measurability’ or quanitifcation of love that I was probing…by what degrees or bench-marks do we say that our love is strong? By what measure, similarly, is our friendship strong? The giving of our own lives for those whom we love must be the ‘ultimate,’ then? When we agree upon that, where do we begin to delineate the gradient that begins with no love and ascends to that point of ultimate sacrifice? How is that measured? You probably stuck true when you suggested that it is immeasurable and indefinable…part and parcel with those other things that are so much bigger than us all. And be careful, my friend, I’ll offer this anyway, but you’re probably well aware of it…if you and your buddies and buddettes drink enough, the quality of your love and friendship can begin to spiral to the extreme poles the more you consume…strangers become friends and then you become a reflection in the next blog from the STD clinic! 🙂 Thank you again, seriously, for your comments and valuable input, Sir Byron. I appreciate your sage contributions.

      September 15, 2009 at 4:36 pm

  2. The average titer of Jason’s love for Scotts random but brilliant writings is 1:2574.

    September 15, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    • seekraz

      You’re gonna make me cry, man…. Thank you. 🙂

      September 15, 2009 at 7:22 pm

  3. me

    i knew you could do it scott grill, better than anyone. now why did i even want you to? not sure. the bottom line, for me, is this . . . context aside, unless we can actually enter the mind/heart/sympathetic nervous system/firing synapses of another person, it cannot be quantified. how often do you hear others say (or maybe say yourself), “he/she loved so and so as much as he/she could love anyone . . .” hmmmm. one would know this because???? it feels to me sometimes, that there is a self-righteousness in such a statement (though i say it myself, and you know my thoughts on self-righteousness). one can compare what someone else knows of love by using the yardstick of one’s own quantifiable love titer. for example, it is not possible when i lie awake and think of the kind of love i feel for my children, to allow that anyone could have a love greater. truly, i cannot imagine this could be so, though i know intellectually that it certainly is. i think someone who commented earlier and used his/her own children as an example would challenge said superiority of the love i have for my babies.

    how about statements like “they shared a love like no other.” hmmmmmmm. again, what the hell does that mean? so . . . maybe life treated them well, they came with healthy histories, they didn’t fight over money, they were grown-ups when they became parents and didn’t argue about parenting issues – maybe they were educated. and most certainly, to the mind of the speaker, they would never think unkind thoughts of the other. so, does that mean that we, having struggled in every measurable (quantifiable) way spoken of above, having beaten every odd and statistic that rose up like god’s fist to strike us down, would have somehow a love like every other? or most others? or maybe just the “average love” that most people have and that we can clearly identify and define in others…

    you know what i think? i think there is a good chance that the love of a faithful dog, or an infant with no language, or the captive whose captor keeps her alive, or, or, or…maybe they know as much, or more, than i do about it.

    can’t be done…and shouldn’t be.

    September 16, 2009 at 12:14 am

    • seekraz

      I thank you for your confidence, and thank you for the topic. In reading and re-reading your comment, I can’t help but respond with ‘wow!’ You have built upon what is already in the article and added so much, and so clearly and profoundly that it stands alone. The context of experiencing the enigmatic thing that is and feels like and is called ‘love,’ is also what defines it; the context, yours or mine, or the captive’s or the child’s, the parent’s, etc…and as you said, the histories of the individuals in those contexts, the good and bad and in-between…and then there are the easy loves, the hard ones, the little-bits of love and the crushing ones…measured by what and whom…by the yardsticks of our each and own ‘quantifiable love titer,’ your love vs. my love, our love vs. their love…beautiful. I rather enjoy your final thoughts about the faithful dog or infant or captive and what they know of love…how profound and even humbling to understand that what we ‘know’ might pale under examination and in comparison by or with another. Can’t be, shouldn’t be…. Very nice….

      September 16, 2009 at 11:32 am

  4. Dawn

    I think most would agree that the distillation of the ‘lay down his life for his friend” principle is that there is something active central to the presence (or absence) of love—self-sacrifice. If love can be measured, like energy or speed or mass, etc. it would be in the level a person has to give up their own happiness, wishes, desires, etc. to be loving.

    I meet a guy & feel warm fuzzies; he feels warm fuzzies back toward me and it costs us nothing—very little love there, just romance or attraction. I want to go to the movies, he wants to drink a diet Pepsi at McDonald’s—I am enthusiastic about unpalatable suggestion B and have a good attitude–that’s a little bit of love. He marries me and I get hit by the light rail train while running across the street chasing our 2 year old and end up a quadriplegic. If he decides to stay with me at great cost to his own physical, mental, emotional & sexual freedom/benefits—that’s a huge amount of sacrifice and would possibly indicate a large measure of love. (Unless he’s just a coward, too afraid to look like a jerk to the onlooking social circle. The motive has to be thought for the other, not lack of the nerve to consider or to choose to act for oneself.)

    If a person truly died for another to live—they would sacrifice their very life, the most precious thing they possess. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate quantity of loving?

    I think the benefits are harder to quantify. They can be varied and come from so many scattered directions–thoughts/actions on the part of the person you “loved”, thoughts/actions/recognition from those who love the person you loved (“You are a great dad to do that for mom.”), or emotions of well-being from your own sense of honoring your own code of honor/virtues/self-esteem, (“I did something nice for her and I’m a good guy.”) When you are loving (or self-sacrificing), what do you get in return? That depends on so many factors like the person for whom you are sacrificing, who notices, who cares, what you get as a result and more.

    A good old “Cost/Benefit Analysis” could get really tricky.

    Probably a good thing. If you could easily identify & calculate what a “sacrifice” in the name of love would “net” you, it wouldn’t rise to the level of what most would consider “love”. It could easily become manipulation & ultimate self-interest or, at the least, a business transaction.

    My opinion—the person doing the loving act of giving or giving up something for another person would best be able to determine how much it cost them to do so and how “loving” they were. The object of affection or onlookers could only guess and if told by the lover, would have to take it “on faith” or sense with their “gut” whether a person valued them over himself or not.

    September 16, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    • seekraz

      Yes, Dawn, I think ‘most people’ would agree that the distillation of the ‘lay down his life for his friend’ could be summed-up in the offering that it is central to love and self-sacrifice…and I offer in complement that, one’s self-sacrifice is going to be ‘greater’ or ‘smaller’ in the context of their own lives, not as measured by someone else, which you also stated toward the end of your comment – the person doing the giving or giving-up would best be able to determine how much it cost them to do so and with how much love. With regard to your example of someone being hit by a train while chasing their two year-old, I suggest a similar circumstance in which two fathers or mothers, who are strangers to each other, are walking down opposite sides of the light rail tracks, each holding the hand of their own two year-old, when one of the little ones bolts out in front of the train and the other father or mother, not their own, sees it happen, drops their own child’s hand, and rushes out in front of the train and pushes the other toddler to safety, and gets killed in the process…leaving his or her own child alive on the other side of the tracks, so to speak. Those strangers didn’t know each other and didn’t know each other’s kids…couldn’t have loved each other…yet this type of ‘self-sacrifice’ happened, and does happen…we can give ourselves for others, we make the ‘ultimate,’ as in ‘last,’ sacrifice of ourselves for someone else…without love…which doesn’t exactly line-up with the ‘no greater love’ reference in the earlier mentioned Bible verse. If we bring this closer to home, to the individual and his/her love for his most-esteemed one, who can rightly say that one mate would have been making the ‘ultimate,’ as in ‘greatest,’ sacrifice of themselves when they gave their life for the other. Maybe it would be a greater sacrifice for the one mate to have lived without the mate that they could have saved, spending their life working on some other cause, saving thousands of other people, nations, etc, by having saved themself…. I also imagine that it might require more of some people to go on living without their mate than it would to give-up their life for them, their greater sacrifice might be in living. Another example to support this – in my earlier post, The Last Epitaph, I suggested that JOHN L. might have hung himself because of the failures in his life, the things that he had messed-up, and I proposed that maybe he was saving his children or wife from himself…was that the ultimate gift that he gave, or would it have been more noble and self-sacrificing to do whatever it took to turn his life around, fix the situations or relationships that he had broken, and dedicate the remainder of his lived life toward helping, healing, etc? Again, the context determines the strength of love and that’s something that we cannot measure for each other…what a riddle, what a mess! Thank you, Dawn for visiting the blog and reading and commenting and sharing. I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and the time you took to add them to this on-going conversation. 🙂

      September 16, 2009 at 2:48 pm

  5. Nathan

    What an interesting perspective you have with all of your years of experience in such unique professions. It’s amazing how these other parts of your life have colored your view, and have allowed you to take something as deep and visceral as love, and compare it to the infectious disease of syphilis…somehow it works though 🙂
    I’ve not yet had the privilege to experience loving my own child, but I can only imagine it is a stronger and more instinctual feeling than I will have ever felt before. What I do know, is that there is nothing in this world that compares to the love I feel for my beautiful wife, or my incredible parents. To me, love is absolutely undefinable, unable to be expressed in any way that actually justifies its depth, and is in no way measurable or quantifiable.
    This must have been a fun and interesting challenge for you, and I think you did a great job comparing it to something that is in fact measurable…and quite different 🙂

    September 17, 2009 at 9:23 am

    • seekraz

      Yes, Nathan, it was a fun and interesting challenge of mixing the different experiences and then working-up a passable commentary on the two seemingly unrelated topics. With most things that we come across in our lives, it seems that to make sense of them, we compare them to things with which we are already familiar. So with the odd or random thought of quantifying love, I compared it with the equally odd or random thought of the quantification of syphilis…and hoped that the pairing would be a good one. I think you’re right, too, in your comment that we cannot really measure our love…your love for your unborn baby will be different than the love you feel for your wife and parents and siblings…it just will be, and it will have a depth and breadth that will be its own, similar, but so unlike the others. Thank you for your kind words about the article…and thank you for your frequent visits and additions to the content and substance of the blog. 🙂

      September 17, 2009 at 12:29 pm

  6. Nathan

    Another feeling that I can find no possible way to quantify, is the fear of losing one that I love. This is something I have dealt with almost on a daily basis since I can remember, and it can be intoxicating and consuming. This arrival of my baby boy will be yet another life that would rip the very fabric of my soul apart if I lost him……so another question might be, “What is the cost of love”?

    I am happy to read your writing, and thank you for sharing these thoughts 🙂

    September 17, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    • seekraz

      And another good point…when we love that other one with the entirety of our being and then we lose them, somehow…a part of us dies, too. A part of us is gone forever and couldn’t be replaced with either another person or object of our love. that one is gone and so is the part of us where we were connected. The question comes, now, in what to do with ourselves when that so loved one is gone? Do we end our own life because their existence was our reason for living, or do we persevere and hope that the tincture of time can heal the wound to our soul? Do we consider what they would want us to do, or do we succumb to the abject misery of the hole they left in our lives and go to join them, wherever they might be, or nowhere? As in the earlier discussion, the answer is context dependent…it’s not something I can weigh for you or anyone else. It’s your grief, it’s a vacuum or emptiness in your soul, it’s for you to define. Again, thank you, and I’m glad you enjoy the reading here. 🙂

      September 17, 2009 at 1:41 pm

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