Back in the 1880s, a German-American anthropologist named Franz Boaz was traveling through northern Canada studying the Inuit peoples. Among his many observations, he noted that the Inuit had multiple words—perhaps more than fifty!—for “snow.” (Among them: ‘aqilokoq’ for “softly falling snow” or—my favorite—‘piegnartoq’ for “snow that is good for driving the sled.”) While more than a century later anthropologists and linguists continue to debate the exact number of Inuit words for snow, the concept of multiple words for a seemingly uncomplicated noun can stand on its own two snowshoes: people need more than one word to describe the important things in their lives.
Back in ancient Greece, there were six words for love: eros (passion or sexual love); philia (deep, longstanding friendship); ludus (playful—puppy—love); philautia (love of self); agape (love for everyone; selfless love); and pragma (deep, abiding love). While love of any kind is worth a good muse, it’s this last form of love—pragma—that interests me most today.
The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm contends that most of us make a big deal about falling in love but tend to overlook standing in love. Passion and puppies make for easy love targets, but it’s far more difficult to nurture love’s more complicated forms and grow them into something deeper and more lasting. Married couples know this all-too-well. If Eros depends on pheromones, pragma is rooted in deeper soil: compassion, compromise, tolerance, understanding, forgiveness. To put it another way, pragma is more about giving than receiving, more about getting over yourself than about giving into your own selfish needs. Since more than a third of marriages in the United States end in divorce, pragma may be a better plot to till than eros, the stuff that gets us into marriage in the first place.
Love is a lot more than never having to say you’re sorry. In fact, it’s damn hard work. It’s easy enough in romantic candlelight or wine glow, but when you shine reality’s harsh spotlight on love, things look a bit different. There are bills to pay, chores to do; somebody needs to unload the dishwasher, fold the laundry, or take out the trash. Resentments can accumulate. That’s where pragma comes in.
Pragma can be a difficult houseguest because, by definition, pragma’s visit is more than a three-day affair. In order to actually arrive at some meaningful measure of pragma, one must be willing to make a life-long commitment. When smitten by eros or ludus, that may sound simple enough, but to truly stand in love, you have to see the dangers that lurk in shallow water and be willing to risk the storms of the open sea. Or, to paraphrase Captain Brody in “Jaws,” you may need a bigger boat.
There’s an old African proverb that lives somewhere in the back of my mind. It goes like this: “If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk with someone else.” I think that’s a pretty good summation of Greek pragma.
Maybe an Inuit would put it this way: pragma is the good kind of snow for driving the sled.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”