Seattle. -- This year marks the 25th anniversary of the ''Summer of Love,'' and you can measure the distance by how uncomfortable you would feel if a stranger embraced you on the street.
In the Sixties, love was our alternative to war, the soft weapon that would conquer the world and make it a better place. The more brutal the world got the more urgently we sang ''All we need is love'' or ''We've got to love one another right now.''
What we preached was a love universal -- as opposed to romantic love, which is particular.
In fact, there seems to be some conflict between the two. Those who love all humankind are often deficient in their personal relations. (''I could never understand how one can love one's neighbors,'' says Ivan in ''The Brothers Karamazov.'' ''It's just one's neighbors, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance.'')
So we took to embracing not only each other but even imperfect strangers as a way of greeting, and saying things like, ''I love you, man, I really do.'' The idea was that the genuine feeling might follow, in the same way that arousal follows pornography.
(Some cults soon made effective use of this technique by multiplying it into the mind-numbing practice called love-bombing.)
It became part of our correspondence. For a while we simply closed all letters, ''. . . Love.'' It didn't matter if we were writing to parents, lover, friend or dentist. (''Dear Dr. Jones: I will pay the rest of the bill when I can. Love, . . .'')
But there was this advantage to the promiscuous use of that warm closing: Just as Ms. relieved the writer of having to guess whether a female correspondent was married or single, ''Love'' became a blanket that covered cold feet as well as a warm heart.
Finally, we wore the word out. Instead of the powerful force it originally represented, love became diluted, a mere greeting. And, anyway, Richard Nixon proved that it was impossible to love anybody.
Telling casual acquaintances and even strangers ''I love you'' lost its power and dwindled to a cliche, the ''Have a nice day'' of the Seventies. It continued on in letters for a while, perhaps because dropping it seemed to require an explanation we were not willing to offer, but even there it faded away like the guest who finally realizes the party is over.
By the era of taking-care-of-number-one it certainly appeared out of place. However, for some of us at least, its departure created a dilemma. After ''Love,'' other letter closings seem either too pallid (''Regards,'' ''Sincerely,'' ''Best wishes'') or too normal (''Respectfully,'' ''Yours truly''). While ''Love'' now sounds like a declaration.
One word should not have so many different meanings. Romantic love and parental love have somewhat the same quality. As a euphemism for sex, love expresses the desire to bond that is part of romantic love and it's a shame to debase the word when one simply means recreational sex.
Spiritual love is something else altogether. In romantic and parental love, we love the object of our affection for himself or herself. Romantic love comes naturally, even against our will. We fall into it. The idea of spiritual love is to love people in spite of themselves. That's the Christian ideal. Spiritual love requires an effort. That's why we feel virtuous when we practice it.
It was a myth of the Sixties that marijuana made people more loving in the spiritual sense. Many were disillusioned to learn that soldiers in Vietnam sometimes smoked it before going into combat. Even more shocking was the fact that the term ''assassin'' is derived from ''hashish,'' the stronger form of marijuana that was taken by members of a sect of Middle Eastern killers in the Middle Ages. There was no way to spread love through a drug short-cut.
Without a short-cut, love has no chance. This was the generation of Peace Now, Freedom Now, Paradise Now. The Doors sang: ''We want the world! We want it now!'' Human nature does not change that fast. Besides, anyone could see that, like members of any other religion, hippies did not always practice what they preached.
The Summer of Love expressed an ideal we could not live up to. No doubt it was naive, hopelessly innocent. What else could love be? But it isn't dead. Celebrate the 25th anniversary of the season of hope. Hug someone. Anyone.
Jerome Richard is a free-lance writer.