Admission: this is the first bell hooks work I’ve read cover to cover (I’m not much of an Oberlin alum). I chose this book out of intrigue–the first sentence of the back cover description read: “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun, yet…we would all love better if we used it as a verb.”
This work explores the meaning of love; how we typically define it, what that definition lacks, and the importance of creating an operational definition of what love is (and isn’t) in order to have a common place of understanding to be able to work towards healthy and functional relationships. It was heavy in content but had an easy flow about it, mixing research, narrative, and opinion.
In the introduction she writes,
Awesomely, our nation, like no other in the world, is a culture driven by the quest to love (it’s the theme of our movies, music, literature) even as it offers so little opportunity for us to understand love’s meaning or to know how to realize love in word and deed.
This couldn’t be more true. We have an obsession of seeking what we perceive as love, even as that definition of love varies wildly and often involves unloving actions. Furthermore, we premise the idea of love as something that just happens, as something being out of our control, that either is or isn’t, but at the same time deeming love as the panacea for all things evil in our world, i.e., ‘we could get rid of racism if we just loved each other more.’ But how can we have such a lackadaisical, passive notion of love and claim that it is a solution for all of our societal ills. How can something we characterize as being so effortless and easy to come by and have it decidedly be the answer to puzzles that are expressly the most difficult to solve?
For awhile now I’ve been scoffing at the typical rhetoric of ‘love cures all,’ as the salve to racism–rhetoric almost exclusively employed by white folx–as being too shallow and uncritical. I saw it as just another way to avoid taking active responsibility for a problem of their creation, another manifestation of indifference, a way to sound well meaning and human while not having to actually DO anything (compromise any privilege or power) to make meaningful change.
And while I don’t think my analyses of their intentions were wrong, my cynicism about the impact of love was. When we actually define what love is, it can provide a resolution to conflict and hatred. But the way we’ve been operationalizing love is what’s wrong.
When the very meaning of the word is cloaked in mystery, it should not come as a surprise that most people find it hard to define what they mean when they use the word “love.”
Imagine how much it easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition…Echoing the work of Erich Fromm, he defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Explaining further, he continues: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will–namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” (pp. 4 – 5)
hooks goes further to say that what we typically consider as love–caring for someone, having affection for them, feeling deeply drawn to someone–are only single ingredients that are needed in combination to complete the recipe for love. More importantly, that love is the absence of abuse and neglect. You can be attracted to someone and abuse them but you cannot LOVE them and abuse them because by definition the existence of one precludes the coexistence of the other. You may experience care and pleasure and affection and still not experience love, but we too often conflate the terms.
When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.
That also sounds rather simplistic, but once you define not only the composition of love, but each of the elements that love is composed of, then not only does the mystery disappear, but there’s a functional place to work from and a goal to work towards. Chapter 1 gives the premise for what love is: each subsequent chapter tackles defining every element of that premise (justice, commitment, honesty, mutuality, community), different types of love (sweet love, redemptive love, divine love), and what love must NOT be (materialistic, imperialistic, patriarchal).
You can spend decades in school, and learn everything under the sun, including what it supposedly means to be a good citizen of your immediate and your global community, and still not learn how to be a loving person. Even religion, whose underlying principle is that of divine love and that speaks about all the elements of love, doesn’t provide clarity or consistent modeling for how to actually practice love that’s inclusive of justice, mutuality, and community, and that exists in the absence of abuse or neglect (among other things).
This is a book for everybody–for every age, for every life station, for every culture; that we begin to understand what is, and how to, “love.”