bell hooks on Love
By Maria Popova
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation,” Rilke wrote to his young correspondent half a century before Baldwin admonished that “loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”
How we meet that dangerous task may be a function of our fearlessness, but we only ever rise — or fall — to love’s responsibility in proportion to our wholeness, that most difficult of achievements for us fragile beings living in a world that constantly divides us into fragments of ourselves.
How to rediscover love from a place of wholeness, in a spirit of fearlessness, is what bell hooks (September 25, 1952–December 15, 2021) explores in her wonderful 2000 book All About Love (public library) — a field guide to “the practice of love in everyday life” and an impassioned manifesto for transforming our culture into one “where love’s sacred presence can be felt everywhere.”
Greatly influenced by the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm — who observed in his landmark work on the art of loving that “there is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love” — hooks argues that we fumble and falter at love largely because we are unclear on what it actually means and what it asks of us. Looking back on her own life, she writes:
Had I been given a clear definition of love earlier in my life it would not have taken me so long to become a more loving person. Had I shared with others a common understanding of what it means to love it would have been easier to create love.
Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up. As we move toward our desired destination we chart the journey, creating a map. We need a map to guide us on our journey to love — starting with the place where we know what we mean when we speak of love.
Over the years, I have encountered some excellent definitions of love: For Iris Murdoch, it was “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real”; for Tom Stoppard, “the mask slipped from the face”; for Adrienne Rich, “a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” And yet, as hooks recognizes, definitions are only the starting point — then comes the difficult task of putting our general theories of love into practice. Because our formative attachments shape how we love, this may often require unlearning damaging models and grieving the damage. Looking back on her own childhood, marked by a sudden and baffling expulsion from her parents’ adoration, hooks writes:
We can never go back. I know that now. We can go forward. We can find the love our hearts long for, but not until we let go grief about the love we lost long ago… All the years of my life I thought I was searching for love I found, retrospectively, to be years where I was simply trying to recover what had been lost, to return to the first home, to get back the rapture of first love. I was not really ready to love or be loved in the present. I was still mourning — clinging to the broken heart of girlhood, to broken connections. When that mourning ceased I was able to love again.
But it was not until well into middle age, when her partner of fifteen years left her, that she came to consciously examine the meaning of love, personal and cultural. She captures the harrowing umbra of heartbreak:
My grief was a heavy, despairing sadness caused by parting from a companion of many years but, more important, it was a despair rooted in the fear that love did not exist, could not be found. And even if it were lurking somewhere, I might never know it in my lifetime. It had become hard for me to continue to believe in love’s promise when everywhere I turned the enchantment of power or the terror of fear overshadowed the will to love.
And yet, she observes, the astonishing thing about being human is that, even at our most brokenhearted, we are animated by an inextinguishable faith in love. Lamenting the mixed messages of a culture that fetishizes love yet tells us that “lovelessness is more common than love,” she writes:
Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure… This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise… Our hope lies in the reality that so many of us continue to believe in love’s power. We believe it is important to know love. We believe it is important to search for love’s truths… To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice.
To know love we have to tell the truth to ourselves and to others… Commitment to truth telling lays the groundwork for the openness and honesty that is the heartbeat of love.
Ultimately, hooks argues, the work of love is the work of the spirit — in our culture, and in ourselves:
A culture that is dead to love can only be resurrected by spiritual awakening… All awakening to love is spiritual awakening.
Her own spiritual awakening began when she was eighteen and still Gloria Jean Watkins. Studying to become a poet at Stanford, she met Gary Snyder, whose poetry was deeply influenced by his Zen practice. He invited her to a May Day celebration at his zendo. There, she met three American Buddhist nuns who left a great impression on her young mind. This was the beginning of her lifelong immersion in Buddhist contemplative practice, which in turn came to permeate her own work and worldview, including her understanding of love.
If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I’m a seeker on the path… a path about love.
If love is really the active practice — Buddhist, Christian, or Islamic mysticism — it requires the notion of being a lover, of being in love with the universe… To commit to love is fundamentally to commit to a life beyond dualism. That’s why love is so sacred in a culture of domination, because it simply begins to erode your dualisms: dualisms of black and white, male and female, right and wrong.
Couple with the great Zen teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, whom hooks cites frequently throughout her work, on how to love, then revisit Roxane Gay on loving vs. being in love, poet Donald Hall on the secret to lasting love, and David Whyte’s stunning poem “The Truelove.”
Published November 3, 2023