What Does Love Look Like? Answering With Help from bell hooks

Love. Love. Love, baby. Let’s get all intellectual about love. If anything could both be underrated AND overrated, it would be this bad boy called love. Love encompasses our society. It touches our soul, and our heart, and yet, it is so delicate we don’t really know what to do with it. There is an implicit assumption that we just know how to love even though no one ever really teaches us how to. Enter bell hooks. Now, I have to preface this—especially as a Christian woman—by saying bell hooks is not the authority on love nor does she have the final say on love. Her book, All About Love, just shows she has given a lot of thought into love, and she shares those insights. She provides an intellectual take on the concept of love, but we are going to attempt to simplify it in this post so that every day we embody love to the best of our abilities.

Let's get started.  What is love? The biblical definition of love conceptualizes it as more than a feeling and more than an emotion. It is so much deeper and richer and involves how we relate to others around us. As 1 Corinthians 13 show us, love is patient, kind, bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things, never fails, rejoices with the truth, believes all things. Even writing this out is making me…cringe. Love can’t just be all these things because it almost feels like.. a LOT, right? Also how does this look like on a day to day basis? What does this mean for us? 

This is especially because, as bell hooks says in her book, it seems like people are afraid to love, afraid to give themselves completely to another person. But love—and apologies for how cringey this may sound—must overcome all your fears. You must never give up on love even in the face of astronomical odds. The risks of love have been framed as so significant that so many people encourage sexual pleasure without emotional investment. They relinquish the possibility of love and as a mechanism for the fear beneath this, they boast of seeking interactions without the investment of love; seeking sexual relations without intimacy and emotional connections; they adorn cynicism as a tool to shield disappointment and betrayal.  But in the long run, is it even worth it? 

“Cynicism is the great mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart” - bell hooks

Love is all encompassing of how we relate to others and ourselves. And it starts from our heart. It starts from the conditioning of our heart. Jack Kornfield, writer and Buddhist, says it is possible to speak with our heart directly like it’s a good friend. No matter how busy life gets, we must take the time to communicate with our hearts. 

 “The search for love continues even in the face of great odds.”  

In one of the few posts where I talked about love on this blog, I said never be afraid to say you desire love. The type of love you desire does matter, so never be afraid to rebuke mediocre love. I say this because there is a trend, and bell mentions this too, where when a single woman over forty (as bell says, but really I think, over thirty) brings up the topic of love,  the implicit assumption is that she is desperate for a man. This idea of desperation is reductive. And yet, one could be just intellectually interested in love or really just fundamentally interested in love. 

“Without justice there can be no love” – bell hooks

That said, our interest in love must surpass romantic love and include love in all its forms. Because if we lived in a world filled with love, oh how tremendous and healing that would be for us. What does living in a world filled with love look like? It looks like different forms. First, it looks like justice. If there is no justice, there is no love. if we are to be committed to love as the bible describes, we must be committed to loving our neighbors as ourselves. If we are committed to loving our neighbors as ourselves, then it behooves us to see to it that are neighbors are treated fairly and equally. We must be committed to fighting for the marginalized and the oppressed and speaking up for the voiceless in our society. If public policy and laws were made in the spirit of love, our society would be so much better.

A love that neglects this aspect of justice and equality is a waste of time.  bell hooks specifically ties love to justice and civil rights for children; positing that if our culture does not uphold basic civil rights for children they will never know love. I think this extends to every single one of us. We deserve to live in an equal and just world; then can we fully be saturated in love beyond our relational quarters. 

But yes, love also looks like how we treat children because what we encounter as children follows us to adulthood, indeed. So many of us grow up in homes and families that bell hooks characterized as “institutionalized sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic”. It’s funny how parents beat their kids or are openly hostile towards them (in the name of discipline) or are verbally and emotionally abusive and then expect these kids to grow up willing and ready to embrace love; they expect these kids to demand better from romantic partners; they expect these kids to even be capable of love in any capacity. How can? How can anybody who grew up with hate from the very people who should love them ever know the difference? 

Here is the gist of it, neglect and abuse cannot coexist with love. Loving parenting is incredibly critical to our society. It can arguably be the bedrock of our society, and we can’t get there with abuse as a form of discipline.

“Loving parents work hard to discipline without punishments. This doesn’t mean they never punish, only that when they do punish, they choose punishments like timeouts or taking away of privileges. They focus on teaching children how to be self-disciplining and how to take responsibility for their actions” – bell hooks

Yet when these conversations are had, people call it idealistic or utopian or westernized to ask you to not treat your kids like animals. What is wrong with asking you to have discussions with your kids, to have critical reflections, and to find ways address misbehavior that focus on making amends? Is it hard, best believe. Is it impossible? Absolutely not. It’s also why parents need as much support as possible. It is why it is not ideal to have just one parenting figure. Circumstances beyond people’s control may mean they end up being single moms or dads, but still, they can find another adult (friend, relative, another single parent even) to be a parenting figure in the child’s life. I like how bell hooks describes this: if a child feels one parent is being unjust, the child can appeal to another adult for support, mediation, or even just understanding. If it looks like a post about love is so focused on children and childhood, it is because that is exactly when so much of our notion on love is formed. If we never learned to differentiate between abuse/manipulation/deceit and love as child, how can we be expected to do so as adults? 

Love also looks like care, honesty, gentility, loyalty, respect in our romantic interactions. In the world we inhabit, women have especially suffered from men using lying and withholding of love to assert power and dominance over women while disempowering women. I appreciated bell hooks’ hypothesis regarding this. It goes something like, decades and centuries ago men had the upper hand in our patriarchal society (they still do) but mainly utilized this power through controlling finances. As women have continually tried to catch up to men and as they strive towards economic independence, men have resorted to other strategies. So even the wealthiest professional women can be “brought down” if she is in a relationship where she continues to desire love but gets anything but, and is constantly lied to. “To the degree that she trusts her male companion, lying and other forms of betrayal will most likely shatter her self-confidence and self-esteem.”

As Kimberly Nicole Foster, the video essayist, put it, an important question to ask yourself before letting any man into your life is,  “are you going to fuck shit up for me?”. Because when I think of Hilary Clinton, Huma Abedin, I think of extremely brilliant women who had husbands that just, excuse my language, fucked shit up for them. 

Physical abuse is almost always clear. Every sane person agrees that a man beating his female partner is awful. Yet, most men choose psychological terrorism—which is harder to discern—to subordinate women. This weapon, bell hooks argues, is a more socially acceptable form of coercion. And lying is often its bullet. 

“Trust is the foundation of intimacy. When lies erode trust, genuine connection cannot take place.” – bell hooks

And here is the kicker, by lying, deceiving, manipulating, dominating women, even men do themselves a disservice as they prevent themselves from also fully experience love. So, nobody really wins. Our society is broken so that it’s not just men who are deceitful. Women too sometimes feel the need to manipulate men to give them what they need or deserve. So they lie to prop a man’s ego; evoking emotions they don’t feel or emotional vulnerability and neediness that don’t exist. In this advanced age, there are still women who plan to get pregnant to emotionally bind their male partners to them forever. This is an even worse predicament when they do it because the relationship is rocky and they want to force a man to marry them or remain in their life. Why would you do this to a child? Why would you bring a child into this world that is not desired by both parents?

“Privacy is often confused with secrecy. Open, honest, truth telling individuals value privacy. We all need spaces where we can be alone with thoughts and feelings—where we can experience healthy psychological autonomy and can choose to share what we want to. But keeping secrets is usually about power, about hiding and concealing information” – bell hooks

While we are at it, it is challenging to know love where there are lies. And sometimes this includes the lies we tell ourselves. So, love looks like and extends to how we treat ourselves. So much of love nowadays is discussed in the context of the self. Everyone touts “self-love”, but as bell hooks said, “self-love cannot flourish in isolation”. It is no easy task at all to be self-loving. In fact, simply telling people to “love themselves” may complicate matters. Such simple quips about “self-love” or “self-care” can contribute to people wondering why, despite it being so simple, they can’t get out of the cycle of self-hate or low self-esteem.  As I suggested above, love is a combination of trust, care, respect, responsibility, knowledge, commitment, and once we know this we can learn to apply these to ourselves and embody these characteristics. If love is about extending other’s spiritual growth (per the definition bell hooks uses), then to love oneself is to extend one’s own spiritual growth. 

Success and achievement while amazing can’t mask a faulty foundation without love for ourselves. In her book, Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem told women that it can be dangerous to achieve success without first doing the necessary groundwork for self-love and self-esteem. Career and money are two integral things, but they should never be prioritized over valuing and nurturing life and wellbeing of yourself and those around you. So here is the thing: live consciously, intentionally, set goals and make sure your behavior is in alignment with those goals. You owe it to yourself. 

I am not going to be idealistic and say only do work you love. I’m a millennial. I get it lol. But in a lot of ways, as bell hooks argues, doing work we hate ASSAULTS our self-esteem and confidence. It is detrimental to our wellbeing. But most of us cannot do what we love so we must redefine our goals and dreams. We must learn satisfaction in what we are doing and where we are. The antidote to this is commitment and flow. No matter the job, if you do it well and with excellence, it can provide some sense of purpose that helps our wellbeing. And if it is totally impossible to do this with your work, then create something. I don’t know. Knit. Bake. Start a blog. Review movies. Review books. Do pilates and document your journey. Shoot a short movie. Run, and track it. Volunteer. Speak up for others. Become an activist. Just find purpose. And if all else fails, at least you would learn what you don’t like. 

But give yourself grace. Give yourself the love you dream about getting from others. The example bell hooks gives is one we can all relate to: she often felt lousy about her body; too this, too that. Then she fantasized about finding a love that would give her the gift of being loved as she is. Imagine that: dreaming of someone giving you something (acceptance and affirmation) you are withholding from yourself. 

“Do not expect to receive the love from someone else that you do not give yourself” – bell hooks.

Love looks like generosity. The kind of greed innate in a capitalistic system just does not align with love. It’s like Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst, says, “the principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible” Everywhere we turn, we are being told nowadays that “luxury” in the form of materialistic and excessive consumption of nonsense goods is the way to live; that our needs can be satisfied the more luxury bags we own, or the more vacations we take. Greed robs us of too much and even our politics is based on greed as our country becomes less charitable every day, arrogantly protecting the interests of the rich and claiming that the poor and needy are not working hard enough. People would rather embrace consumerism, worship the rich, acquire material possession and grotesque display of wealth than fill emotional emptiness. So now we think we are what we possess and too many of us—especially under the guise of divesting from organized religion—are so spiritually empty, it hurts.  Spirituality empowers us to love. 

I’m not here to debate the importance of religion because I do understand people have been hurt by organized religion. People also think to turn to spirituality only when they experience difficulties with the hope that sorrow and pain just disappear, and when it doesn’t they think it’s useless. But as far as I know, most religions never promise a life void of pain and despair. What kind of life would that even be? Instead—and speaking from the Christian point of view—we are assured that God will never leave or forsake us even as we go through the fire. We are also told to count it all joy when we encounter trials.
And despite the gains of religion and the literal scientific benefits of religion including, being linked to longer life expectancy; lower blood pressure; and mental health, bell hooks admits it is more socially acceptable and cool and hip to express atheistic sentiments than to “declare passionate devotion to divine spirit” among progressives. Don’t I know it?

There is a hopelessness, a profound sense of despair, a lovelessness, loneliness, emptiness, and meaninglessness in so many people’s lives that can only be cured by some form of spirituality. While Christianity is what I know and can advocate for, I will reluctantly agree that Christianity is not the only path to that spirituality. Like bell, my belief that God is love sustains me. God, being my anchor, sustains me. And like bell, I too affirm these beliefs through daily meditation and prayer, through contemplations and service, through worship and lovingkindness. 

“Usually, they find that the place of suffering—the place where we are broken in spirit, when accepted and embraced, is also a place of peace and possibility. Our sufferings do not magically end; instead we are able to wisely alchemically recycle them. They become the abundant waste that we use to make new growth possible.” – bell hooks

Now all that being said about self-love, it is NOT selfishness or self-centeredness. How does this look? bell hooks has an answer: pop culture and its glorification has conflated dangerous narcissism that pays too much attention on individual self-improvement with love within the context of community. We must see love as the will to nurture not just our own spiritual growth but others’ as well through care, respect, kindness, service. This is beyond just romantic partners, but love must center our engagement with ourselves, family, and friends. Although commitments to people differ, values that inform our behavior are the same no matter the relationship. So it is such a shame to see women prioritize romantic relationships over all their other relationships even when the so-called romantic partner has not earned it. 

“Too often we take friendships for granted even when they are the interactions where we experience mutual pleasure. We place them in secondary position, especially in relation to romantic bonds” – bell hooks.

This is a long-winded way to talk about love. But I think it’s worth it, especially as so many people work hard to undo all the lovelessness and neglect in their lives. Love should be felt in our society; it should flourish; it should thrive. If you take one thing from this post it should be that love is a verb; an action; an intention; a will; a doing or an undoing. 

So much love,


No comments