Casually leafing through bell hooks's All About Love: New Visions a few years ago in a bookstore, I was drawn by her idea that love should be regarded as a verb, not a noun. Traditionally, our culture thinks of love as a thing, a passive feeling of tenderness or affection that comes over us, into which we fall involuntarily, something instinctual over which we have little control. hooks argues, on the contrary, that love is a chosen action, something we must constantly affirm and on which we must continually act. Drawing on the work of M. Scott Peck and Erich Fromm, she defines love as an act of will: "the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." Love, under this rubric, is an active process, a daily practice of "care, commitment, trust, knowledge, responsibility, and respect," transmitted through honest communication. Love is work, hooks argues, but work which can be learned: a crucial point for the masses of people in our society who feel a lack of love in their lives, but also feel powerless to change that. The art of loving, she argues, is not taught in our society (despite the many how-to courses on every aspect of sexuality), but it ought to be. We are all taught that we should instinctively know how to love well, and that, lacking that knowledge, or having developed it imperfectly, we are stuck in a monstrous state. hooks argues, I believe truthfully, that this is nonsense. Like all crafts, the art of loving is something we must learn and work at in order to do well.
I connected deeply with hooks's definition of love as a verb, as generous action. It mirrored my own experience of relationships in which people truly nurture one another, how much work that is and also how rewarding. I also liked the way in which her definition of love explicitly excludes abusive relationships - there can be no nurturing of anyone's spiritual growth in a situation where abuse is happening. hooks astutely points out that while abusive or neglectful relationships can, at times, involve care, they can never be truly loving in the larger sense. This considerably narrows the field of relationships which can be called "loving," but I think such a narrowing is useful. So often we're exposed to the idea that abuse or neglect can coexist with love, and I like hooks's distinction between care - a precious aspect of human relationships in its own right, and one she clearly values - and the larger, mutually nourishing set of actions and feelings that make up genuine love. Although I don't read many social theory or self-help books, the first few pages of her opening chapter were enough to convince me to buy All About Love that very day.
I had no idea, though, how much the book as a whole would challenge my thinking. When I picked it up again, I started with hooks's preface, in which she talks about our society's simultaneous obsession with and discomfort around love. She references many books in the self-help tradition, as well as other authors writing about love. I was feeling an intangible discomfort as I read, and I hadn't thought to examine it until I ran smack up against this passage:
Yet whenever a single woman over forty brings up the topic of love, again and again the assumption, rooted in sexist thinking, is that she is "desperate" for a man. No one thinks she is simply passionately intellectually interested in the subject matter. No one thinks she is rigorously engaged in a philosophical undertaking wherein she is endeavoring to understand the metaphysical meaning of love in everyday life. No, she is just seen as on the road to "fatal attraction."
I was thunderstruck to realize that, despite my professed feminism and attempts to reject sexism, the discomfort hooks describes here is exactly what I was feeling as I read. I was made uncomfortable by references to self-help books and admissions of lovelessness, because I associate them with a traditionally feminine lack of intellectual rigor, the stuff of "chick lit" and daytime television. Do I believe, intellectually, that the philosophical examination of love is less worthwhile than an exploration of, for example, violence? Of course not. Do I believe that the traditionally feminine should be shunned? No. But so pervasive is internalized sexism, that I do apparently carry around these beliefs on a subconscious, emotional level. Throughout my reading of the rest of hooks's book, I had to keep reminding myself of this realization, and thinking carefully about what underlay my reactions. It was a very valuable, if uncomfortable, exercise.
All About Love's chapter on honesty also forced me to think about the practice of lying in new ways. I've become pretty inured to the idea of telling a plethora of "little white lies" throughout the day; I think introverts in our society are especially encouraged to do this. I construct a falsely outgoing self, which I present in most casual interactions. Instead of declining invitations on the grounds that I need more alone time (the truth), I sometimes invent "other plans" that keep me from accepting, out of a fear of hurting my friends' feelings. As hooks points out, we expect all people to do this to some extent:
Lies are told about the most insignificant aspects of daily life. When many of us are asked basic questions, like How are you today? a lie is substituted for the truth. Much of the lying people do in everyday life is done either to avoid conflict or to spare someone's feelings. Hence, if you are asked to come to dinner with someone whom you do not particularly like, you do not tell the truth or simply decline, you make up a story. You tell a lie. In such a situation it should be appropriate to simply decline if stating one's reasons for declining might unnecessarily hurt someone.
I was initially hostile to the idea that this kind of everyday lying is harmful to our ability to love. I do believe, despite the general truth that "honesty is the best policy," that there are times when lying is the most appropriate and generous - yes, loving - course of action. But when I press myself, I realize that these times are in the tiny minority, and mostly involve death-bed scenarios. And when I think about the most satisfying, validating interactions I've had, even with strangers, they've often involved the choice to be honest rather than invent an excuse. I'm specifically remembering a time when I was traveling alone in England, and was asked out on a date by a stranger. I knew I didn't want to go, and a series of excuses immediately presented themselves: I had a ticket to a sold-out show, I was really tired, I was going to meet friends, my boyfriend was the jealous type, and so on. But instead, I responded simply, just as hooks suggests: I smiled and said "Oh, no thank you. But thanks for asking." I think my smile and directness sent a clear message while still seeming kind. He wasn't compelled to ask "Well, what about tomorrow night?" or any other follow-up question, and he seemed disarmed by my directness. We parted on friendly terms, and I could enjoy my solitary wanderings with a sense of empowerment, rather than guilt. Memories like this make me wonder how lying has come to seem like the only option to so many people, myself included.
And, as hooks points out, the detrimental effects of widespread duplicity are much more serious than this. Messages in the mass media and popular culture (particularly TV, movies, and "romance guildes" like The Rules) teach us that women are expected to be manipulative and deceitful in order to "snare Mr. Right," whereas men are expected to be untruthful in their denial of a need for love and affection. Such behavior becomes normalized: just part of the mass of small, "natural" lies we're expected to tell in the course of a day. Of course such socialization impedes peoples' ability to connect honestly with one another. Seen in this larger context, and despite the fact that my primary relationships are already very open, honest and loving, hooks has convinced me to take a long, hard look at my impulses toward dishonesty for the sake of ease or social comfort.
Not every chapter in All About Love was as mind-blowing for me as the first few. There were places I disagreed with her, and a few distracting generalizations that made me wonder about the research backing her up. She claims, for example, that "most" American adults did not have genuine love modeled for them in their families of origin, but instead received a dysfunctional combination of care and abuse or neglect (which was apparently the case in her own family). Having grown up one of the lucky ones, raised by parents who modeled constructive, truly loving practices for me and taught me self-love, boundary-setting, and the need to take responsibility for my actions, I wonder what the statistics are on how many people get what I had as a kid. I'm ready to believe hooks's claim that a majority go without, but since I would have guessed differently, I'd like to see some figures confirming it.
Nevertheless, All About Love was thoughtful, well-written, and provocative. It gave me a solid framework in which to think about the act of loving, and even changed my behavior, which I can't say about many books, even fantastic ones. I'm sure I'll be returning to hooks's thoughts on love frequently in the future.
(All About Love was my eighth book for the 9 for 2009 Challenge.)