In bell hooks All About Love, the widely celebrated feminist author offers a profound meditation on the true nature of love across a variety of contexts. Doing away with easy platitudes or throwaway advice, the author endeavors to—through the study of some of the world’s greatest philosophical and clinical minds as well as through personal ethnography—arrive at a working definition of love which first helps the reader to recognize what it is and what it is not, and then encourages the reader to develop an ethic of love which they can take with them into the stories of their own lives.
I encountered bell hooks’ work at an emotionally turbulent time in my life in which everything seemed to be working out for me materially—I’d weathered a challenging time in my professional career and come out on the other side more aware of my worth and better able to articulate it to those I labor alongside, made significant strides in building a business with trusted friends, was continuing to build a modestly successful consultancy of my own, and had just finished a challenging semester of teaching that ended in unexpected gratitude from students who I worked hard for even as I doubted myself every step of the way.
Yet, while my professional fortunes were yielding many happy returns, I found myself experiencing a crisis of meaning. Many of the important personal relationships in my life seemed to be failing in some way or the other. I could not successfully make the case that people I was sure that I loved should endeavor to love me back—least of all in the ways I felt I wanted (and could never admit to say I needed) them to. Worse still, even as I found myself achieving all of the things I’d told myself would bring me great validation and joy, I could not help but notice that my relationship with myself had taken a turn for the worst, as I noticed a weekly pattern of falling into an inconsolably maudlin state, withdrawing completely from my life outside of work, questioning my every expression and fearing that sharing any thought or feeling would somehow render me inadequate in the eyes of my peers, loved ones and those that looked up to me, and then searching for ways to change so that I could occupy a veneered state of being that was more “ideal” to onlookers and consequently more worthy of love.
Almost compulsively I began trying to document my every public victory, to perpetually present my most desirable self, to erase evidence of my missteps and to force myself into a framework of living performance that I hoped would allow me to be all of the things to everyone who I ever knew or cared about simultaneously in the deluded hope that I could keep up this act of shape shifting while spinning plates with all hands forever.
This worked for a while.
But eventually, I would exhaust the willpower needed to exercise such heavy handed control in managing the ideal self. I would then fly off the rails into a wildly manic episode where I’d take on yet another project or a trip or some other diversion to make myself feel better about how profoundly dissatisfied I felt about not being happier despite having so much of what I had always wanted, which would then be succeeded by a long, overly reflective episode about how unloved and unlovable I still felt. Key relationships in my life—or what I thought were key relationships—would suffer or collapse completely as I navigated this lonesome cycle of driving myself into burnout and then trying to crawl my way out of it not through self care, but instead through force.
I was so sure that I was giving everything I had, and some things I didn’t. I was bankrupting my spirit to feel worthy of other people’s approbation (though people regularly assured me I had it without my asking) and, more importantly, to feel like I could occupy the superstructure of self I have tirelessly spent my life creating. I felt like I couldn’t fill my own shoes adequate. It made me feel vulnerable. That vulnerability—the idea that I could be defeated so easily by myself when I had accomplished so much and given myself so much to lose; that I could no longer match the bravado and self-assurance that had carried me far from home and into the arms of opportunity time and time again—seemed at the time like a fatal weakness that was the unvarnished proof that I did not deserve anything that I had worked for. Even if I had it, I became convinced it was a sham in some way, and my pain was therefore the deserved reward for my ill-gotten life.
As part of my regular cycle of doing too damned much, I forced myself to read All About Love because it had finally made it to the top of my never ending reading list. While I had expected this to be a strictly academic exercise, I instead found a a confrontation with my own delusions about what love of others and self delivered in detail that started off as painful but soon turned into real, actionable hope.
When hooks detailed the common ways people cope with a lost sense of control in their sentimental lives and resorted to loveless, ruthless behaviors—but spoke to the value of trying to resurrect the promise of love (defined, in paraphrase, as the commitment to an ethic of feeling and conduct that demonstrates genuine commitment to the emotional/spiritual nourishment of self and others), I began to understand the myriad failed relationships in my past which had been so defined by trying to sacrifice until giving turned into resentment and my eventual self-exile from the contexts in which these behaviors took place were less manifestations of something that was fundamentally lacking in me or “wrong with the world” and were instead manifestations of unmanaged expectations led to their sensible conclusions. When I read about the difference between love and cathexis, I realized that many contexts that I thought were loving and sentimental were instead cycles of manic chaos followed by painful lessons only half-learned. When I read that most people never learned to practice love for the self and others (because who can learn without consciousness and intention,, really)—rather than to simply suspect that they felt it—it dawned on me that I had much to learn about how to be loving in my relationships. I needed to learn to give to others not to “get” or to be seen, but just because I could. I needed to love myself as passionately as I had thought I loved others, and more so, so that I was better equipped to give and, more importantly, so that I could actually take care of myself rather than making moves in my life that pushed me toward an ideal self I soon came to realize I’d never loved, and was simply obsessed with as a self-creation myth that would miraculously deliver me from the despair of not really knowing what love was or what it really meant to be “worthy” of it.
hooks advocated for the necessity of making all forms of love, but self love especially, an intentional practice. She suggested that this ethic of love must be articulated not just through deeds, but also through patience, acts of reassurance, and verbalized affirmations that would better prime us to believe in our worthiness of compassion and our ability to share in it. Skeptical as I was of these notions, something changed in me as I discovered new possibilities within myself in her words, and I decided: I must begin to practice an ethic of love within myself and my community that I only suspected (mindlessly) i’d attempted before.
To that end, I have begun in recent months unlearning my precious conceptions of love and worthiness. Moreover, I have endeavored to learn and practice the real, legitimately defined love I have learned about. I have begun to treat myself and others more compassionately, to seek out warmth for myself in the face of my mistakes, to offer love and reassurance to myself and others when vulnerability reads its head, and to more readily affirm that I do deserve to feel love—love that starts with me. And so do you, my friend, whose life I write into from this page.
I am here to tell you that you are a force of nature, and that not everyone will be equipped to understand all the multitudes within you. Some will have affection for what they can see and touch and understand, but others will fear your storms and the way your emotionally ecology changes over time.
I am here to tell you that this is just fine, and to warn you not to endeavor to make yourself seem smaller or less complex than you truly are. To do so would be contrary to your nature, and while you will not succeed, the effort might injure you as you try to stuff something so infinite in its potential into an ill-fitting life.
I am here to tell you that you are not too much or too little. That you have the right to laugh at your mistakes and love yourself even as you learn from them. That the pains you have endured in the night times of your life will be followed by joy when the day breaks, and that you are invited on this day to choose faith over self-imposed lovelessness. I am here to tell you that you have a friend and lover who has waited all your life to meet you, so that they might tell you of all your worthiness and guide you to greater love and joy—the kind that is boundless and self-replicating. That friend exists within you, and you will find them as you implement an ethic of love in your every day thinking and activities.
Lean into your vastness. You are worthy. Speak it every day and learn to believe it.
From your friend and with great love,
P.S. You can find bell hooks pivotal text by clicking here, or preferably by shopping at the local bookstore of your choosing.