Lessons From “All About Love”

With incredible momentum right now around nurturing a more just and loving world, I recently found myself revisiting All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks.

Gloria Watkins, aka bell hooks (image source)

In All About Love, hooks explores how a desire for love has entangled with an obsession for power in the mainstream imagination. Its form is so diverse that it permeates multiple aspects of American society, from fear-provoking mass media to our exploitative capitalist economy. To this central point, she writes on the importance of reimagining our understanding of love and fully committing to its daily practice. Under these conditions, we can then fully harness love’s transformative power in our lives and communities. 

I first read All About Love in early January, which marked roughly six months into a new chapter where significant events seemed to rapidly unfold. After graduating from college, I went from teaching design thinking to high schoolers to frequently being the youngest voice in Baltimore’s social entrepreneurship ecosystem. Whether new or existing, relationships that grew during this time felt notably fresh and restorative. And I, too, was changing. As the foundations of healthier bonds were forming in my professional and personal life, I became more curious about how relationships inevitably transform our identities and worldviews.

More recently, I’ve been wondering how this dynamic relates to the renewed emphasis on community-driven solutions as an antidote to social injustices in the United States: How can we reimagine outdated ideas to shift our realities? How can we each commit to radical transformation, and therefore enhance our capacity to relate authentically to one another? And how do we heal together to work towards a kinder world for future generations? My immediate thoughts remind me that love inherently drives these acts of courage.

The following is a window into the rest of my processing, inspired and guided by the ingenuity of bell hooks:

  1. We possess the power to redirect how love takes shape in our lives 

“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… 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.” – M. Scott Peck

Primarily drawing from the work of M. Scott Peck and Erich Fromm, hooks builds on the importance of defining love as a verb versus a noun. Understanding love as a verb demands a level of accountability that love defined as a noun doesn’t. To say one falls in love, for example, suggests that love is a danger zone; something we cannot opt-out of when we recognize a given relationship or situation is unhealthy for us. 

Yet in making this small shift in our perception, we can reclaim self-agency over our lives. I felt especially enlightened after reading this because therapy helped me notice a tendency to self-victimize in my past. That version of me developed a sense of helplessness, failing to recognize that in believing that confusion was just how love manifests, I stripped myself of my power to change my reality.

I now reexamine my relationship history with a renewed understanding of love as a concrete manifestation of actions. In doing so, I’ve gotten better at objectively seeing how I contributed to relationships where I felt unhappy, which ultimately reinforced negative internalized beliefs. Although it’s always challenging to admit our roles in our past–especially within more painful memories–in many ways, I now feel empowered, knowing that I can choose a different set of actions in the future. 

There’s reassurance in knowing it’s my responsibility, and mine only, to form healthier and more loving relationships in my life if that’s what I wish to see. And there’s hope in knowing that when we own our roles in perpetuating harmful systems in society, we can reclaim our power to contribute to social change.

  1. We heal our ancestral wounds when we face our shadows and choose authenticity 

One Sunday last November, I spontaneously got two tattoos after getting brunch with Clarissa, a dear friend of mine. I decided that I’d do it if the tattoo shop was taking walk-ins that day, and luckily for me, they were. 

On my left inner wrist is the number four in roman numerals–my lucky number and a marker of my April 4 birthday. The other reads, “Veritas,” which is Latin for “truth.” This phrase comprises the motto of my primary school in Birmingham, England, and my college alma mater. Although a subtle coincidence, it still connects the locations of two formative environments in my life, a gentle reminder of the divine continuity that continues to underlie everything I experience.  

This particular tattoo also represents my guiding principle in life: always seek authenticity and choose myself first. The day I got these tattoos was one where I felt very me–I allowed my impulsive nature to shine, unbound by what my conservative parents might think. And most importantly, I got to experience the joy this moment brought with Clarissa, someone I deeply admire and share countless fond memories with. 

I mention this story because there were many times in my upbringing where I didn’t honor my truth in order to feel loved by others. Hooks frequently cites how we learn to lie in childhood–both to others and ourselves–to avoid conflict and/or disappoint our parents. I find that in my writing and self-introspection, the suppression of my artistic nature to meet my immigrant mother’s ideas around success speaks directly to this notion. This internal struggle was further compounded by the fact that in my household, we didn’t talk openly about our emotions, never mind discuss how to process them.  

On a car ride with Kelsey, another one of my closest friends, we recently spoke about how this dynamic manifests as mutual discomfort around expressing our emotions as young adults. We both mentioned how at best, any conversation in our home about our feelings instead encouraged us to dismiss them: we learned to power through negative emotions, or better yet, pretend that they didn’t exist.

I’m sure that the heavy emphasis placed on pushing one’s feelings aside didn’t begin with my parents. And I say this to acknowledge that our ancestors–enduring centuries of colonialism and imperialism–created a false self in more grave ways to survive. They took on last names, religions and more that weren’t ours. The consequences of not doing so were too big of a risk. For me, this mirrors our inner child’s nature. Hooks writes that as children, we’ll do what it takes to receive love from our parents because our well-being depends on it. Even if that means internalizing the pain of lying to ourselves and pretending to be someone we aren’t.

I see the practice of authenticity as an act of liberation that not only honors my being, but also those that came before me. Allowing our true selves to take up space–irrespective of others’ opinions and reactions–is to live in a way that also grants justice and peace to our predecessors; those whose sacrifices gifted us with the opportunity for self-actualization.

  1. We can disrupt the status quo and create a new world by embracing a love ethic 

Healing doesn’t occur in a vacuum–we’re in a moment that demands everyone participate for real societal transformation.

Over the past few months there have been days where I’ve felt overwhelmed, anxious, confused, stuck, depressed—the whole spectrum of more challenging emotions that I’d conditioned myself to run away from. Yet as the global pandemic necessitated that we stay put for our collective well-being, I’ve been able to sit intimately with my emotions and show greater self-compassion to the more tender sides of myself. The parts of me that learned from a young age to marry my sense of self-worth with my productivity. That shamed myself for my sensitive nature, and that grew emotionally unavailable in my pursuit of relationships and material success that I believed would solve my troubles.

In my eyes, the personal revolution happening within us is a microcosm of what’s happening in society at-large. Not only is going about business as usual unsustainable, but this conditioning also continues to grant the so-called American Dream on a discriminatory basis. 

Hooks attributes our societal inability to embrace a love ethic to the long history of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy in the United States–systems that were founded on oppositional values of fear, greed, and domination. Built on these principles, its design inherently favors production over peoplehood, equates femininity with weakness, and encourages separateness on the basis of biology. She also emphasizes that “to love fully and deeply puts us at risk.” And it’s precisely because love prompts us to explore our darkness–a skill many of us were not always taught–that choosing love can feel daunting.

Some days these past few months have been challenging. At the same time, I find that they’ve also made me feel the most alive. They’ve gifted me opportunities to practice tending to my heart and embracing the unknown. They’ve given me experiences to share with those I love to exercise vulnerability, compassion, and active listening. I’m now more grateful for each time I share my truth, and someone trusts me enough to learn about theirs.

Hooks says that “there is no better place to learn the art of loving than community.” And with each day in our evolving world, I’m reminded that this is the ultimate truth–the one that’ll grant us the liberation we all seek and deserve.

My well-read and shared copy of All About Love (Jul 2020)

Reading All About Love provided me a language to articulate how a need for power in society has hindered the way we relate to one another. As a result, misunderstandings about love and unhealthy relationship models manifest through American society in multiple ways. Yet hooks’ writing also reminded me that love and community will always be core human needs. They’re critical elements that underlie social movements we see today, and ones that aren’t as out of reach as we were once taught to believe.

And when we commit to unlearning and dismantling such harmful beliefs, we move closer to our vision of a more loving world, and ultimately return to our most authentic selves.