It is important to note that, as this book was published in 2001 – when the conversation about love really started between men and women in the cultural world – bell hooks mainly studies heterosexual couples, basing herself on the way they were raised to behave. Of course, we all carry a different balance of masculine and feminine energies within ourselves and some will recognise themselves in what bell hooks describes as a male behaviour, while others will identify to the feminine, independently of what we have been taught about genders. This article focuses on what we have been shaped to believe about ourselves and each other – something we finally seem to confront – and how it can still impact our relationship to love.
I will tell you right away: this is not a woman writing about romantic ideals and fantasies. We assume – merci sexist thinking – that a woman talking about love is automatically yearning for a man. To paraphrase bell hooks, we are here talking about love with an intellectual and philosophical interest, trying to understand the metaphysical meaning of love in everyday life, beyond the fantasy of an effortless union. Love as the commitment to understand someone else selflessly, to help each other on our individual journeys.
Love as the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.
In All About Love, bell hooks encourage men and women to move beyond the acceptance of their different love language (based on the principle that we have mostly internalised those languages in patriarchy) to build a bridge and learn how to communicate lovingly. Free from apprehension, expectations and misconceptions about each other, we can truly delve into our connections. Often, we simply resign without seeking ways of understanding each other, which causes us to stagnate. ‘That’s just how men/women are’ is probably the most harmful and untrue thought in any kind of relationship. Men are not indifferent; women are not neurotic. It is high time we move passed those stereotypes we have been taught about each other in order to meet our true selves. This process of going beyond the societal lies and learned patterns demands a lot of work, responsibility and open hearts. It demands that we be ready for what will (re)surface in ourselves and in the other; ready to welcome with love whatever will appear to us.
Although there has been a noticeable change in the conversation about love over the past few years, it remains a subject narrowed down to a gendered role play we are and keep ourselves conditioned to. If love has no gender, some behavioural patterns rooted in the way we have been brought up seem too often persist. We are accepting the parts patriarchy assigned us, unaware of how to challenge them. Women, attentive to the transformative power of love and eager to experience it, may lose themselves in relationships in which there is little reciprocity, raised to believe that caring for a man no matter how badly he treats her is actually a proof of love. In fact, bell hooks argues that the real act of love should be to the woman herself, by walking away from a partnership that does not allow equality, in which there is no space for true love nor growth. For it is important to understand that there is no place for love where there is carelessness or indifference, as true love is an act of will to actively participate in each other’s growth. It is a conscious choice to care.
Men, at the other end of this role play, are afraid of emotional intimacy and get lost in power struggles, likely to choose a life of lovelessness, going from a fling to another, rather than doing the work vulnerability requires. Patriarchy teaches men that they are superior to women and the terrible price they pay to maintain ‘power over’ us is the loss of their capacity to give and receive love. There is no place for true love where there is a will to dominate or control. In this painful and dangerous perspective, love and vulnerability become synonyms of weakness, while they are, in reality, the strengths that open the doors of true love and understanding, creating a safe place for both partners to explore themselves and each other. It takes strength and consistency to do the emotional work that this kind of intimacy requires which most men won’t experience to its fullest. By teaching men that love will make them weak, patriarchy teaches them to distrust their own emotions and partners, encouraging them to keep to themselves and hold back, seeing their loved one as a threat or an obstacle. By not sharing those feelings, they not only prevent themselves to work through these issues with the help of their partner, but maintain a climate of alienation made of unspoken words and emotions that will only widen the gap between men and women.
To challenge patriarchy, men need to return to love by repudiating the will to dominate. Only as equals, rid of the cliché that there is a dominant in the relationship, can we start our journey to selfless love. Ready to commit to transparency and the importance of communication, we move beyond fear and open ourselves to mutual growth, fear being something to overcome, never follow.
A disregarded evidence of the transformative power of love is that the connection between two people who commit themselves to experience that bond deeply, can accelerate their individual growth. Understanding another’s heart while facing our own teaches us how to love everyone else. As we experience the challenging balance of committing to someone while remaining an independent being, we learn how to love the whole world. All awakening to love is spiritual; when a soul awakens to love, it helps the souls around them in their own awakening. Once we have found true love within ourselves, we can accept and welcome what we find in others without ever depending on it. By doing this work of self-love and healing, we help the other on their own path. We are not two halves meant to be completed but two wholes helping each other to embrace our respective purpose. While most people are afraid to lose their independence in a relationship, love is actually not about codependency but interconnectedness. When we understand that true love is free, we can encourage each other to find what we have been looking for within ourselves, not in the other. Love inspires independence while being interconnected.
In these pages lies the start of the greatest conversation. I believe that if men are willing to do the emotional work and women to create the space for them to do so, we will come to a better way of loving each other. Beyond this binary perspective, bell hooks’ words echo to all kind of relationships, to love in its universality.
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. … most people remain reluctant to embrace the idea that it is more genuine, more real, to think of choosing to love rather than falling in love.
All About Love presents love as an action, the key to freedom in its selfless practice. As a choice, it becomes the most powerful and spiritual space in which souls can evolve and grow, fondly curious about each other, to become themselves to the fullest, individually and together.