The key to love: bell hooks has an idea

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As I’ve been reading bell hooks’ book “All About Love,” I’ve been wondering why we don’t do more to educate each other about love. Everyone needs love. We all want to feel loved and share love. It’s a mid-foundational part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And yet, as hooks points out, we are living in a perpetually loveless society. It would seem that the reason we have chosen not to educate people about love is because we don’t really know what love … is.

hooks’ definition of love comes earlier in the book than the chapter on greed, but I will place it here for you to ponder: “Love is ‘a combination of trust, commitment, care, respect, knowledge and responsibility’” (54).

When I first read this definition, I instantly wrote it down on a sticky note and pasted it on the bulletin board above my desk in my dorm. I had never heard love so clearly defined before. When I say “I love you” to people, this is what it is supposed to mean. I had to examine myself: I don’t think that I have always given all six parts of love to my friendships and relationships.

hooks reveals that currently, in American society, “things matter more than people” (105). Our cultural values, specifically our capitalistic consumer ones, actively work against love and what hooks calls a “love ethic.” hooks talks the reader through the latter half of the 20th century’s wars, explaining that the massive loss of loved ones at the same time as economic growth made it easy for Americans to replace the desire for love with the desire for money. The desperation of post-war America left many loveless (107-113).

We have obviously, as an American society, seen the erosion of the church with the conclusion of the 20th century, and it continues to erode. This comes with many pros but also many cons, as our general American culture no longer has large-scale communities questioning morality. However, it would seem that, according to hooks, “the church and temple became places where materialistic ethic was supported and rationalized” (109). Sermons and homilies were modified by clergy to rationalize materialistic gain as an endeavor for good. hooks therefore doesn’t call for a return to organized religion, but more so an examination of what caused religion to fail in a post-Vietnam America. hooks claims that it was because of the church’s ability to rationalize consumerism as a concept of love, which it is not. 

hooks states that what is worshiped now is money. At this point in time, it is evident that many of us would do almost anything for more money. Do you think you wouldn’t? Just increase the amount, and I bet there would be a point where you would. Our desperation for monetary satisfaction means that “ethical values are eroded by the intensity of longing and lack” (110). Our culture’s inability to share resources reveals that many feel even more longing and lack than others, and are fearful to have to share and feel it even more. Yet, as hooks mentions, even the wealthy desire more money. We’ve seen this in our current society frequently. It’s never quite enough. hooks calls this longing for more money “a psychological state of endless craving” and notes that “it keeps us unable to love” (111). 

What hooks is claiming, then, is that love cannot exist in a consumer culture; our consumer culture is creating an increasingly loveless society. Therefore, we have started to treat our relationships the same way we treat objects; we have started to dehumanize ourselves and others. We have started to “condone, either actively or passively, the exploitation and dehumanization of ourselves and others” (121). How often have you heard a well-meaning friend advise you to get out of a relationship that isn’t instantly satisfying your desires? What hooks says, then, is that “genuine love is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know genuine love, we have to invest time and commitment” (114). How are you supposed to truly love someone, and receive love, when you have tunnel vision towards your own needs?

hooks calls out our culture for treating relationships and other people as disposable, as materialistic. We often fall prey to “cancel culture,” even when we think we don’t. We are short on grace. We do not want to forgive someone who has wronged us, and instead of labeling their actions and choices as bad, we label the whole person “bad.” Obviously, there are times where physical boundaries are necessary. But how many times have our relationships or friendships actually ended in a way that necessitated cutting off? My guess is significantly fewer than we currently like to believe. hooks says: “Committed bonds (including marriage) cannot last when this [discarding logic] is the prevailing logic. And friendships or loving community cannot be valued or sustained” (116).

I know I have felt what hooks is talking about. I have lost friendships and relationships wherein I thought love could be preserved if we only had a conversation instead of cutting off all contact. I have also been on the other side and cut off people in the past, thinking that they were disposable. I have fallen prey to consumer culture, thinking more about my individual gain than the good of all and the desire to love and be loved. And yet, it seems that these types of actions do not really facilitate real love, including real self-love.

If we re-examine hooks’ definition of love and apply it to ourselves, we can create self-love. Those are the ingredients: trust in ourselves, care for ourselves, commitment to ourselves, respect for ourselves, knowledge of ourselves and responsibility to ourselves. I personally have been working on trusting myself more, even before I read this book. Caring for ourselves, or self-care, is probably the most overinflated word in our culture right now. Discussions on real, true self-love and care are few and far between — hooks has provided that.What, then, is the solution to creating real love?

hooks asks us to live simply. For us to let go of our materialistic longings. This may create some discomfort — the desire we feel for things and money often replaces our desire for love, safety, care and other emotional needs that are harder to satisfy because they take much more time to develop. hooks also calls us to share resources, which is probably one of the hardest things you could ask of American culture. It is going to be difficult to do. hooks acknowledges that we’d have to start “changing and reorganizing our existing system in ways that would affirm the values of peace and love, or democracy and justice” (121). This has proven difficult, and often creates fear — if we share our resources, won’t we have to make do with less? However, as hooks says, “a world of domination is always a world without love” (123).

Perhaps we can start living more simply ourselves. What really matters in a culture is what happens in daily life. If we can start sharing our resources and living simply in our daily lives, perhaps our culture can shift even more than we can imagine. I challenge you, alongside myself, this Spring Term to think about intentionally letting go of some of your materialistic desires and starting to reach out to your community in a loving way. How can you live more simply? How can you cultivate love?

Note: There is much, much more in this chapter and in the book “All About Love.” This has been a brief examination and sharing through the lens of Casey Joan Kollman of “Chapter Seven – Greed: Simply Love” by bell hooks.