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Monday, March 15, 2021

Love as Another Way of Being: Spiritual Wisdom from bell hooks | by Eva Whittaker

Some days, it feels as if my feet are on shifting sands. We are facing different crises on many fronts in our shared life. A global pandemic making wealth and health disparities, as well as our deep disconnection from each other, all the more clear. A profound sense of isolation. The history and present crisis of racial and social inequity and oppression, pushing us to live the questions of what an ethical and equitable society might look like. Just to name a few.

I’ve been reflecting on what it looks like to live my values right now. And I often feel as though I’m looking for some sort of hope or clarity, in any form really, to meet this moment. Spiritual practices like lovingkindness meditation or walking in the woods help me to restore some balance, but it’s almost inevitable to eventually feel the weight of isolation from our beloved communities or the sense that our lives are on pause. In this time, reading bell hooks’ All About Love feels like a tonic, and a sacred text. In this book, she writes wisely and incisively about community and about love as an active force in our lives.

hooks illuminates with incredible precision the crises we face as what she terms a ‘loveless’ society, and the importance of reorienting our shared lives toward a ‘love ethic’. She tells us that love is something more expansive, more persuasive than the ‘love’ society romanticizes, physicalizes and idealizes. Instead, she names love as a necessary embodiment of care, responsibility, compassion, humility, and integrity in every aspect of our lives. It involves cultivating personal and social awareness, which "enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn".

In a society which does not promote this expansive understanding of love, we are left divided and out of touch. hooks writes incisively about the consequences of this lovelessness, and how it promotes fear of difference and intense disconnection. But “when we choose to love we choose to move against fear - against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect - to find ourselves in the other”. This is wisdom many different religious and spiritual traditions impart, too. How we locate ourselves lovingly in relation to one another is empowering, and profoundly spiritual.

Seen clearly, this love is a transformative force which enhances our communal relationships, cultivates spiritual growth, and gives us different values to live by. Drawing on her own wisdom, and the wisdom of spiritual thinkers like Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr, she writes that embracing and enacting love is a profoundly spiritual way of being – as well as something inherently political and necessarily communal. hooks writes, “we can collectively regain our faith in the transformative power of love by cultivating courage, the strength to stand up for what we believe in, to be accountable both in word and deed." This embrace of love is equally a commitment to a spiritual life for hooks, which requires “conscious practice, [and] a willingness to unite the way we think with the way we act”. This choice, to ‘walk our talk’, is a life founded on a “commitment to a way of thinking and behaving that honors principles of inter-being and interconnectedness.”

The way hooks emphasizes this courage and compassion as necessary elements of living by a love ethic reminds me of Interfaith Philadelphia’s motto, ‘Dare to Understand’. She writes of love like it’s a well, an aquifer – out of which flows hope and energy, strength and renewal, if we choose courageously (against the received ‘wisdom’ of our loveless society) to tap it. She teaches us "to remember that though our paths are many, we are made one community in love.” This is the ethos of interfaith work, and of building bridges of solidarity and trust across different ideologies and faith traditions, in order to create a more loving society. Reminding us of our responsibility to each other, and the spiritual nourishment that love provides, hooks illuminates another way of being for this time and all time. She gives us an expansive understanding of how to meet this moment of separation and suffering with equal strength and tenderness. I am so grateful for her wisdom, and her ability to see a long-view of our life together, which grounds me in hope.

If you want to read more about the impact of bell hooks’  broader oeuvre, find a wonderful commentary and 'starter kit' here. Thanks to Chelsea and my fellow interns for exploring parts of this text with me.

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