Modern America lacks a true love ethic. Writers like M. Scott Peck and Bell Hooks argue that our confusion about love stems from an inability to see love as an action rather than a noun, and the confusion of romance and sex with love. Instead, they argue that true love is based on choice and the desire to nurture the self or another spiritually.
Hooks specifically argues that much of our confusion about love stems from our paternalistic culture that teaches men that to love is to be weak and inferior. As such, love has become associated with what is feminine and weak in our culture. In their works, June Jordan and Sonia Sanchez describe the gamut of what is considered love in our culture, from the sensual and romantic, to the understanding that love of humanity can help create a more meaningful and functional relationship with ourselves, others, and the environment.
Within our patriarchal society, power and domination essentially quash any hope of a true love ethic taking root in our society. Men are taught that to be vulnerable to love is weak, and that a desire or need for love is a feminine characteristic. As such, men often learn only the expression of interest in sexual pleasure is a manly pursuit. To many such men, talking about love and admitting the need for love in one’s life is a clear invitation to be seen as weak and worthless as a man. As such, many men find themselves unable to acknowledge, understand, or express their need for love. Further, they are unable to see a woman as a partner in such a search, and often male-female relationships are based upon inequalities of power that place the man in a superior position. In essence, today’s society often places the need for power above the need for love.
Today, most people think of love as a noun, rather than as a verb. To most people, love is a concrete entity, a thing that exists. When they say “I love you,” they mean that their love exists, and that it is a feeling that they own. To love someone is not an action, but is instead a state of being, and almost a possession that one can hold onto. Often, love is associated with concrete, materialistic and often superficial things like a marriage band, flowers, or even heart-shaped candies.
This common understanding of love as a noun is profoundly flawed. Love is an ever-changing, constantly renewing, action. It cannot and does not remain static, and the very idea that it can be possessed is entirely contradictory to its fundamental nature. Love grows and expands, ebbs and flows, and is in constant change, and to see act as a noun defiles the idea of true love.
Love should be considered as a verb, or an action. True love is an experience of being, and action of the heart, instead of a property or a “thing” that can be possessed. Love is essentially the act of loving, the act of generosity of spirit and heart. Love can only be shared with another individual and can never be found in material things. Essentially, love is only found in the heart, and the definition of flowers and heart-shaped chocolates of love is absurd and demeaning to the idea of love. At best, these are pale symbols of love, and action of giving and caring between individuals.
It seems that there are many problems with the idea of love in modern society. Love is often seen as a material thing, a noun, or crushed by the paternalistic need for power and domination. Is it possible to truly love in our society? This asked, it is important to understand the definition of true love in order to move towards and understanding of whether love is at all possible in the modern word.
In her book, All About Love: New Visions, echoing the words of M. Scott Peck and Erich Fromm, Bell Hooks argues that true love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” To Hooks, love is spiritual and redemptive. It can redeem humankind itself, and offers a profound power of healing. She writes, “When angels speak of love they tell us it is only by loving that we enter an earthly paradise…They tell us paradise is our home and love our true destiny.”
In her book, Hooks argues that love in America has largely been defined by men who fear the power and spirituality of love, and undermine the value of love. As a result, love in America has largely been defined in forms of domination, aggression, control, ego and even gender stereotypes. Hooks notes that modern America has often suffered from the confusion of both sex and the sentimental feelings of romance as love. She writes, “Dictionary definitions of love tend to emphasize romantic love, defining love first and foremost as ‘profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person, especially when based on sexual attraction.'” Similarly, she notes that men “tend to be more concerned about sexual performance and sexual satisfaction than whether they are capable of giving and receiving love.” At the same time, she notes that love is much more than society’s ideas of love as sex or romance.
Instead, Hooks suggests that love is transformative, and should be based on respect, affection, and commitment. To her, love is deeply tied to care and recognition of the other individual. Compassion, openness and forgiveness also play an important role in Hooks’ understanding of true love. Importantly, Hooks sees love as more of “an action rather than a feeling.”
To Hooks, love is the root of justice itself. Further, true love is necessary in order to overcome America’s sense of spiritual emptiness. It is only in overcoming the paternalistic fear of love that Americans can hope to accept their “true destiny.” She notes, “To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients-care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.” In Hooks’ view, love is a healing action that can bring about justice and spiritual growth in society as well as on an individual level.
Ultimately, Bell Hooks allows us to develop a profoundly different vision of love than the one generally accepted in American society, and understand that love can transcend the personal and familial and reach out to humanity.
For Hooks, love of the self, environment and the rest of humanity can be an agent for compassion and social change.
In The Road Less Traveled, 25th Anniversary Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, M. Scott Peck also delves into the definition of true love. It is from his book that Hooks derives her definition of love itself. Peck goes further, noting “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.” This is a profound revelation, and goes a long way to describing the true nature of love. In essence, love is based upon the choice to love.
Peck notes that life is often difficult and challenging, and the road to understanding love is often marred by many setbacks and difficulties. Peck sees an understanding of the self as the ultimate purpose of the individual life. The importance of struggle in obtaining self-actualization is seen in his opening line, “Life is difficult.” To Peck, understanding comes only through discipline and self-sacrifice. Similarly, and understanding an appreciation of love can only come through similar self-analysis. In this, Peck implicitly scorns the common notion that love will come in the shape of a prince on a white horse, and that romantic love can “save” the individual. To Peck, love is not an effortless falling in love; it is instead a choice to love, and the effort to live out this choice.
Is it possible to truly love in our society? Writers Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan reveal a great deal about love in their works. Sanchez and Jordan describe love in a natural sense, and give us a good indication of what true love actually is through their works, and give us hope that it is possible to truly love.
In Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums, Sonia Sanchez creates engaging poems that define the many faces of love. To Sanchez, love is alternatively vulnerable, disappointed, unequal, profoundly beautiful, aching, and even dreamlike. In her poem, Dancing, she writes:
dreamt I was tangoing with you, you held me so close we were like the singing coming off the drums.
A you made me squeeze muscles lean back on the sound of corpuscles sliding in blood.
I heard my thighs singing.” (3)
Sanchez’ poetry also expresses the profound inequality that is often seen in love. She describes the feeling of being left behind by a loved one who has promised freedom and exhilaration in a shared adventure in Haiku:
you ask me to run naked in the streets with you
I am holding your purse.” (4)
In Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays, June Jordan also writes about the nature of love. Her prose is focused on trying to make the world a better place through love. Often, Jordan’s expression of love in this book is a criticism of American actions in the larger world, and comments on gender and racial equality, as well as the dangers to democracy in the United States, and arrogance that often underlies humankind’s actions. Jordan is outspoken in her feminist views, and speaks at length about the male need to dominate, often through the personal recounting of her own rapes. Like many other feminists, she sees this need to dominate as a symptom of the patriarchal system of rule in America that results in gender and racial inequalities. To Jordan, an expression for love for humanity is action to make the world a better place. After all, she notes that “some of us did not die” in the tragic events of September 11th, and it is up to those who did not die to make the world a better place through a love of humanity itself.
The works of Sanchez and Jordan reveal a great deal of the complexity of love. Jordan’s works focus more deeply on the feelings of love, and often reinforce some of the stereotypes of love as sexual (“i heard my thighs singing”). Nonetheless, her works paint a very real and complex portrait of the emotional human experience of love.
In contrast, June Jordan’s work delves more deeply into the idea of love as tied intimately to choice, compassion, and responsibility. In her discussion of the patriarchal basis of many inequalities, she echoes Hooks’ concerns that domination and power supersede the possibility of love. In this sense, Jordan’s book provides a real roadmap of how to love in a larger cultural sense than either Peck of Hook.
Ultimately, the works of Hook, Peck and Jordan argue strongly that it is truly possible to love in our society, despite the absence of a true love ethic in modern America. Peck stresses that such a revelation will likely take commitment and work, and Hook herself notes that importance of challenging many long-held beliefs to come to a true understanding of love in today’s world. For example, to understand love, Hook convincingly argues that we must be willing to challenge many of our deeply held beliefs that love is somehow effeminate and weak, and also challenge our understanding that love is based primarily on sexual desire or romantic feelings.
On the surface, Hook’s definition of love seems less than engaging, as she and Peck use words like “will” and “spiritual growth” in their definition of love. Nonetheless, their definition of love does provide a means of seeing love as an extension of the self, and as a specific action that takes into consideration the needs of other individuals. To Peck and Hook, love is based upon ideas like commitment, understanding, will, sacrifice, compassion, affection, and spiritual growth. These are difficult concepts in a world that often focuses on the easy answer. As Peck writes, “most do not see this truth that life is difficult,” and as such, the work of love is seen as tedious and somehow not worth the effort. In the end, this type of thinking can only be perpetrated by someone who has not felt real love or joy in their lives, and does not understand the tremendous power of a true action of love that is based upon meeting the spiritual growth or needs of the self or of another.
Given the importance of discipline and hard work in redefining our understanding of love, is there any real hope that modern America, as a whole, will learn to embrace a true love ethic. Possibly. In my experience, there is a growing understanding among my friends that there is something missing in their lives. Most have financial security of a sort, and loving families, and yet they feel a deep disconnection with the world about them, and sometimes this disconnection both with their families and themselves. An understanding of the true nature of love could propel these individuals to seek a deeper understanding and action of love in their lives.
In conclusion, love is an often misunderstood and complex phenomenon. In modern America, love is often confused with sex and romanticism, and as a result our nation lacks a true love ethic. Writers like Bell Hooks and M. Scott Peck provide a powerful way to redefine love as an action, rather than a feeling, based on compassion, understanding, discipline, and sacrifice. While this may not be a popular understanding of love, it does help to provide June Jordan with a powerful basis for learning to make the world better through a love of humanity itself.
Jordan, June. 2003. Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays. BasicCivitas Books
Hooks, Bell. 2001. All About Love: New Visions. Perennial.
Peck, M. Scott. 2003. The Road Less Traveled, 25th Anniversary Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. Touchstone Books.
Sanchez, Sonia. 1999. Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums. Beacno Press.
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