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Ingredients of love

Published: http://www.ascentmagazine.com/articles.aspx?articleID=133&page=read&subpage=past&issueID=24 , Ascent Magazine, Winter, 2004, excerpted from the print magazine

Interview by: juniper glass

bell hooks is fascinated by love. For years, she has looked at love from all directions, and in the course of all this seeking, discovered a contradiction in our understanding of love.

A writer, teacher and cultural critic, bell hooks is best known for her work examining systems of domination, especially racism and patriarchy, and how they may be overcome. She has published more than twenty books, including Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black; Killing Rage: Ending Racism; and Where We Stand: Class Matters. hooks says that uncovering and naming the forms of oppression in our society is an extension of her lifelong curiosity about love and her desire to see love manifested.

“Perhaps the most common false assumption about love is that it means we will not be challenged or changed,” she once wrote in the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun. “When I write provocative social and cultural criticism that causes readers to stretch their minds, to think beyond set paradigms, I think of that work as love in action. While it may challenge, disturb and at times even frighten or enrage readers, love is always the place where I begin and end.”

I spoke with hooks by telephone while she was in Toronto on a lecture tour. She was delighted to focus the conversation on healing and brought her characteristic straight-talking, deep-thinking approach to the subject.

juniper glass How would you define love?

bell hooks Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust. I found that a lot of people just felt really confused about what love is, so I said, here, take these six ingredients and as you go about your life, you can ask: the action I'm taking, does it have these six ingredients?

One point that I would emphasize to people is that it's the combination of the six ingredients that make love, because so many of us have one of the ingredients in our life – like we may be deeply cared for, but we may not be in a situation of trust. To me what's great about these definitions is that they're just very helpful for people in daily life trying to engage in a practice of love.

jg What is the link between healing and loving?

bh Well, it seems to me that all healing is the work of love, because all healing takes place in a context where we wish to promote growth. We wish to engage the organism in ways that people grow stronger. I find myself telling people that my wish for the rest of my life is that all the work I do would be about healing. I want people to heal. My concern is always to link those practices of healing with practices of political resistance.

jg What needs to be healed? Is it the heart, the mind, the spirit?

bh For many of us, whether it's turning toward Buddhism, or like many African American people who have turned toward Yoruba, the healing is a healing into wholeness, moving away from the sense of the self as splintered and fractured and broken. But it's not a healing into perfection. It's not a vision of wholeness that says everything will become right with me. It's an acceptance that says we are, at our core, essentially whole even in the midst of our flaws and our woundedness. And it's an acceptance that includes those flaws and wounds and that includes the embrace of pain.

I think particularly in the Western world, and in the United States especially, people have a vision of healing that is about feeling that you must be free from pain. Other than a vision of healing that says we can restore a sense of balance to our being that may allow us to cope with pain in ways that are restorative. So pain isn't perceived as the enemy but as the point of possibility and transformation.

I think that vision is really hard to keep alive in a culture that's always offering people some kind of drug that promises to take the pain away. So many people that I talk to, young people who are lusting for wealth, imagine that there's some wealth they will achieve that will take pain away in their lives. No matter how much we hear from people who have great wealth about the pain in their lives, people continue to maintain this fiction.

jg Healing implies that something is broken. How can we keep from seeing ourselves too much as victims during the healing process?

bh I think that in a culture like the West that values youth and power so much, the whole idea of being flawed in any way often leads people to embrace victimhood, whether people think they're flawed in the space of race or flawed in the space of gender. And I think the difference between a healing approach that leads to greater empowerment of self and one that leads to greater diminishment of self is that it's all about accountability. There isn't any need to posit blame. I think at the core of any embrace of victimhood is the will to blame and to feel as though something outside of ourselves that we can't control is acting upon us in some way that renders us powerless.

jg One of the ideas I like in your writing is that healing is essentially a growing-up process. It involves taking full responsibility for our lives.

bh Exactly. And I think that has to be viewed, in the context of the West, as a project of political resistance because there's so much in the daily-ness of our lives that militates against a vision of growing up. I think that we live in the ultimate Me culture, where everything is always brought back to that sense that the ego or the self is at the centre and what matters most. Sometimes as a teacher I laugh and tell my students, "You know everything is not about you!" And there are days in my life when I have to remind myself that everything is not about me!

About juniper glass
juniper glass lives in Montréal where she is learning French and writing freelance. Her articles have appeared in ascent and Utne.

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