We’ve been losing too many good people this year. Within a little more than a week of each other, bell hooks and Joan Didion both passed away — staggering losses in a time that’s already taken far too much.
Both of these writers have shaped so much of my perspective on the world, so I think I’ll spend some time here to highlight a few quotes. (There are too many good ones to put in a post, so I’ve just plucked a few from my Kindle’s records.)
Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition. The word “love” is most often defined as a noun, yet all the more astute theorists of love acknowledge that we would all love better if we used it as a verb.
… “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.” Since the choice must be made to nurture growth, this definition counters the more widely accepted assumption that we love instinctually.From all about love: New visions by bell hooks
I’ve always preferred this perspective on love, framing it as a constant choice that’s then carried out through intentional actions. To describe any kind of love as a simple “feeling,” some happy but fleeting mix of chemicals in our brains, seems like a disservice to such a complex, powerful force in people’s lives.
At its best, love is a commitment to do right by oneself and by others. It takes effort and bravery to love, to do so in a way that’s right and kind and healthy, and to keep choosing to do so in a world that makes such choices difficult to carry out. The least we can do is to acknowledge that — the difficulty and depth of it all — and to consider our choices with clearer eyes.
To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our “feelings.” Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences.
To think of actions shaping feelings is one way we rid ourselves of conventionally accepted assumptions such as that parents love their children, or that one simply “falls” in love without exercising will or choice, that there are such things as “crimes of passion,” i.e. he killed her because he loved her so much. If we were constantly remembering that love is as love does, we would not use the word in a manner that devalues and degrades its meaning.From all about love: New visions by bell hooks
Of course, accepting that definition of love as intentional — of love as verb — involves a responsibility to ensure that how we say we feel and how we act are always aligned. Do our actions convey the love we claim to have? If not, then aren’t we diluting the meaning of that word, by using it to describe something less than what love ought to be?
I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this “In order to love you, I must make you something else.” That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.from Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies by bell hooks
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, one of the questions that nagged at me (and that eventually formed part of that thesis’ conceptual fabric lol) was about the nature of empathy. In so many accounts of witnessing conflict, why does empathy have to be founded on finding some kind of similarity with victims? Why does the observing self have to subsume the witnessed person(s) — “Ah, yes, I see this part of myself in you; I see this part of you in me” — to empathize with them? Does a lack of any kind of resemblance then preclude any chance at empathy and connection?
Eventually I found conceptual frameworks that allowed for what felt like a more equal mode of empathy: one that didn’t require reinterpreting people into something familiar or personally recognizable. Again, there’s a lot of idealism here, because this mode of relating to people is obviously much easier said than done, and I don’t think I’ve come even remotely close to it. But it’s still something to strive for, I think — that ability to reach out to somebody without plucking out only the aspects that you would like, or without forcing them into a particular image or concept that might not fit them but which is easier for you to grasp.
You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.from a book of common prayer by Joan Didion
I submit that we can go one step further and build places we won’t walk away from. I mean “place” on so many other levels beyond the physical, too. There are so many spaces we come to build between ourselves and other people: emotional spaces where we find the ease and freedom to feel as much (or as little) as we need; mental spaces of shared ideas, lively discussion, or even just the feeling of having the opportunity to say what you want, if and when you would like to; and so on, and so forth.
It’s important, I think, to recognize our part in building those spaces. Again, love is intentional, and so is the process of building the means to sustain it.
(There’s so much emphasis on romantic love in some of my circles these days, but I’d like to think that love can be so much richer than just romance. There are so many forms that love could take, so many avenues to find it, so many spaces to nourish it. To limit that to one form feels a bit self-defeating.)
We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.From The year of magical thinking by Joan didion
Today I am thinking about the loss of two people who gave me a lot to think about, and whose words gave me guideposts as I started trying to make sense of my own life. It feels a bit like being unmoored and set adrift in the sea, this sense of no longer having some of my heroes to look to. But I feel a bit more confident in charting my own way forward thanks to what they’ve invited me to think about, and that’s as much as we can ask for from people who try to teach us something, right?
I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.
And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.Joan Didion, in her commencement address to the UC riverside class of ’75