I’ve been offline and in struggle since the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. At first I thought it was a combination of physical and spiritual exhaustion, or maybe low-grade cultural despair with a side of burnout. I tried to combat the strange sense of emptiness with more work and more grind. This solution came to a grinding halt when I fell off my favorite pair of platform shoes. I was walking out of Charlie’s school when I hit an uneven patch of concrete. I turned my ankle, and the top strap of my shoe wrenched my foot and broke three of my toes. For the record, I put the breaking of toes at a 9 out of 10 on the pain scale. Holy shit. Nothing puts a stop to running hard as a distraction like an inflatable boot and crutches.
I can be ornery when I’m hurt or sick, so the combination of not being able to work out or spend too much time on my feet exacerbated the emptiness. After three weeks of feeling untethered and increasingly hollowed-out, I realized something more serious was happening than the usual exhaustion or burnout. I couldn’t access hope or possibility. I poisoned every good thing with thoughts of potentially horrible things. I didn’t want to let my family out of my sight, but I didn’t feel like I had much of myself to offer them even when they were within arm’s reach.
One night, I sat straight up in my bed at 4 a.m., strapped on my boot, pumped it up, and hopped on one foot to the top of the stairs. Too hurried to navigate down on my crutches, I sat and scooted down the stairs on my butt—like my brother and sisters and I did when we were little. Using one hand to brace myself against the wall, I hopped into my study and grabbed bell hooks’ book All About Love.
Could the problem be lovelessness? Was the lovelessness in the world seeping into my life?
I went straight for the passages that I had highlighted and tagged over the years. By the time the sun came up, I understood what was happening.
Yes, the world is suffering from traumatic levels of lovelessness right now, but what really brought me to my knees these past few months was how susceptible I was to perpetuating lovelessness in my own response to our collective pain. As I started to untangle everything I was feeling, I realized that over the past few months, I had unknowingly turned away from love—the only fuel source that really works for me. Instead of being fueled by love, I unconsciously had turned to fear, contempt, self-righteousness, and maybe a touch of high-octane disdain to navigate hard news and hard people.
I’ve learned the most about love and lovelessness from bell hooks. I’ve been reading her work for the past 25 years. Her books Teaching to Transgress and All About Love expanded my teaching and activism so much that I often say that her work is responsible for 90% of the stretch marks on my heart and my mind.
In All About Love, hooks writes,
Taught to believe that the mind, not the heart, is the seat of learning, many of us believe that to speak of love with any emotional intensity means we will be perceived as weak and irrational. And it is especially hard to speak of love when what we have to say calls attention to the fact that lovelessness is more common than love, that many of us are not sure what we mean when we talk of love or how to express love.
Everyone wants to know more about love. We want to know what it means to love, what we can do in our everyday lives to love and be loved. We want to know how to seduce those among us who remain wedded to lovelessness and open the door to their hearts to let love enter. The strength of our desire does not change the power of our cultural uncertainty.
Everywhere we learn that love is important, and yet we are bombarded by its failure. In the realm of the political, among the religious, in our families, and in our romantic lives, we see little indication that love informs decisions, strengthens our understanding of community, or keeps us together. This bleak picture in no way alters the nature of our longing. We still hope that love will prevail. We still believe in love’s promise.
I don’t claim to know what fuel works best for everyone, but what I know for sure is that I believe in love’s promise and I run best on love. For me, love is sustainable, renewable, and it burns clean. That doesn’t mean I don’t get angry. Anger is a soul-sucking lifetime companion, but it’s also a great catalyst for two of the grittiest, truest forms of love: justice and equity.
Cultures of Domination
hooks explains that we can only awaken to love if we let go of our obsession with power and domination. While All About Love was written in 2000, her observations about domination, white supremacy, the patriarchy, and power offer important insight into what we’re experiencing right now.
She explains that people who are willing to speak out against injustice are not smarter or kinder than their neighbors, but are “willing to live the truth of their values.” hooks shares this example:
If you go door to door in our nation and talk to citizens about domestic violence, almost everyone will insist that they do not support male violence against women, that they believe it to be morally and ethically wrong. However, if you then explain that we can only end male violence against women by challenging patriarchy, and that means no longer accepting the notion that men should have more rights and privileges than women because of biological difference or that men should have the power to rule over women, that is when the agreement stops. There is a gap between the values they claim to hold and their willingness to do the work of connecting thought and action, theory and practice to realize these values and thus create a more just society.
When we have a president who repeatedly uses language and rhetoric to dehumanize immigrants (including some of the exact language used by the shooter in El Paso), and a gun lobby that uses racism, nationalism, and fear to recruit and maintain members rather than advocates for safe and responsible gun ownership, what do we expect is going to happen? Lovelessness in words becomes lovelessness in deeds. This is a culture of domination at work.
The shooter in Ohio had a “rape list.” We know from a growing number of studies that there is a strong connection between mass-shooting incidents and violence against women. Again, lovelessness and domination.
For me, the short, well-lit, well-worn, path from theory to action—from words to deeds—seemed so clear that all I could feel was hate and rage toward not just the perpetrators of the shootings and the inciters and normalizers of violence, but everyone around me who didn’t see the connections and weren’t sufficiently outraged.
Without love as the driver, my rage and contempt didn’t fuel action or serve as a catalyst. They killed my hope and resolve. Some days, my lovelessness just pulled the covers over my head, and other days it dressed me up in a “Death to Extremists” T-shirt and sent me into the world.
Erich Fromm writes, “There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’ which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.” Ouch.
A Love Ethic
Individuals who choose to love can and do alter our lives in ways that honor the primacy of a love ethic. We do this by choosing to work with individuals we admire and respect; by committing to give our all to relationships; by embracing a global vision wherein we see our lives and our fate as intimately connected to those of everyone else on the planet. Commitment to a love ethic transforms our lives by offering us a different set of values to live by. In large and small ways, we make choices based on a belief that honesty, openness, and personal integrity need to be expressed in public and private decisions.bell hooks
I’ve lived by a love ethic my entire life, and I want to double down on love again. Right now. I want to nurture and protect love and kindness in myself and in others. The doubling down is going to require some changes in my life. I’m going to start with these:
- I’m not afraid to have hard conversations or face pain, but I can be skittish when it comes to inviting joy and grace into my life. Joy fuels love. Grace allows me to reflect. I need to find a way to open that door more often. Even when it feels so vulnerable.
- Even though there are a million things that need to change, we all need to rest sometimes—even when there’s still a shit ton of work to do. Burnout drives lovelessness.
- For me, self-love is making and taking the time to create. I can’t live a love ethic if I’m not researching and writing and thinking. Creativity is who I am and how I’m wired.
- When the world feels tough and disconnected, I need to sink into the softness and connection of my family and friends. Family is my love ethic. Sometimes, my go-to is to try to get tougher and even more disconnected than the world so I can fight back. It doesn’t work, and it actually feeds that domination paradigm.
- I need to make sure my anger is a catalyst born of love, not justification for causing pain when I’m in pain.
- I want to co-create a love ethic in our organization and in our facilitator communities—an ethic that informs how we show up with each other, serve the work, and cultivate belonging. Lovelessness corrodes organizational culture. We need love wherever there are humans—that means at work too.
- I need deeper, more meaningful spiritual connection. I need to rekindle things with God in some way that makes sense for me. Maybe I’ll take a run at meditation again, or renew my Daily Examen habit. P.S. I don’t think you’re supposed to “take a run at meditating.” but you know what I mean.
- I’m going to live into my values and stand up for what I believe in from a place of love. And I’m not talking about rainbow and unicorn love. I’m talking about learning how to stay fueled by a gritty, dangerous, wild-eyed, radical, change-the-world kinda love when disdain, judgment, and contempt are so much easier and when fear is seducing me into staying quiet. hooks writes,
“Refusal to stand up for what you believe in weakens individual morality and ethics as well as those of the culture. No wonder then that we are a nation of people, the majority of whom, across race, class, and gender, claim to be religious, claim to believe in the divine power of love, and yet collectively remain unable to embrace a love ethic and allow it to guide behavior, especially if doing so would mean supporting radical change. Fear of radical changes leads many citizens of our nation to betray their minds and hearts.”
I’ll take radical change over betraying my mind and heart every time.
Doubling down on love demands that we be brave enough to straddle the tension of staying awake to the struggle in the world and fighting for justice and peace, while also cultivating a love ethic in our own lives. We can’t sacrifice the micro for the macro, or the macro for the micro.
Love, belonging, connection, and joy are irreducible needs for all of us. We can’t give people what we don’t have. We have to live love to give love.
I’m back and I’m here to love big, have fun, cultivate joy, and fight hard.