What’s love got to do with it


This day of torment, of craziness, of foolishness—only love can make it end in happiness and joy

~ W. A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, Le Nozze di Figaro (1786)

Love as part of public conversations on politics, social policy and justice tends to be ridiculed, misunderstood, underrated or seen as out of place. Few take it serious beyond giving it lip service. We tend to have little time or space for love when it comes to working on the big issues. Talking and doing love in the public sphere falls to those grouped as dreamers, idealists and romantics. Men in particular, I believe, struggle with and resist the concept. Reason and calculated thinking leading to efficient strategies – that’s where it’s at.

Here, I want to interject and propose that rather than leaving love out of the equation, when it comes to shaping healthy communities, it should be the foundation, centre, starting point and guiding principle. For this to make sense, what is needed is a clear definition of what, in this context, love is and what it is not.

Romantic Love

In A Natural History of Love, Diane Ackerman writes lyrically that people search for love as if it were a city lost beneath the desert dunes, where pleasure is the law, the streets are lined with brocade cushions, and the sun never sets.

The most common context for love nowadays is romantic love. The ‘I love you’ love narrative that sees most of us searching for, finding or not finding and falling or not falling hopelessly head over heels in love. Love as a feeling. Love as a ‘happily ever after’. Love as finding ‘the one’, the soul mate, the one to venture, create, experience, grow and rest with. The life companion.

Love as the love that leads thousands of us to turn to romance novels, movies and songs written by people themselves preoccupied by the feeling-mystery called love. Media and advertising giants love us loving love; from Valentine‘s day marketing to wedding ceremonies and all the products and services being offered year round designed to help us impress, woe, keep our love and if love fails, heal from love, someone is making money. Deeply ingrained in our materialistic culture is the idea that romantic gestures and buying stuff go hand in hand. The love industry is booming. Romance Inc., writes The Independent, underpins much economic activity. The romantic-industrial-complex, writes The Nation, brings in billions every year.

Love and cathexis

Setting aside scientific explanations of love as a product of chemicals, hormones, neurotransmitters and such things, we are generally confused about what love truly means. bell hooks, in her book All about love, writes that with no clear definition, we are left to wonder whether what we do or feel is love and being loved. This ambiguity means that love can mean anything to anyone even if it is abusive. The parent that punishes the child or the husband that beats his spouse argue and believe that they are doing it out of love.

hooks writes that:

Most of us find it difficult to accept a definition of love that says we are never loved in a context where there is abuse. Most psychologically and/or physically abused children have been taught by parenting adults that love can coexist with abuse. And in extreme cases that abuse is an expression of love. This faulty thinking often shapes our adult perceptions of love. So that just as we would cling to the notion that those who hurt us as children loved us, we try to rationalize being hurt by other adults by insisting that they love us.

Lacking early definitions of love, we easily confuse it with ‘cathexis’, or the feeling of being deeply drawn to someone. ‘Cathecting’ with someone means we invest feelings or emotions with them. Confusing it with love, hooks writes, people may think that they love the other person even if they are hurting or neglecting them.

Having searched for a definition of love, hooks writes that to truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients – care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust as well as honest and open communication.

Defining love, she writes that love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. 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 chose to love. Love, thus defined, makes it mutually exclusive with abuse. The two cannot co-exist. To know and keep love, she writes, we have to surrender the will to power.

Love that does justice

In contrast to the humdrum of romantic love and our deeply ingrained need for love for happiness, stands a love that has largely been forgotten. A love that is the only sustainable foundation for a healthy civil society: a ‘love that does justice’.

Martin Luther King is known to have said that justice is love in calculation. Justice is love working against anything that stands against love. Standing beside love is always justice.

Michael Edwards, reflecting upon King’s message added that Love is the anchor or inward expression of social justice and justice is the outward expression of “love in calculation” – a conscious design for remaking the world around a radically-different rationality than self-interest. Deep transformations are possible if love and justice reinforce each-other to create a permanent shift in direction among human beings and the institutions they create.

A ‘love that does justice’ combines an inclusive, empathetic, and self-reflective love with the practice of new forms of politics, economics and social activism to transform society. Edwards invokes mutually reinforcing cycles of personal and systemic change.

This love, he writes:

“is active, not passive, explicitly considering the effects of oppressive and exploitative systems and structures on the welfare of others, and not just focused on the immediate circle of family and friends – a deep and abiding commitment to the liberation of all”.

encourages us to live up to our social obligations as well our individual moral values, connect our interior life worlds to public spaces, encourage collective judgments and create open networks of self-reflective and critical communication.

helps us to understand when and how to uphold and apply rationality even in the toughest of circumstances – by increasing self-awareness of our biases, prejudices and blind spots, sustaining our objectivity about our own strengths and shortcomings”.

In his article “Love, reason and the future of civil society“, Edwards emphasizes that love balances the grip that reason has on navigating the public sphere. Historically, dating back to the Enlightenment, rational, fact-based democratic deliberation has been a central tenet for negotiating and finding common ground in civil society. As an ideal/theory, while cold, reason might very well be necessary. But is it sufficient? Especially since reason and rationality, in the hustle and bustle of the everyday, are constantly being eroded or undermined by forces of hubris, chauvinism, entitlement, partisanship, politicking, lobbying, propaganda, fear and ‘othering’.

Changing the World, Changing our Relationships

People are undervalued. Our circles of empathy are narrow and shrinking. We see and create ‘the other’ almost without second thought. Research suggests that racism and sexism, two destructive forces that are widely believed to have been banished to the history books, are as prominent as ever; they mostly take different form, more subtle and elusive, in the shape of micro-aggressionsbrief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.

Racism, rather than disappearing, writes Derald Wing Sue has a) morphed into a highly disguised, invisible, and subtle form that lies outside the level of the conscious awareness, b) hides in the invisible assumptions and beliefs of individuals, and c) is embedded in the policies and structures of our institutions. The face of modern racism is well explored in The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Overt sexism is no longer acceptable in our society and yet sexism is far from dead. Sue writes that modern sexism is more ambiguous, subtle and often not recognized by both perpetrator and target. Benevolent sexism, for example, is based on traditional yet positive stereotypes of women that leads to notions of ‘protecting the weaker sex’, views of women as ‘objects of romantic love’ and admired as ‘wives and mothers’. Gender micro-aggressions tend to define a woman’s existence as lesser than that of a man, traps them with descriptive and prescriptive stereotypes, punishes them for breaking traditional sex roles, contributes to the climate of violence toward women, and objectifies and sexualizes them.

The groundbreaking book The revolution starts at home: Confronting intimate violence within activist communities, is an account of how even within radical, self-reflective anti-oppression activist communities, sexism and racism continue to exist and cause hurt and isolation. This speaks to how tenacious a hold sexism and racism have on the way we negotiate relationships in our communities.

How then can we move forward and change our relationships so that they reflect compassion and kindness?

The Beloved Community

In the article “Structuring our beloved communities?”, Liam Barrington-Bush ponders this exact question. Martin Luther King championed the concept of “Beloved Communities” where:

poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Barrington-Bush asks what it takes to achieve such a community where people are working well together. Does it take something that is created – by place or process – or does it emerge through the individual relationships involved. Do we focus on building loving relationships or do we focus on the nuts and bolts work of creating places, structures, processes and institutions that do not permit harmful while nourishing positive behavior?

Marina Sitrin, activist and writer, argues that Beloved Community …doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage… people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way… We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours.

Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, adds however, that: Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them… So what do we do when these patterns come up? …No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.

If we consider that many of us harbour unconscious biases that surface as harmful micro-aggressions, many of which we are not even aware off, then it would seem strategically wise to focus primarily on relationship building in hope of healing our divisions and avoiding giving rise to structures that might propagate our unexamined biases. Loving relationships therefore give rise to effective structures. This corresponds to a bottom-up approach to social change, and yet, in relationship building, we cannot avoid some form of structure. After all, how do we bring people together and how to we approach relationship building? What tools do we use, what processes and what spaces are open to us? Structure and relationship building are intimately connected. Therefore Tana Paddock suggest that we ask ourselves: When we create structure, where is it coming from? What is the intent behind it. Are we coming from a place of fear leading to rules and regulations or are we coming from a place of wanting to liberate human potential?

What’s love got to do with it?

Martin Luther King passionately believed that:

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.

Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy – The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit, writes beautifully about 5 habits of the heart that help us resist divide-and-conquer politics, restore flourishing, inclusive communities and introduce ‘heart’ back into our politics: 1) An understanding that we are all in this together, 2) an appreciation of the value of “otherness”, 3) an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, 4) a sense of personal voice and agency, and 5) a capacity to create community.

Whether we are engaging in building structure or building relationships, a love ethic as championed by Martin Luther King and elaborated on by Michael Edwards would appear invaluable. Similarly, we can draw inspiration from bell hooks’ notion of ‘love is as love does’ and love as a mix of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust as well as honest and open communication to nourish each other’s spiritual growth.

Finally, all of this doing requires courage and ‘heart-talk’, as Palmer writes. The word ‘heart’, so he tells us, comes from the Latin cor and points not only to our emotions but to the core of the self, that centre place where all of our ways of knowing converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the centre place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.

Love and heart.

I invite everyone to think more deeply about how love and heart can play a leading role in shaping our beloved communities where we all feel safely and blissfully at home; how structure and relationship building can best work together for this purpose; and what happens when love and heart are absent.

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