This summer I read bell hooks’s All About Love: New Visions. Revelatory and authoritative, it’s the only literature about love I can bear that isn’t overridden with platitudes and vague cliches. Throughout this book, hooks probes her own childhood, trying to understand how early lessons of love and self-worth have translated into her romantic adult life. When that’s not enough, she places society under a microscope, examining a country deprived of love.
In one chapter she shares, “It appears our nation has gone so far down the road of secular individualism, worshipping the twin gods of money and power.” She was referring to a cultural shift in our country during the ‘70s. America had fallen into a trap of egoism and individualism that was fueled by the economic bounty of war. It directly undermined the social progressive values that had been associated with the civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, and sexual liberation. The youth that had believed in radical politics and social justice understood that choosing that path would lead to a harder life than surrendering to the existing capitalist system. They became cynics after failing to see the world change. This generation became our parents, defining our earliest models of love.
This summer, I also fell in almost-love. I say almost because it never reached the point where a relationship matured, but there were many moments when I was confronted with the decision to either run away or go deeper. I’m reminded of a two-hour car ride to Ojai. What began as a series of innocent questions to get to know each other evolved into an argument that revealed insecurities inherited from previous relationships. Upon learning that, like me, he had also cheated in past relationships, I was surprised at how hurt and angry I was. Rationally, I knew he hadn’t betrayed our relationship and that I was being hypocritical. And yet, I was still upset. Having expected empathy and compassion, my confused reaction made him uncomfortable.
Eventually, he revealed that he had often felt stifled by his previous partners, unable to match their expectations of him. Instead of ruining their expectations and expressing his true self, he found it was easier to express himself outside of the relationship. His vulnerability and candor helped me realize that I, too, had built expectations of him and unfairly indicted him when he deviated from them. Through his honesty, he broke the mold I’d put him in and made space for someone better—someone who had made mistakes and grown from them.
Loving someone means that you feel safe enough to explore these insecurities with someone else, knowing that they won’t judge you or love you any less. In her book, hooks defines love as the “will to extend yourself for someone else’s spiritual growth.” I used to believe that by talking about my insecurities, I was being vulnerable. Now I understand that it’s only the first step. Addressing our fears helps us understand why we think and act in certain ways. It’s only when we put these fears to the test with someone else that we begin to do the hard work of extending ourselves and changing our patterns and behaviors.
I know that by choosing to love and choosing vulnerability, I was subconsciously abandoning the cynicism and fear ingrained in our culture. Loving requires bravery, a willingness to share who we are at the moment—insecurities, doubts, and intrusive thoughts. According to hooks, “While a heart connection lets us appreciate those we love just as they are, a soul connection opens up a further dimension—seeing and loving them for who they could be, and who we could become under their influence.” There’s nowhere to hide in love. Every insecurity and fear resurfaces in unexpected ways. Only in the willingness to be brave and tender do we reveal ourselves and our souls.
Sometime in the last five years since my last real relationship—a manipulative on-and-off relationship that lasted too long because we couldn’t decide if we were better together or apart—I resolved that I didn’t need to be in love. I channeled my energy into something I could control: making myself a better person. Unfortunately, in my claim to self-love, I lost the ability to trust and be vulnerable with anyone. I found it easier to sever bonds whenever I experienced an ounce of pain, traumatized by the abandonment I’d experienced in my last relationship. As a result, I entered a cycle: I’d go searching for something casual—intimacy without vulnerability—and then if I ended up liking them, I’d inevitably start fantasizing about a future with them. When it was brought up, I’d be disappointed to find those expectations weren’t reciprocated. I didn’t know what I wanted, but each time, the disappointment wore me down.
Little by little, I became cynical; I stopped feeling like love existed. “Cynicism is the mask of the disappointed and betrayed heart,” hooks writes. In retrospect, I can see that I’ve always wanted a deep love, something extraordinary. But I was too afraid to surrender completely and trust another person. I didn’t want to admit it to myself because it made me feel weak—like I couldn’t cherish my solitude.
One night in June, I was laying on my bed with the person I almost loved. We were looking up at the ceiling, wordlessly configuring our bodies next to each other. My chin was ever so slightly turned toward the wall, away from him. I was hyper-aware of how stiff my body was. Without saying a word, he reached out, held my chin, and turned it in his direction. He left it there and for the first time in minutes, I was looking into his eyes. In a simple gesture, he saw me and disarmed me. I learned in that moment that you can’t hide fear; no matter how strong you think you are, it permeates every muscle in your body. Hooks' words echo in my mind: the choice to love is the choice to connect—to find ourselves in the other.
One of the exceptional things about All About Love is that it doesn’t make you feel corny or desperate for wanting love. In fact, she leans into that and asks why popular culture insists that love is meaningless. We’ve been raised in a culture that breeds cynicism and frowns upon any suggestion that love is as important as work, as crucial as the drive to succeed. But our generation of youth recognizes that a world of greed and capitalism is a place where love cannot thrive. We have the ability to redefine our culture’s attitude about love. When we choose the scarier option, to open ourselves up and welcome the possibility of disappointment, we might actually learn something by falling in almost-love.