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How did you learn what love is? Did someone teach you?
I have been reading bell hooks’ book All About Love. The deeper I delve into it, the more certain I become that the way our society teaches us about love is all wrong.
As bell hooks so eloquently explains, most of us think of love as a feeling of special, deep care for another person, the way our heart fills up at the thought of someone, or the emotional turmoil we feel when we think we might lose someone. While caring for a person is certainly a component of love, it is just one of many ingredients necessary for true, healthy love.
As long as we continue, hooks explains, to limit love to cathexis – or the process of investing emotion in a loved one – many of us will continue to live loveless lives. She proposes M. Scott Peck’s definition as a more accurate and holistic way of looking at love: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
The Baha’i writings take the concept of love as a source of spiritual growth—one that relies on action—a step further. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith, spoke of love as the key to unlock a new way of life for all humankind:
When we observe the phenomena of the universe, we realize that the axis around which life revolves is love, while the axis around which death and destruction revolve is animosity and hatred … The proof is clear that in all degrees and kingdoms unity and agreement, love and fellowship are the cause of life, whereas dissension, animosity and separation are ever conducive to death. Therefore, we must strive with life and soul in order that day by day unity and agreement may be increased among mankind and that love and affinity may become more resplendently glorious and manifest. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 268.
Abdu’l-Baha also invited us to question the way that we express love:
If I love you, I need not continually speak of my love – you will know without any words. On the other hand if I love you not, that also will you know – and you would not believe me, were I to tell you in a thousand words, that I loved you. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 17.
This definition of love may scare many of us. When we view love as an action, and not just a feeling, we might suddenly have to re-conceptualize relationships we viewed as loving. Relationships with dishonesty, poor communication, or abusive power dynamics might have components of affection or caring, but if we believe that love nurtures and honors spiritual growth, these relationships clearly lack love.
This lens forces us to reassess what we have accepted as love, and pay careful attention to the way we treat others, the way others treat us, and the way we treat ourselves.
In contrast to the chaotic, painful and dysfunctional “love” that most of us think of as an inevitable part of life, the Baha’i writings describe love as a source of peace and composure:
If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty, and discover the secret of undisturbed peace and absolute composure. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 260.
But even when we intellectually accept love as the source of joy and well-being, it’s easy to accept or show “love” in disruptive forms. We claim that we love ourselves, but we put our heart in harms’ way; we don’t nourish our spiritual growth, we neglect our spiritual calling; and we make decisions based in fear rather than trust. When driven by fear, we can’t love others properly. Fear is the root of many enemies of love, such as prejudice, greed, and violence. We cling to toxic jobs, friends, and partners because we fear letting go.
Accepting love as an action, rather than just a feeling, holds us to a higher standard. Many of us believe that love and honesty go hand in hand, and yet also believe that when you love someone, you might have to lie to them to protect their feelings. We rationalize this as love because we claim the only reason we lie is because we love them, and don’t want to lose them. We even imagine that by lying we do our loved ones a favor. What we don’t realize is that by lying, we do not honor the spiritual growth of others – or of ourselves.
If we accept that love depends on honesty, perhaps we will work harder to be truthful. While everyone believes in love, some have thrown honesty to the side as unnecessary. When we see love as more than an emotional state, we can recognize that we have a responsibility to actualize it in our lives, through hard work.
Without the effort, we can go an entire lifetime without experiencing or expressing healthy and happy love with ourselves and with others. But if it requires so much work, why would we want to aim to find love?
The Baha’i writings share:
The love which exists between the hearts of believers is prompted by the ideal of the unity of spirits. This love is attained through the knowledge of God, so that men see the Divine Love reflected in the heart. Each sees in the other the Beauty of God reflected in the soul, and finding this point of similarity, they are attracted to one another in love. This love will make all men the waves of one sea, this love will make them all the stars of one heaven and the fruits of one tree. This love will bring the realization of true accord, the foundation of real unity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 180-181
In the world of existence there is indeed no greater power than the power of love. – Ibid., p. 179.