What’s Love Got to Do with It?
Content Warning: This newsletter deals with themes of death, darkness and illness.
I look back at the pandemic with fondness.
Let me explain, it's not because I didn't suffer. In bell hooks’ All About Love essays, she elicits the metaphor of Jacob wrestling the angel. For Jacob to understand himself fully, he has to be wounded by the angel. The angel fights Jacob to teach him what it is to struggle and suffer. In early childhood, influenced by reading the Bible, hooks found solace in believing she was watched by angels. In my childhood, most likely because of the kinds of books I read, I was predisposed to feeling the presence of demons. Dark creatures in the night that kept me from sleeping.
Before we went into lockdown, I had a serious flare-up of my chronic illness and began to experience agoraphobia. I was in a new job that I found overwhelming, and I was living in a foreign country learning a new language. I could not rest on the laurels of a personality I had constructed growing up in a world where my worth and lovability was merited on how productive or creative I was.
I was just slow, awkward, out-of-place me. I thought, if I cannot be lovable, in the way that society has told me that I am lovable, I am useless. The pandemic was a welcome time to hide away from what I felt were the glaring eyes of demons. It was my moment to wrestle with the angel and find out truly what love meant to me and the people in my life.
“Many of us come to love life only when faced with life-threatening illness.”
bell hooks observes, in a stupendous essay about loss. This couldn’t be truer for me in terms of my own health journey. When a loved one is unwell it also teaches us a lot about valuing life and the moments that we spend with each other. Yet, we have an amazing capacity to forget once the danger has passed, or we have “got over” the grief of loss.
Had a pandemic, and a prolonged period of illness not arrived in my life at the same time, I may have forgotten about all of this. We were all isolated, but I was unable to partake in the wistful dreams of holidays or stolen moments with friends in bars when infection rates decreased. I didn’t have enough spoons to do zoom calls. I lost friends over this.
Illness, particularly in youth, can be very frightening. As we are growing into adults, the expectation is that we will be constantly interacting with other humans, hauling ourselves up the career ladder and exploring our surroundings. The disabled and chronically ill amongst us don’t experience that to the same extent that a non-disabled person would.
Capitalism and Lovelessness
Hauling oneself up the career ladder is not something I value. I value learning, progression, and a meditative approach to finding what we would call, ‘our life’s purpose’. But sociability, constant productivity and extroversion are undoubtedly highly esteemed in a capitalistic society.
“the principle underlying capitalistic society and the principle of love are incompatible.”
Ours, he says, is a society that encourages us to fulfil our needs through material increase or consuming.
hooks also approaches love from a class-conscious and anti-capitalist standpoint, asserting that,
“cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience”.
She argues that mass media, “dwells on and perpetuates an ethic of domination and violence”, fueling our fear of each other.
In the pandemic’s aftermath, we can see this in motion. It wasn’t really the virus, nor the vaccine that alienated us, but the ideological warfare stoked by mass media.
Personally, I found it difficult to keep my heart open. I was dismayed by what I saw as a lack of compassion for the vulnerable. I talk about this in more depth in a previous newsletter.
Even years before the pandemic, my young, sick body had felt rejected. On the lighter side, we could call this FOMO, and on the darker, the result of a societal, Darwinian shadow; the idea that I wasn’t fit enough to keep up with the rest. It was harder then. Before I got interested in psychology, I took the actions of others that impacted me negatively as indicators of a personal failing. Now I understand that everyone reacts to illness differently.
Those not able to cope very well with the unwell body are socially conditioned not to. They may also have their own buried traumas related to illness. During the pandemic, the perceived societal rejection of the unwell body made it harder for me to feel love or kinship with others. Yet – as Fromm says, love is an art, a piece of work to chip away at, forever under construction.
“Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one’s capacity to love.” Erich Fromm
I realised I had to have a better practice of loving if I wanted to feel the benefits of it myself.
What do I mean by ‘love’ exactly? For a concept so widely discussed, we have a vague common understanding of the different types of love and what they mean. We tend to relate it immediately to ‘romantic’ love.
According to Tony Morrison, romantic love is “one of the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.”
bell hooks agrees, citing our tendency to, “invest in the fantasy of effortless union”, based on the belief that “we lack choice and will” when it comes to love.
I’d like to dismantle the concept that romantic love is the zenith of loving. I am trying (and sometimes failing) to understand that I don’t get a shortcut to feeling loved just because I have a partner. In doing so I tokenise and project unreasonable expectations onto him. I credit my partner as being one of those who taught me to love better. I chose him as a life partner because I appreciated his generosity of spirit and his ability to always see the best in people. I knew I had something to learn from that.
There are other people in my life I am unromantically involved with who have helped me to love better. Yet, as Fromm says, solving the problem of love is not always about being loved. There is a danger in the belief that self-love only grows from the feeling that you are loved, or the trap we find ourselves in when we think, ‘that person loves me, so I must be worth being loved’.
Self-love, however, is arguably one of the most under-developed concepts of love we have, at least in Western society. One of the most prevailing myths about it, that it is narcissistic, literally stems from the Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus.
My Heart is a Forest, a song and video I made during the pandemic
Self-Love: The Fear of Narcissism and New Age Individualism
It’s true that times are changing regarding self-love. My contemporaries grew up with RuPaul’s Drag Race and the maxim, repeated at the end of each episode:
“If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Hearing this had a profound effect on me. I watched Drag Queens from poverty and loveless homes create a community, whilst radically accepting and embracing everything they were. This show initiated my journey to loving myself, or at least, accepting myself. Yet it is undeniable that RuPaul’s Drag Race is a gateway to a world where money, status, and newer hierarchies are established. It is another route to alienation and lovelessness.
We can draw similarities to the self-love New Age spirituality preaches about, which, as hooks identifies, “extolls the virtues, of wealth, privilege and power”. It is a culture that says, “the poor have chosen to be poor, have chosen their suffering.” We achieve in a vacuum, leaving those who can’t to flounder. If it is true that we cannot love others unless we love ourselves, it is equally true that we cannot love ourselves unless we love others.
As bell hooks says, “self-love cannot flourish in isolation”.
Be Kind to Yourself, a song and video I made during the pandemic.
Love and Conflict
I wanted to talk about love because I realised that it was love, above all, that helped me to cope better with illness. It also allowed my creativity to flourish. But love isn’t always an easy option. Fromm reminds us that it is an ‘illusion’ to believe that “love means necessarily the absence of conflict.”
I will conclude with an anecdote regarding a difficult but ultimately transcendental experience between a friend and I, who sadly died last year. My lingering memories of her have brought me courage, as well as a boost of creative energy – a desire to follow in her inspiring path. Together, we were able to reach a mutual expression of love through first experiencing conflict. Fromm refers to loving conflict as the catharsis that follows when “two persons communicate with each other from the centre of their existence.”
As I mentioned previously, I was distraught by the tone of the anti-vaxx movement, which at times, echoed the eugenicist sentiments peddled in the early twentieth century, a fraught and troubled time allowing Fascism to flourish. When my friend began to echo such statements, it was hurtful, and it was hard not to pull away from her. If it hadn’t been for the emotional muscles I grew in the pandemic, and my own illness, I wouldn’t have paused to understand her better.
My friend hadn’t led a life free from suffering, nor ill health. She understood it perfectly well. And despite her reservations and fears about modern-day medicine, she had accompanied me to doctors' appointments. I began to understand that those fears came from her own difficult past experiences. She sat and muttered Buddhist chants as my blood was extracted. Afterwards, unsteady on my legs, she put my arm in hers, walking me to her house to make me breakfast.
The way she had been treated in the past informed her future decisions, and she elected not to undergo chemotherapy when they found a brain tumour. Despite our past conflict, I respected her decisions as she had respected mine. What was most important for her, was to be understood and accepted. The last time we saw her, we sat outside and held her hands. I had never seen her so calm and content. She maintained her Buddhist practice, ringing her bell through the corridor of the hospital, and joked that she could continue smoking weed without fear of repercussion.
She told us her favourite word in Spanish was ‘pusilánime’ - which means cowardly. She had left her life in Barcelona 20 years ago, coming to the south of Spain to dedicate her life to flamenco. She said you couldn’t be ‘pusilánime’ if you wanted to perform flamenco in Jerez de la Frontera, amongst those who grew up living and breathing this incredibly complex art.
In Spain, when people die, they go straight to the morgue, and are buried or cremated usually within 48 hours of their passing. Friends and family can visit immediately after they are transferred to say goodbye. In the UK, bodies are taken away and kept in a morgue for two or three weeks, and every funeral I have attended has been closed casket. I had never seen the body of a loved one after they’d passed on. I was terrified to go and see her.
Her room at the morgue was surprisingly bright, pleasant and airy. There were comfy sofas and a coffee machine. She was behind a glass partition, and her face was smiling. Her Buddhist beads were laid out in front of the glass and cigarettes placed beside them. In Catholic culture, congregating together with the dead body is common practice. It was common practice in the Catholic Scottish environment my dad grew up, but the tradition has largely faded away in the UK and is beginning to in Ireland. I grew up learning that grief, emotion, love, should be felt privately, and that only after those feelings were processed could I accept the passing of a loved one and be in the company of others to do so.
“Love knows no shame. To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.” bell hooks
I went through a new experience of facing the grief directly, with other people I barely knew around me. This is surely the root of what love is. An acceptance of myself in that moment, bereft, yet aware that my experience of the world was richer for having loved.
In confronting our demons, or fighting with angels, whichever way you look at it, we find peace in what we cannot escape and what is inevitable. Illness and grief isn’t shameful or hidden, but part of the process to loving better.
Who Are We Becoming?, a spoken word and song collaboration with artist Jamie Wardrop
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