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Theorizing About Love

photo of bell hooks and a quotation, "Love is an Action. Never Simply a Feeling"

This semester, instead of using the first class to “go over the syllabus”- I decided to drop all (or most) of the institutional formalities. It was a day to get to know each other and talk about something that I believe is foundational to all of us as human beings: love. I chose a text, “All about Love ” by bell hooks that I believed could get us straight to the heart of the matter. After all, this course is Intro to Social Justice and love is/should be the foundation of social justice though it is rarely theorized through the lens of love. How can I teach a course on social justice and not address the violences (absences of love) of the institution that we are operating within? We read the text out loud together in class after doing some brief introductions- I remembered some of the students names, but not all, and some did not read nor share. There was a lot of great discussion and many of the students were engaged even if they didn’t share. I noticed one student scrolling on his phone and another getting up to use the restroom- this signaled to me that they weren’t engaged. I felt anxious about it- I wanted them to be in it. To be thinking about the ideas, to be sharing about their own experiences. To be fair, just because they didn’t look engaged to me doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t but I really wanted to hear from them.

I suppose the feelings of anxiety came because I’m a person that needs signs of validation to understand how another person is feeling. Two of my top “love languages” are words of affirmation and quality time- It’s a limited framework but it’s a place to start. I think I see our classroom as the space for our scheduled quality time together. I didn’t get any validation from some students; I hope they tap in if they aren’t already. I’m sure some are skeptical about me and the format/lack of formalities. I am extremely authentic when I say that I want them to join me in this course as an experiment and that I want the course to work for all of us- they have to collaborate with me to get anything out of it. They at least have to tap in- I truly believe every class experience is what you decide to make of it. If you read and engage in the discussion; you will actually learn something and my biggest hope is that we will all learn something about ourselves.

Back to the text: “All About Love”

There was a lot of theorizing going on at the table when we were talking about love. We all grappled with the task of defining love together. The beautiful thing about it is that there are no experts, everyone views love through the lens of their own experiences. We talked about our parents and caregivers as our first experience with love- an experience that inevitably influences how we know and express love or its profound lack. I think one of the foundational aspects that we determined as contained in the definition of love is the feeling of safety- this is what I offered as I synthesized what I was hearing around the table. Another student mentioned trust  – and John brought in the concept of balance and give and take. Is love an action that continually does the work to bring all of these things into the relational dynamic between humans? What else are we missing? I admitted a few times that I was struggling to understand what love was for myself- I even shared a personal issue I was dealing with with a close friend. Several students were quick to offer advice for my situation. I could feel their care and their curiosity. 

Several of us were struck by what bell hooks mentioned in the preface- “I thought I was searching for love…I was simply trying to recover what had been lost. I was not really ready to be loved in the present.” The theme of healing came up for a lot of us (I can’t wait until I can list the students clearly by name and report on what each one contributed to the conversation-soon!). I know Sabrina and Sofia were wrestling with the idea of self-love and healing and being in a relationship with someone else while still healing from previous hurt or trauma or abandonment. We talked about risk and fear around intimacy as emotional investment- I think this is something I personally am struggling with a lot but I am so determined to grow.  Another student brought in a great philosophical point about bell hook’s use of religious metaphors in this writing about love. Even as we discussed love and struggled with its meaning, I was struck by a hope about love that many of the students shared. I think ultimately, love is something we all need and many of us, including me, have had to build the skills needed to love later in life and we are still building. Part of the work of theorizing and building was being done in our classroom. We didn’t get to finish the introduction together because the conversation took up a lot of the time but that’s all part of the process. I hope students were interested/moved enough to finish it on their own.