My father has always told me two things.
The first was “Get an education. You can lose your job, material items, friends – you can lose everything. But no one can ever strip you of your education.” Papi graduated high school in the Dominican Republic with honors. He started medical school but couldn’t afford to finish. So, I mean – I get it.
He would tell me this as he brought me late night snacks of crackers and cheese or freshly made morir sonando with my favorite crushed ice. And this was way before we had the fridge that dispenses crushed ice cubes. He would put an ice cube in one hand and smash it with a spoon until it cracked into tiny pieces. He would continue to check on me throughout the night and didn’t go to sleep until I finished my assignments.
The second thing my father always told me was “Love is not a feeling, it is a commitment.” He would tell me how much he loved my mother, but go on to explain that he didn’t always like everything she did or said. I would roll my eyes. In my kid brain, it was a cop-out excuse he used to defend my mother.
My mother was … a little rough around the edges. She didn’t have a loving home growing up like my father and she often projected her wounded heart with harsh words and militant discipline. For her, discipline was the equivalent of love. I know my father didn’t always agree with her but he never disrespected her, often responding to my protests saying, “mija… you don’t know how your mother grew up. She had a really difficult childhood.” With his patience and a lot of prayers, my mother has softened over the years. My father loved both his daughters and his wife with a fierceness that is uncommon by today’s standards. I see that now.
Recently, I started reading bell hooks All About Love. It is, as the title boasts, all about love. She talks about the parent-child bond as a foundation in love, honesty in love, the necessity of self-love, spiritual-love and both the personal and political implications of living by a love ethic. She leaves no stone unturned. But first, she insists that before discussing and dissecting love, it is necessary to establish a basic working definition of what love is. And she’s right.
Love is this all-encompassing, magical enigma. It is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is so mysterious, in fact, that we live in a day and age where some people don’t even think love exists. They argue that it is a fairytale constructed by society to control sexual activity. And even those who agree that love does exist. Those who believe that love is wonderful and necessary – they can’t define it for you. They cannot tell you what love is.
hooks also makes the observation that the average person who discusses love refers to it as a noun. As this thing that we are all trying to achieve and hold on to. The holy grail. King Arthur’s Excalibur. But, we would be better off acknowledging love as an active verb rooted in work.
hooks reviews quite a few authors and philosophers stances on love but settles on psychiatrist’s M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I have to say – this is a damn good place to start.
See we live in a world where people do destructive things in the name of love. They execute suicide bombings because they love their God. They cheat on their partners because they are in love or have fallen out of love. They beat on their spouses and children because they love them. They max out their credit cards buying clothes, jewelry and electronics because they love themselves and deserve to have nice things.
But the real motive behind most destructive behaviors and patterns is brokenness, not love.
1 Corinthians 13: 4-7
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
Love is not this wonderful, esoteric, elusive, godlike state that only the special among us will ever taste. It’s something that truly exists in all of us, but we need to learn how to cultivate it and grow it in healthy ways.
Having a working definition of love has helped ground me in identifying toxic behaviors and patterns. I just ask myself. Is this helping me grow spiritually? Is this helping the person I love grow spiritually? And if the answer is no, I let it go.
Lust. Pride. Greed. Envy. Passive aggressive comments. Neglect. Disrespecting personal boundaries. These are not signs of love as they do not foster spiritual growth in any of the parties involved. I’m actively working on weeding them out of my life. This is what love in action looks like. As my father always said, it’s a commitment.
It will take a lot of work and discipline, but in time I hope to see the garden of love flourishing in my life in all its majesty. It may be a slow process, but we all know anything worth having takes time.