To be saved by bell hooks - Hindustan Times
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To be saved by bell hooks

ByNeeraja Srinivasan
Sep 25, 2023 06:18 PM IST

In this personal essay, the author reflects on how bell hooks' book "All About Love" transformed their perspective on love and healed their fear of heartbreak

It’s 1pm on a Sunday in the suburbs of Chennai, and I’m at home, nestled within the sounds that mid-afternoon brings with it: warbling parakeets in search of a place to rest, whizzing rice cookers, and casual neighborhood balcony chatter. Heartbreak couldn’t possibly exist in a place like this. But, of course, it does. I swallowed grief like it was my salvation, like staying broken-hearted was the only way to know myself. I stayed safe by being perceived as unlovable. This romantic asceticism was how I earned my goodness, my right to take up space in the world. I always thought I had no choice but to let this heaviness cut right through my life.

Gloria Jean Watkins (September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021) better known as bell hooks (Flickr Commons) PREMIUM
Gloria Jean Watkins (September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021) better known as bell hooks (Flickr Commons)

It’s 1pm on a Sunday in the suburbs of Chennai, and I’m at home, nestled within the sounds that mid-afternoon brings with it: warbling parakeets in search of a place to rest, whizzing rice cookers, and casual neighborhood balcony chatter. Heartbreak couldn’t possibly exist in a place like this. But, of course, it does. I swallowed grief like it was my salvation, like staying broken-hearted was the only way to know myself. I stayed safe by being perceived as unlovable. This romantic asceticism was how I earned my goodness, my right to take up space in the world. I always thought I had no choice but to let this heaviness cut right through my life.

bell hooks wrote and cared deeply about life and about love. In the foreword to All About Love: New Visions, she addresses someone called Anthony: “the first love letter i ever wrote was sent to you. just as this book was written to talk to you. anthony - you have been my most intimate listener. i will love you always.”

If someone asks me how I know when I’m in love, I would say that I’d know if everything I said out loud into the world, all that I wrote was an attempt to be heard by them, which is, in some sense, what hooks mirrors in her note to Anthony. Even before I got to the part of her book where hooks breaks down her theories on loving and caring, this note to Anthony was all I needed. At that moment, I had to sit and listen to her, let her words envelope me as I cried on her shoulder, and continue to let her save me each time I was in need of saving.

A view of Chennai. “Chennai, which is home, is a relatively small city — the private school network, which I was a part of, is intermingled and connected in a million little ways. Everyone knows everyone.” (Shutterstock)
A view of Chennai. “Chennai, which is home, is a relatively small city — the private school network, which I was a part of, is intermingled and connected in a million little ways. Everyone knows everyone.” (Shutterstock)

In conversation with a dear friend looking for advice on how to stop hurting someone, I blurted out a thought that had been stuck at the back of my throat for a while: that I’d much rather be perceived as the one who hurts someone else than the one who is hurt. Exhausted with compassion and forgiveness, I had concluded that I was tired of trying to earn my goodness through self-denial. Society is so used to assigning the emotion of pity to the broken-hearted girl, and in that exchange with my friend, I felt restricted by the bounds of a patriarchal way of thinking. Chennai, which is home, is a relatively small city — the private school network, which I was a part of, is intermingled and connected in a million little ways. Everyone knows everyone. Like anywhere else, gossip spreads like wildfire, narratives are crafted according to convenience and, owing to pathetic social conditioning, people are always ready to feel sorry for women. I believed I would stop hurting if everyone else around me thought I’d stopped hurting, and that a change in external perception would fix me. I knew, deep inside, that I’d fallen prey to the idea that love isn’t important. Love, and in that vein the risk of being hurt, is not as important as being right, powerful, and in control of what others thought of me, and what I thought of myself.

I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when I started thinking about love as a weakness, and heartbreak as an embarrassment. I’m certain it was a process of slow resocialization. bell hooks’ theory on resocialization was that patriarchy fools one into craving the so-called “upper hand” in human relationships, and hence, the search for this domination overrules any fundamentals of caring and loving. This search manifested itself in so many forms: I suddenly began to struggle with telling people closest to me that I loved them; I would it difficult to ask for help and care; I couldn’t bring myself to even contemplate expressing romantic interest towards anyone. All of this, because I began to think of loving and being loved as a weakness, and as something that would come back and hurt me in the future. And so, I stopped writing, reading and even talking about love for a good while.

“There is something hopeful about an invisible network of all of us reading hooks’ writing and believing in the idea that it truly is courageous to let ourselves be transformed by love.”
“There is something hopeful about an invisible network of all of us reading hooks’ writing and believing in the idea that it truly is courageous to let ourselves be transformed by love.”

In the midst of all this, my best friend gifted me All About Love on my 19th birthday. I’ve noticed that most people around me have been introduced to bell hooks by their female friends, who came across her work through other female friends, who found her through even more female friends. I find this so very endearing. There is something hopeful about an invisible network of all of us reading hooks’ writing and believing in the idea that it truly is courageous to let ourselves be transformed by love. All About Love is close to 300 pages of thoughtful writing on love. If bell hooks could unabashedly, unashamedly, and blatantly accredit love with the importance and tenderness it deserves, why couldn’t I?

As I read the book, I realized that hooks was telling me what I always knew but needed to be reminded of: It is clear the work one does, the work that any of us do, must be rooted in community and care or it is more likely to be harmful than helpful. For the world as a whole, bell hooks was less a friend and more a revelatory sensation. For me, and I suspect a lot of others too, she led the individual to introspect on their habits of loving and being loved within the larger scope of the patriarchy we inhabit. Considering love unnecessary was harmful, not just to my own growth and well-being, but also to the networks I am a part of.

“I believed I would stop hurting if everyone else around me thought I’d stopped hurting, and that a change in external perception would fix me. I knew, deep inside, that I’d fallen prey to the idea that love isn’t important. “ (Shutterstock)
“I believed I would stop hurting if everyone else around me thought I’d stopped hurting, and that a change in external perception would fix me. I knew, deep inside, that I’d fallen prey to the idea that love isn’t important. “ (Shutterstock)

I say bell hooks saved me because I was close to succumbing to a broken system that disregards love as an essential component of society. For me, this disregard grew from wanting to run away from pain, the fear of having to confront that very pain again if I ever gave in to love, and everyone around me thinking of me as foolish for making the same mistake all over again. But I realized that the hurt don’t stay hurt forever, and that the only path to achieving this involves embracing love for what it is. Of course, the fear never really goes away. But it isn’t a constant. It changes, it adapts and slowly, it dissipates.

The love ethic is an idea that bell hooks refers to as she introduces a school of thought which considers loving and caring as concepts that hinge closely on interpersonal ethics. The nature of this theorisation is such that fixing any status quo requires a complete, cultural embrace of love as an ethic, rather than just a practice. hooks essentially asks you, me, and everybody else reading her work to have faith in love and its magic, not only in an individual capacity, but also collectively, in our relationships with others, and to move past our fears and trust that ultimately, love will save us.

Today, September 25th, is bell hooks’ birthday. I often wonder what she’d have said about me, the people I’ve loved, and the decisions I’ve made. I grew up in a household that moulded me to unapologetically display a desire to be loved, even in the face of inscrutability. Everything I grew up knowing about love, I know from my parents, and the ways in which they love me and each other. Although many of the lessons I learnt during childhood have been undone is some ways as I grew older, I still derive a sense of hope and possibility from them.

“I say bell hooks saved me, but what I really mean is that she transformed me — she holds my fears in her palms, gives me kindness through her gentle words even a year-and-a-half after her passing. (Shutterstock)
“I say bell hooks saved me, but what I really mean is that she transformed me — she holds my fears in her palms, gives me kindness through her gentle words even a year-and-a-half after her passing. (Shutterstock)

The world works in mysterious ways and one of its most bewildering circumstances is that too many of us remain wounded from looking for love. hooks says we tend to carry these wounds deep into adulthood and old age. For me, heartbreak morphed itself into this very wound, lodged itself in my ribs, and cast a shadow over my life.

I associated shame with simply feeling too many things, and I fooled myself into thinking I’d be a burden if I chose to be emotional. I hated my inability to be rational, like I believed a man would be if he were in my place. I drowned in the humiliation of everyone else knowing that all of this stemmed from hurt and heartbreak — that they’d look at me and think, “Oh, she can’t function without love. She needs this to survive.” But who doesn’t? All of hooks’ work on love shows that asking for love, or expecting it is not wrong, and is, in fact, a prerequisite to our collective survival. I say bell hooks saved me, but what I really mean is that she transformed me — she holds my fears in her palms, and gives me kindness through her gentle words even a year-and-a-half after her passing.

Rega Jha, who considers herself a reader of bell hooks first, and a writer second, wrote that “Redemption is earned by finding the right words and ordering them correctly.” This essay is an attempt to find the right words, and an ode to bell hooks, but it is also a striving at redemption: for the version of me right now taking all the love I can get, and for the one that needed to hear that love isn’t a weakness.

Neeraja Srinivasan is a student of Literature and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. She enjoys good books and comfort food.

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