This weekend, I had the incredible pleasure of officiating the wedding of two of my best friends. If you remember my Letter to Baby Jett, they’re Jett’s parents.
It was a beautiful ceremony held in Western Colorado, and I am so happy for the newlyweds. Because of its relevance to my audience, I thought I would publish my message from the wedding. I hope you enjoy…
As English speakers in the United States, we have a crisis of imprecise language. Ancient Greek has five words to describe the phenomena we refer to as “Love.” Latin has four. Chinese has, arguably, 7-10 words to describe everything from love for a friend to the love for family to the love for a romantic partner to the feeling of cathexis, a strong physical connection with another.
Yet in English, we describe everything from the beautiful love Stacie and Brandon share for Jett to the way they love their friends to the way Brandon “loves” to be naked to the love we come together today to celebrate with one word.
This imprecision has gotten me in trouble in the past. I once told a woman that was a dear friend that I loved her, meaning that I value her friendship and love spending time with her. I didn’t think much of it, but it threw her for a loop. She spent a week interrogating whether we would be compatible as partners and whether she should risk the friendship for romance. A week later we found ourselves in a pretty tough conversation, and I was told, “Never tell a woman you love her unless you’re damn clear what you mean.”
And she’s right. We need to be clear what we mean when we speak of love.
As they prepared for their wedding, I wanted to help Stacie and Brandon be clear in what they meant when they spoke of love, so I asked them to read together and discuss selections from a book that changed my life: bell hooks’ treatise on love and relationships, All About Love: New Visions. More than just a simple self-help-style relationship book like Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, hooks aims to explore how our understandings and misunderstandings of love in the United States (and elsewhere) have profound implications for relationships, families, death and dying, politics, social justice, everything.
One powerful observation hooks makes is that in The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison refers to romantic love as one of “of the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” And she does so for the very reason that we face this crisis of imprecise language. Often that which we call “Love” is not, in fact, reflective of the care, the action, the choice that Love ought to imply.
This is why it is in fact impossible for any person to fall into love. To say that we fall implies that we have no choice, no will, no agency. To say that love is something that we can simply fall into removes the very root of what makes us human: free will.
The danger in the removal of free will from love, though, is not simply broken hearts. It means that if we had no agency, we are not responsible for our actions. If we simply fall in, we can fall out. From this lack of will comes insensitivity to the needs of our partner. From this lack of will comes infidelity. From this lack of will can even come violence.
No. Stacie and Brandon did not fall in love. They chose, and choose every day, to love each other.
Quoting M. Scott Peck, bell hooks defines love as “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
That’s a powerful concept. Let me say it again. Love is “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
The will. Will is defined as “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.” In other words, Love is not a noun. Love is a verb. Love is an action.
And not just any action. Love is an action that nurtures one’s own and/or another’s growth. That means that when we seek to love another, we must also ask ourselves if that act of love can nurture our own being.
Love, then, must be at once endlessly selfless and powerfully selfish.
I mean, Brandon, Stacie: When you are at your wits end, when you’re exhausted and frustrated, when you’re hurting or lost, must you still not extend yourself for Jett’s well-being? Yet at the same time, without self-care, how much care for each other and for Jett can you offer? Without self-love, how much love can you offer to each other or to Jett?
You see, Love is at once endlessly selfless and powerfully selfish. For self love and self care must be part of every act in love we make for another. And for people like Stacie, that can be hard. You see, Stacie is the type of person to give endlessly to those around her before she will give to herself, filling the cup of others while denying herself nourishment, self-love.
I know this because I see myself in Stacie. My loving partner Julia often gets frustrated with me. I am the first to ask others how they are incorporating self-care into their own lives, but I don’t often prioritize it for myself. And my ability to choose to love those around me dwindles when I don’t first love myself.
So as you continue in this journey called the Act of Love, Stacie and Brandon, I implore you to hold each other to account for how you are simultaneously nurturing each other’s and Jett’s growth of spirit but to hold each other accountable for self love.
In short, you must demand a degree of selfishness in one another.
But as I said, love is powerfully selfish, but it is also endlessly selfless.
So what does that mean? As I seek to answer that, I can’t help but think of the terrible role models for love we have in popular lore and culture, role models who treat love as a feeling though feelings ebb and flow throughout our lives.
To truly love means that we must transcend the feeling of love and understand that love is as love does.
And one of the most powerful ways that we can act in love is to practice radical honesty. The epitome of selflessness is honesty, for we lie when we act to preserve ourselves over trust and truth with those we love. And that’s terrifying.
I mean, I lie all the time. I lie for stupid reasons. I lie to make myself seem more professional. I lie to spare others feelings. I lie simply because it’s sometimes easier than telling the truth.
But when we commit ourselves to love a partner for the rest of our lives as Stacie and Brandon do today, we cannot act simply in the way we do as we move through our normal days. We must set a new paradigm.
So again, I quote from bell hooks in All About Love: New Visions.
“When we completely reveal ourselves to our partner and find that this brings healing rather than harm, we make an important discovery – that intimate relationships can provide a sanctuary from the world of facades, a sacred space where we can be ourselves, as we are… This kind of unmasking – speaking our truth, sharing our inner struggles, and revealing our raw edges – is sacred activity, which allows two souls to meet and touch more deeply.”
More deeply. I wager that this sacred activity actually allows us to meet and entwine our souls more deeply than in any other space in our lives.
Thus, only through a commitment to the selflessness of radical honesty can we truly know ourselves, know our partner, and know the transcendent love of commitment.