What does love mean? Really sit with this question for a moment. If you were to create your own dictionary right now, what would you say about it? Jot your answer down somewhere. Text it, type it out, write it on the napkin laying next to you—just put “love” into words.
Are you surprised by how long it took you to come up with a definition that felt truly “right?” Love is seemingly all around us, and yet its actual definition seems to elude so many of us. But how can we love other people if we’re unsure what it even means to love?
This is precisely what author bell hooks asks us to consider. As one of the most revolutionary thinkers of her time, hooks wrote extensively about love in all its forms. bell hooks’ definition of love is utterly unique, and it’s just as relevant today as it was when she published her first book on the subject more than 20 years ago.
In fact, our society has never been more in need of bell hooks’ thoughts on love. Her idea of love goes beyond the shallow romantic type we see in rom-coms and Valentine’s Day cards. Her love is rooted in action, justice, and inner strength—the sort of qualities we desperately yearn for today. Although hooks passed away in 2021, her ideas live on, and we still have so much to learn from her about what it means to love and be loved.
bell hooks defines love as a verb, not a noun or a feeling. In her eyes, love is the process of nurturing yourself or others. It’s not just something that happens to you or that’s automatically present in your life. Love takes effort—daily effort—to cultivate. It’s a choice, never an expectation.
bell hooks lists six core ingredients for love, and proposes that you need all six to truly practice love as a verb:
bell hooks’ definition of love extends beyond the romantic. These simple definitions and rules apply to every type of relationship, from friends and romantic partners to parents and children.
So, why did bell hooks feel the need to redefine how our society thinks of love? In short, the author found the way our society depicts love to be deeply flawed. For instance, many people and mainstream media gush over the idea of soulmates or love at first sight. While these are seemingly lovely sentiments, hooks says they can also be destructive.
The belief in instant matches doesn’t encourage people to put in the daily effort on which love actually thrives. If you believe someone is destined to be with you no matter what, then what’s the point in practicing love as a verb? Likewise, believing in love at first sight ignores hooks’ third ingredient for love: knowledge. How can you truly love someone if you have yet to see who they are, as a whole person?
Not understanding bell hooks’ definition of love also has consequences outside of the romantic sphere. hooks makes the case that love is a core element of wider social issues. She proposes that we can’t have justice or real equality unless we practice love as a verb, with everyone in our lives.
The 2020s have been a rough decade for a lot of people. In the wake of the pandemic, many of us were not only physically isolated from each other, but also emotionally remote. In response to collective trauma, it’s a natural instinct to close yourself up like a delicate flower bud staving off the chill of early spring. The world around you becomes a potential threat to be managed, and so it makes sense to shut the door on the whole mess.
Many of us are feeling more disconnected from others than ever, and it’s for this reason that bell hooks’ definition of love is so essential right now. Her view, that love is an action we take each day, will help us all get through these difficult times without losing our sense of humanity. Rather than closing yourself off completely, hooks asks you to find opportunities to reach out to others, to extend yourself in a nurturing spirit like the fresh tendrils of a young plant.
This could mean messaging a friend you haven’t spoken to in a few weeks or making a sweet care package for a neighbor who recently lost someone. It might mean leaving work an hour early so you have time to read your kids a story you loved as a child or donating to a charity dedicated to helping others.
Even when we are forced to be physically distant from one another, that doesn’t mean we have to be emotionally distant. When we remind ourselves that love is an action we choose to take every day, we can begin to unfold ourselves slowly, becoming more open to the world. We can heal ourselves just as much as we heal the emotional wounds of others.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from bell hooks’ definition of love is that love is a core element of understanding and helping others in need. In one article, hooks explains, “When I write provocative social and cultural criticism that causes readers to stretch their minds, to think beyond set paradigms, I think of that work as love in action. While it may challenge, disturb and at times even frighten or enrage readers, love is always the place where I begin and end.”
She goes on to say that part of the reason why some people don’t consider social criticism to be loving is because they mistakenly believe love is something that cannot be challenged. If love simply exists as a feeling, unchanging and unconditional, then shaking up the status quo can feel more like an attack on love than an act of love.
bell hooks’ definition of love shatters that myth.
Love means cultivating knowledge, responsibility, and respect. To have equality, then, we must fully understand those who are most oppressed in our society, even if confronting those realities is painful or stirs up uncomfortable feelings.
This is an especially important lesson for us to consider now. The efforts to ban critical race theory from schools is just one of many examples of people shutting down important discussions to avoid feeling uncomfortable. But how can we expect to dismantle those systems of oppression if we don’t, as a society, listen to those who are hurting most? Since love is an action, not just a feeling, hooks invites us to perform this action wherever we see hurt in the world.
When we see Black parents mourn the loss of their children to police brutality, what follows is meaningful, loving action. When we see parents abandon their trans children, we can reach out to them, to show them they’re not alone in the world. When we hear women speak out against abusers, we can choose to listen. All of this is done in the name of love for your fellow human beings.
Remember that love is not passive; it’s a verb. Practicing real love means extending yourself to others and nurturing them. So, if something feels uncomfortable or you’re struggling to understand someone else’s perspective, hooks simply asks you to look deeper into those feelings. She invites you to choose love.
bell hooks’ definition of love also includes self-love. As a queer Black woman, hooks often spoke openly about not only external oppression, but also the internalized homophobia, racism, and misogyny she and many others experience. For her, self-love is the first piece of the puzzle. She spoke about how essential it is to do some deep inner work to accept yourself as you are and to fight against what society insists you should be.
In an interview with Shondaland, hooks says she used to practice this idea in feminist circles. She would ask everyone to go one day without making a critical judgment of themselves. hooks says, “Without even thinking, there’s this constant flow of negative judgment and that is just so counter to love. And so, then we of course assume that every other female is doing it to us.” In other words, if we want to extend love to others, we have to first practice self-love and acceptance.
Self-love is about more than positive affirmations. It’s about looking at yourself with clear eyes and accepting exactly what you see, perceived flaws and all. And, in turn, it’s about only allowing people into your life who show you that same respect. When you do this, hooks says, you free yourself to extend that same accepting love to others.
The main theme of bell hooks’ definition of love is that the word is much more powerful than we often realize. Our society tends to throw this word around flippantly, and this has diluted its true meaning. When we remember that love, at its core, is a radical act that allows us to empathize with the wounded and extend ourselves in the care of others, we can reclaim the word’s power.
And this is just a fraction of what hooks has had to say on the subject of love throughout her long career. To dive more deeply into her ideas, here are a few must-reads by the author:
bell hooks gave us the great gift of her brilliant mind and loving thoughts, and the best way to reciprocate that love is by internalizing her words and extending them to others, every single day.
What could you do today to honor bell hooks’ words? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.