I have many identities. I am a sister. A daughter. A feminist. An activist. A woman. A mid-western transplant to the bestcoast. A traveler. A part of the problem as well as the solution. A dreamer. An introverted extrovert. A runner. A socialist mind in a pseudo-democratic society. But above all of these things, if I were to choose one identity to be at the top of the list the day I die, it would be my identity as a pursuer of love.
I have often been chastised for this identity—by other woman declaring love as naïve, by feminists as a betrayal of the pursuit of female power, by liberals as too forgiving, by atheists as too, well, loving, by the men I date as too free. But I stand in defense of love as something that can and must exist alongside all of my socio-political identities & actions in order for them to be fully realized. I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject this week, and I am far from being able to articulate each and every reason I pursue love so passionately in my life and work, so today you get a raw, unfinished rendition of these thoughts.
I’d first like to start off with love for enemies—for those whose actions, beliefs, and values are often viewed as incompatible with a just world. An easy example here are those who engage in violent behavior. I have sat in so many meetings at feminist organizations where abusive men are labeled with Xs on their hearts–where their capability for healing and transformation are denied because it is much easier to hate an individual than change the system that created him. And in those moments I have often said something along the lines of, “yes, his actions are absolutely gut-wenchingly awful…and also, I wonder how he became such a hateful person. I wonder if he’s ever experienced love in his life. I wonder if he knows what forgiveness looks like. I wonder what would happen if rather than throw him in solitary confinement; we threw him into a community intent on loving him so hard that by the end of it, he would have to acknowledge his own humanness and the humanity of the person he attempted to destroy.” And without fail someone in the room says, “Oh, Sarah, you’re such an idealist.” And then there are giggles, and maybe 1 set of eyes from the 10 in the room who glance over to give me the “I agree” look.
Love is not naïve. It may be idealist, but idealism isn’t naïve either—it is brave. Choosing to love, and to see the pain behind someone’s actions is an act of resistance against the abuse of power we live with daily. My feminism—my politics—believe that everyone is capable of more than what patriarchy feeds them. If I deny a person’s human ability to evolve, I may as well give up all together. The entire point of feminism is to change the foundations that deny our liberation—so who am I to deny a person their ability to participate in this process? Especially someone who has perpetuated it? Isn’t changing those patterns what it’s all about?
I once worked with a young man who engaged in egregious acts against his intimate partner. I could have immediately written him off, decided I could not possibly work with him, told him I thought he was a terrible person. But this would have come out of fear and hatred, not out of a desire for justice and liberation. So I chose to love him. Because love is a verb, it’s something you do, every week we played spades and talked about now because a future was not something he could imagine. Sometimes my love irritated him, made him uncomfortable, made him call me awful names as he declared that I could never change him. “I’m not trying to change you, you are in charge of that, I’m just here to give a shit.” I loved him in his language. Eventually he gave in, he told me I wouldn’t give a shit if I knew what he did, I would want him locked up forever. I told him to try me. And he did…ohhh man did he. And at the end I told him thank-you. I also told him that I saw those actions as manifestation of the deep pain he held onto from his childhood and as a way to gain power & control over a life often controlled by the choices of others. We talked about the myth that these actions would ever give him actual agency in the world–that in choosing violence, he was not only choosing to take away another person’s power, but also denying his own need for love—because if he were to become vulnerable, he risked being abandoned once again. And transformations started to take place—it’s a slow, painful process with lots of room for error—but it is also necessary. You see friends, my commitment to end violence is just that. If I love survivors of violence—if I love myself—enough, then I know I must demonstrate raw compassion to perpetrators so that they may also find healing and space in a community they have been trying so hard to remove themselves from.** Love is the only thing that will conquer violence. As Cornel West says,
love is what justice looks like in public.
Now, love in friendship and community. Honestly, this should be easy. But its not. There is so much in-fighting in social justice movements. There is also a false barrier that the social work field tends to perpetuate between “us” and “them”–the us being service providers, and the them being clients, as though they are not mutually compatible. I actively resist this paradigm. I tell the people I work with I love them when I do. I invite “clients” who I prefer to call participants to train the ‘service providers.’ I advocate for professional boundaries to be mutually agreed upon as in any relationship, rather than something imposed in a power-over dynamic. I do normal things like drink coffee with, shop with, paint nails with, protest with the youth I work with because cultivating community is a significant component of healing and transformation.
In many groups that I have been a part of there exists so much gossiping, disdain for difference, and fighting over what we view as scarcity—like funding, political platforms, jobs or salaries, etc. And to keep this post even somewhat brief, can I just ask us to all stop? Disagreement, constructive feedback, and open dialogue is all central to transforming visions into realities—but all of the meanness we bestow against one another just needs to end. Bell Hooks (who also happens to literally be the only name that comes up in 3 pages when I google “feminism + love”) says,
“I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive, full of hope and possibility. Not this “In order to love you, I must make you something else”. That’s what domination is all about, that in order to be close to you, I must possess you, remake and recast you.”
There are such brilliant, amazing people all around you in your community, if you just open yourself up to the idea that we can love one another exactly as we are. Kid President has a lot to say on this, so I’ll refer you to youtube for further explanation on what it means to be fucking nice to people.
And finally, love in intimate partnerships.*** A growing pattern in my life is the response when a romantic partnership ends, or as I like to say, transitions. In the last several significant relationships I’ve had, regardless of their length, the person has told me that though xyz weren’t perfect, that I was really good at loving. This is by far one of the most poignant things a person could tell me because loving, especially at the end of a relationship—is something that I so consciously pursue. I value compassion and understanding and kindness over revenge, guilt, or shame and prefer to end relationships genuinely wishing the person well. However, these endings have started to teach me something—as good as I am about loving, I have a much more difficult time accepting love, or requiring love as a central component of my partner’s relationship to me. So I’ve started to deconstruct what this is all about. I, like many women in the world, was taught that I should pursue this empty version of “love” until I found someone who could stand being called my husband—because as we all know wives are just these things you have to have even though they are totally going to ruin your life, strip you of your freedom, and make you financially responsible for children who will also ruin your life in a similar fashion. My favorite poet, Rumi, writes
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
The older I get, the more loving and compassionate I become toward myself—perhaps that is why the endings of relationships have become so easy for me—not because they aren’t painful—but because I am becoming so acutely aware of the barriers I have built against love, and begun to deconstruct them. And as I do that, I begin to view myself as capable and worthy of mutual vulnerability, respect, partnership, compassion, kindness etc. And when my love is not reciprocated, I can move on knowing that an expectation that a romantic partner can and should reciprocate that emotional vulnerability is not like believing in unicorns—it is an act of resistance against a patriarchal norm that tries to trick us all into believing men don’t have to put in any of the emotional work that keeps a relationship moving forward. Meghan Murphy’s Valentine’s Day post is on this very topic, and when she says :
Romance is awkward for feminists. It’s defined by bullshit like proposals and lingerie and heterosexuality and money. So being a romantic and being a feminist can feel incompatible. I don’t want diamonds. I don’t want babies or showers or proposals or my husband’s last name. Nor do I want a husband, actually. But I want love. Monogamous, forever, love
I’m all, please be my friend! I don’t really have much more to say on this topic, other than to say that I believe in love. And romance. And feminism. And I believe they can all co-exist in a partnership if we cultivate them. I also believe in loving myself, and in doing so whether I’m single, or dating, or in a relationship, or anywhere in between. I am not willing to settle for a watered down version of love in order to fulfill a bullshit social norm, but I am willing to open myself up to the possibility that a loving partnership could exist.
All this to say: I love with reckless abandon as often as I can, and I do not apologize for it. I love as best I can in my relationships with friends, lovers, enemies, and everyone in between–and in doing so, myself. I invite you to do the same, you may be surprised at how liberating it can be.
**This is in no way to say that individuals in a violent relationship has any responsibility to stick around and “make it work” in an attempt to change the other person’s behavior. This is a call to those of us in social justice movements to resist the temptation to label someone a throw-away, and incapable of ever joining us on the other side.
***I am straight, and therefore am only providing commentary using heterosexual terms because I have no idea what it is like to be in a relationship with a woman.