What would life look like if efforts to grow and develop began from an attitude of love? For this conversation, I do not mean “love” as a feeling or impulse, but “love” like M. Scott Peck’s definition as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Another great definition comes from bell hooks in this interview: “Love is a combination of six ingredients: care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” This is about love as an attitude and approach, as a source of committed action.
Recently I’ve stepped back to look at my own relentless quest for self-improvement, and listening to others share their stories of efforts to improve, develop, and grow. One theme I’ve noticed in my experience is an attitude of “self-improvement” coming from the basic assumption that one is flawed, unworthy, defective, or in some way bad. From this perspective, one might look at a goal of becoming physically fit and healthy and frame it as, “I hate my body.” Other spurs for change include statements like “I hate my job.”
I almost wrote that hatred doesn’t necessarily motivate action, but then I rethought things. I think hatred does motivate action, but the motivated action is not necessarily one that promotes health, wellness, or joy. Hatred is about aversion and repulsion. Hatred doesn’t focus on what is desired, only what is despised. It’s a feckless creature. Some days, my body hatred might spurs me to eat three donuts and confirm the reasons why I hate my self or body. (“Now I feel gross. I’ll never be healthy.”) Other days, it spurs me to go work out, but exercise motivated by self-hatred is dangerous. It’s the kind of exercise that doesn’t listen to the body’s needs and limitations, or acknowledge that bodies have different shapes and respond to exercise differently. It’s the kind of exercise that pushes past the body’s warning signals and causes its own damage.
I think a lot of people grow up internalizing some view of self as being bad, defective, broken, or unworthy in some way. Advertising capitalizes on these messages to sell us things to fix our myriad problems, even problems that the campaigns create for us so that we’ll want the solutions. The core message is that something’s wrong with you, and you need something external to fix it, except the fix is not permanent and doesn’t make you any different. I see this toxic thread throughout culture. “I feel unlovable, but if that person loves me then I’ll know I’m lovable, but they’ll never love me because I’m unlovable.” (“And even if they do love me, it’s somehow a mistake or I’ve tricked them and one day they’ll know I’m unlovable.”) When we buy into these stories–that I’m broken, unworthy, damaged, or hateful–then our attempts to “improve” may well push those stories deeper.
The ways we regulate our systems looks different when coming from a place of control or condemnation. As a society, the United States is being forced to reckon with the consequences of its system of policing and imprisonment, which focuses on controlling and punishing criminals. With this attitude, it makes sense to allow officers largely unregulated authority to use force to subdue and incarcerate people. The result is that the police are allowed to become increasingly militarized and free of accountability for their decisions. I am not personally in favor of this approach, but I can see why police officers might feel angry about the backlash against them for doing their jobs in this way.
Contrast this with a social worker, whose job it is to promote a desired society and might look at the same person, the “criminal,” through a different lens. Instead of seeing a need to control, the social worker might see a person trying to cope with a lack of skills and resources that afford basic dignity and health. There is evidence that punitive measures against social problems like drug addiction are not as effective as approaches that connect the person to social supports and stability. Instead of control, the social worker responds with loving action–the attempt to foster change and improve lives.
All this said, I’m pondering what my life and culture could look like if love was at the center of our practices. As this entry has already gone on long enough, I may return to this later.