Love as Destiny

A few weeks ago, my spouse Andrea gave me an essay to read by the recently departed writer and teacher “bell hooks” (penname of Gloria Jean Watkins), who had taught at her alma mater, Oberlin College. The essay was directed to political activists like ourselves and focused on the importance of staying connected with our deepest human values. Specifically, she stressed the centrality of Martin Luther King’s holding to Love as the driving principle behind all his civil rights work.

Like many of our friends, our spirits were frayed by the distrust and animosity of the current political environment. The reminder of King’s spirit and vision has helped us to recalibrate, reminding us that our quest for the “common good” needs to be grounded in a deeper spiritual purpose.

Reading that essay inspired me to learn more about bell hooks, a widely respected and admired African American feminist. Among other talents, she was a prolific writer, public speaker, and cultural critic. I read her biography on Wikipedia, watched some YouTube videos of her talks, and decided to read her 1999 book of essays entitled All About Love.

Reading that book is what inspired to me give an Alanon talk on the subject “Love with Detachment” (my previous blog posting). Ms. hooks based a lot of her ideas on some essential principles articulated by Scott Peck in his monumental book, The Road Less Traveled. That book was seminal to my own sense of personhood as I entered adulthood in the 1970’s. So I felt I had discovered a kindred spirit in bell hooks, and relished my bedtime reading of one chapter per night in All About Love.

bell hooks 1952-2021

The last chapter of the book really grabbed me. It is titled “Love as Destiny” and begins with a quote from the 20th century Christian mystic, Fr. Thomas Merton: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with one another.” Knowing that Merton was a Trappist monk who spent much of his life in silent, solitary meditation, I was especially intrigued.

The earlier chapters were largely about the psychological and emotional elements of becoming a loving person. Ms. hooks revealed a lot about her own internal process, including how she was shaped by her working class, African American family, and how her quest for higher education led her to the deepest examination of her beliefs and her identity. She made a name for herself with the depth of her scholarship and intellect and went on to become a leading African American feminist in academic circles. Her inner journey included a deep grounding in the non-violent principles of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. She found a unique voice as a strong feminist, challenging the male supremacist tendencies within the civil rights movement, but also challenging her white feminist colleagues for their blindness to issues of race and class.

Ms. hooks shares her deep confusion and depression in her late teen years. In the depths of her inner darkness, she attended a spiritual retreat and was taken in by the retreat leader, who sensed her inner struggle and provided compassionate understanding and guidance. The leader knew of her interest in literature and creative writing and presented her with a copy of the German poet Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet. Ms. hooks devoured that book, taking spiritual sustenance from each page. She describes the event as receiving spiritual direction from an angel.

She describes other experiences in her life when an outside force appeared to provide needed direction. In each case, she realizes that she is not alone, and that some mysterious force for the good continued to reassure and inspire her whenever her doubts threatened to destabilize her spirit. She describes these as angelic events that helped her learn that the spiritual journey was real.

One of the themes she learned from Rilke involves the Biblical story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with an angel. She shares her experience that the inner life of spirit requires ongoing wrestling with one’s own doubts, fears, and confusions. Angelic appearances don’t always manifest as uplifting infusions of light and love, but also require an ongoing confrontation with the forces of opposition and darkness, both within and without. From this she learns the real meaning of peace: “our own capacity to be with hardship without judgment, prejudice, and resistance.”

In the story of Jacob wresting with the angel, Jacob suffers a wound, which becomes a lifelong reminder of the initiatory suffering required to manifest his own spiritual destiny. Ms. hooks observes that all spiritual seekers inevitably suffer some significant wounding. How a person deals with her wounding is important. For some, the wounding can become a source of toxic shame that makes it difficult to move forward. The psychological and emotional healing that come with real recovery involves a coming to terms with our shame. On the one hand, it becomes important to acknowledge our shame and our pain – insisting on accountability and responsibility from those who harmed us, intentionally or not. But at some point, we need to move beyond blaming, accepting the inevitable wounding of life, letting it become a badge of initiatory honor rather than a source of shame.

As Ms. hooks writes: “We are all wounded at times. A great many of us remain wounded in the place where we would know love. We carry the wound from childhood into adulthood and on into old age.” And yet, if we learn to accept and learn from our wounding, without undue victimization, we cease resisting and begin to understand and heal. This process of healing and recovery opens our inner senses of the mind and heart. In short, “facing this struggle with the angel gives a person the courage to face conflicts and reconcile them rather than live in alienation and estrangement. In this way, recognition of the wound is a blessing because we are able to tend to it, to care for our soul in ways that make us ready to receive the love that is promised.”

For the young bel hooks, beloved authors became her enlightened witnesses and guides. Real life teachers and mentors, like her retreat leader, served as angelic presences to point her in a productive and purposeful direction. Through it all, she found the comfort, support and guidance she needed to overcome resistance and become a generative force herself.

Our destiny is another way of saying our mission for being alive. Accepting and affirming love in all our relationships is how we fulfill that mission. Bell hooks demonstrated this in the openness and generosity of spirit in her teaching, writing, public speaking, and mentoring of her students.

bell hooks — Light of Love

Each of our lives is a variation on that theme to the extent that, as we overcome fear and darkness to manifest the essential light and life force of our own being, we fulfill our destiny. And because of our innate interdependence as human beings, it is always a shared, communal destiny. Gratitude to bell hooks for guiding the way!

John Bayerl


Love with Detachment

(I spoke this piece to our parents’ Alanon group this evening. I believe it has some general significance.)

I’d like to begin with some words from the inspired writer and spiritual teacher, Kahlil Gibran:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

A slogan I’ve been workin with for many years in Alanon is “Detachment with Love”.

In spiritual terms,  I’m learning that this is a “fine study”, a paradox. There’s something about the practice of love that requires us to be “all in”, yet, when we mistakenly confuse enabling with love, the results are usually disastrous.

It’s helping me to take a step back to consider what real love is all about. Scott Peck’s 1978 bestseller, “The Road Less Traveled”, remains an important book for me. The first line of the book, “Life is difficult”, was an eye-opener. Peck writes that love is “extending yourself for the spiritual benefit of yourself and others.” I’m still chewing on that line today.

Peck says that love involves attraction, emotional bonding, and obligations, but that its most salient element is that it is always a choice. We have to consciously choose to extend ourselves for someone’s spiritual benefit. Clearly, enabling a loved one’s addiction doesn’t bring spiritual benefit to anyone.

We describe our Alanon program as “spiritual but not religious”. But what exactly do we mean by “spiritual”? Peck describes a person’s soul or spirit as their “essential animating life force.” In this understanding, “spiritual benefit” means anything that furthers the essential animating life force of someone. In a healthy love relationship, each party holds the spiritual benefit of the other as dearly as for themselves. As good parents, we extend ourselves to our children, but without the assumption of balanced reciprocity.

With this understanding, I’m moving towards a deeper understanding of “Detachment with Love”. In doing my Step 4 inventory, I came to realize that I am a pretty mental person. I learned that I needed to pay more attention to the feeling elements of living, to develop more emotional intelligence. Mental detachment comes easy for me, but detachment while maintaining a caring, feeling connection is challenging.  For that reason, I’m slightly adapting the slogan to “Love with Detachment” — affirming the primacy of love.

I’d like to end with a simple graphic, “The Laws of Detachment” by James Sebastiano, that I found online. I’ve added some comments about each of the colored circles.

Allow others to be who they are.  Acceptance of others is affirming the essential integrity and individuality of our loved one, even when we strongly disagree.

Allow ourselves to be who we are. This involves a fundamental acceptance of our own values and beliefs. We don’t have to violate our own integrity.

Don’t force situations. Remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of someone else’s forcng current. It almost always creates tension and can lead to animosity and conflict.

Solutions will emerge. Our Alanon program espouses a longterm attitudinal change within ourselves that can open the door to new possibilities.

Uncertainty is reality. This is part of our work with Step 1 – admitting our powerlessness.

Embrace it. Surrendering to the uncertainty of powerlessness is something that takes time to learn, especially for those of us who think we have to be in charge. In Alanon, we can learn to affirm the reality that our Higher Power is in charge.

John Bayerl, 1/10/2022

Extraordinary Grace

William Kent Krueger’s masterful 2013 novel, Ordinary Grace, transported me to the summer of 1961 in a small town on the Minnesota River. I was 12 years old that year, one year younger than the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Frank Drum.

The reading experience was deeply affecting. I’d read two of Krueger’s spellbinding Cork O’Connor mysteries, and his 2017 masterpiece, This Tender Land. I thoroughly enjoyed all three, but Ordinary Grace had the deepest emotional impact.

Krueger is a first-rate storyteller. He develops complex plots with a wide range of characters. His well-honed skill as a mystery writer is clearly evident in Ordinary Grace, yet this book transcends the sometimes-formulaic structure of that genre. Like This Tender Land, the narrative lens is that of a youngster but as told by his much older self.  This allows for a churning immediacy in the depiction of a young, troubled teenager, but with the perspective of someone of considerable experience and wisdom.

My favorite character in the novel is Frank’s father, Nathan Drum. Nathan is a devoted Methodist minister who came by his spiritual beliefs honestly. He came from a hard-scrabble, working-class family with a hard-drinking father. He was smart and had a strong ambition to become a lawyer. In college he met and wooed a pretty music major who was taken with Nathan’s worldly drive. Ruth and Nathan married and had a daughter just before he entered the U.S. Army as a combat officer who served on the front lines of World War II from North Africa, to Sicily, Italy, and the final bloody year in Germany.

Something happened to Nathan during that time that set his post-war life on a completely different track. Overwhelmed with the cruelty and carnage of war, Nathan found refuge in his latent Christian faith. Returning home to Ruth and young Ariel, he promptly entered divinity school and became an ordained Methodist minister.

Ruth was taken aback by Nathan’s newly found religious commitment, but her love was such that she went along, reluctantly at times, to become a minister’s wife. The saving grace was that she found a rich avenue to manifest her musical talents and leadership. Their daughter Ariel proved to be a musical prodigy and the family found a sustainable mission in leading small Protestant churches, Methodist and otherwise, in rural Minnesota. Ruth became a first-rate choral director and Ariel composed and performed hymns and other spiritual music that gave the whole family a favorable reputation. Two boys were born in the 1950’s, Frank, and his younger brother, Jake – a boy afflicted with a chronic stutter. Ruth was completely devoted to Ariel, seeing in her the hope for a musical career that she herself had missed. She delegated most of the parenting of the boys to their father.

As the novel begins, the Drum family has been happily ensconced for five years at a small church in New Bremen, the town that Ruth hailed from. School has just let out for the summer, and Frank and Jake enjoy their free time with frequent jaunts along the Minnesota River, which runs near their home. Ariel  has just graduated high school with a scholarship to Julliard Music School in New York awaiting her in the fall.

The bucolic atmosphere is soon interrupted by two strange deaths. First, a young boy’s body is found badly mutilated from having been run over by a freight train at a trestle over the river. The young boy is around Jake’s age (10-11) and like Jake, had been regarded as “different” – an only child to aging parents, spacey and unsociable. Nathan is charged with organizing and leading the funeral and he’s deeply chagrined at the violent death of this gentle boy. He counsels the parents, as well as his own two boys who are deeply disturbed by the death.

The second death is even more disturbing for the two boys, who discover a dead man’s body one afternoon under the same trestle where the young boy was found. The “Itinerant” is never identified, yet Nathan handles the funeral with the same respect and care as he would for a parishioner. He has memories of the first time he witnessed a dead soldier, and the profound effect it has upon him.

Events in New Bremen heat up as July 4 approaches. Both boys are drawn to illicit fireworks, but both are shocked when they witness a psychopathic police officer blow up a bullfrog with a firecracker.

Ariel and her mother lead the main event of the town’s July 4 celebration, a choral concert featuring one of Ariel’s compositions, and with the town’s celebrity pianist-composer, Emil Brandt, featured on piano. The concert is a resounding success, followed by a fabulous fireworks display. But later that night, Ariel fails to return from a drunken bonfire-party that her classmates have on a sandy beach along the riverfront. Her steady boyfriend, Karl Brandt, says he got drunk and lost track of her. The whole Drum family is distraught as days go by with no news about Ariel. Ruth becomes completely despondent, and then violently angry at Nathan when he tries to soothe her. The atmosphere at the Drum home becomes toxic, despite the sympathy and food donations coming their way. Frank and Jake are deeply bereft at the loss of their generous and big-hearted sister. Even Nathan is shaken to the core.

After four days, Ariel’s dead body is finally discovered in the river below the train trestle by Frank. Discovering their beloved sister’s corpse is deeply traumatic for both boys. After the body is firmly identified, Ruth’s anger at Nathan’s religiosity boils over and she leaves the family home, completely broken in spirit.

An autopsy reveals that Ariel was pregnant. The boyfriend Karl is immediately suspected but he desperately pleads his innocence. Not only has he not killed her, he has never slept with her. The tragedy is compounded when Karl’s dead body is found on a country road after having been thrown from his sports car.

At this moment of utter bleakness, Nathan is faced with leading a Sunday service at his church. All his friends and church members rally to his side and the church is packed. His spirit is deeply wounded, not only at the death of his daughter, but by the desertion of his wife and life partner. Nathan emerges from his bleak despair as he preaches. He reaches into the deepest recesses of his soul to find and affirm the faith, hope and love that got him through the horrors of war.

At the funeral meal for Ariel, Nathan rises to offer grace but is cut short by a hostile Ruth, who curtly tells him to keep it short with an “ordinary grace.” Her coldness leaves Nathan unhinged, and he asks if someone else can lead grace. In the most moving moment of the book for me, Jake rises to say he will lead grace. Frank and everyone else freeze in horror, knowing the severity of Jake’s speech defect. After a stuttering start, Jake finds his own inner spirit and delivers a simple, heartfelt prayer of gratitude and appreciation.

This moment of “ordinary grace” is a reminder of all the moments of beauty and love that had permeated the life of the Drum family before tragedy hit. Later that evening, Nathan and Frank are alone in the car. Frank wishes aloud that he could have been oblivious to all the tragedy that has transpired. His father turns to him and shares the essence of his own hard-won acceptance:

“There was a playwright, Son, a Greek by the name of Aeschylus.  He wrote that he who lives and learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

John Bayerl, 1/4/2022