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.
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.
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!