I’ve been thinking lately about the chapter in All About Love where bell hooks turns to thoughts on death. I didn’t expect the connection between love and death, and it ended up being one of my favored sections. She writes that in the modern world we avoid death more easily than in the past, but we are just as obsessed with it. We read and watch news about death; we allow our lives and choices to be guided by the fear of death or harm. We attempt to protect ourselves from early death by avoiding all kinds of risks and sanitizing our entire lives, but all this focus on avoiding death doesn’t prepare us to be ready for death. hooks writes, “Love is the only force that allows us to hold one another close beyond the grave. That is why knowing how to love each other is also a way of knowing how to die.” It’s love that moves us beyond inhibition and regret and gives us peace in the end for the lives that we lived. Love today prepares us for death tomorrow. Grieving what is lost is the final manifestation of love. hooks quotes many Christian writers to shape her thoughts on love, including Parker Palmer, Henri Nouwen, and Thomas Merton, but her conclusions are far from the perspective of love in the church I experienced.
I was raised in a Christian community that talked about death all the time, but the relationship between death and love that I grew up with was inverted in comparison to the descriptions in All About Love. Love wasn’t what prepared us for death; it was death that prepared us to love. We were asked first to “die to ourselves,” to become “an empty vessel” for God to fill up, to make ourselves a “pleasing sacrifice” to God. Once we were ready, it was His love through us that we were to share with the world. At that point we would be capable of love that only comes from God. Where did “I” go after this sacrifice was made? I existed somewhere inside myself, restrained by the gospel. I was told to deny my “self” because it would only lead me astray. In addition to being the gateway to love and life on earth, we viewed death as the gateway to the eternal life that we are all preparing ourselves for. Life today was “just the introduction,” “just the preview, and “a poor reflection” of the life we were meant to be living so it was ok if we experienced this life as suffering, that was preferable and expected, really. Physical death signified freedom from the pain and suffering of “this life” into a perfect afterlife that we were really created for. I think this worldview is possibly why for many years I had a weird obsession with the idea of dying young—maybe because the life of suffering I was being called to seemed so exhausting. At the same time, I was told repeatedly that we were the ones living life to the fullest, we were the ones filled with love and joy. If you weren’t feeling that way you just had to believe it.
In the Bible, the idea of love was so often intertwined with the idea of sacrifice and suffering that the two were essentially synonymous. Love as sacrifice and suffering often involved death (in the case of Jesus and others) which always sort of led me back to the desire for the afterlife, not at all with the sense of love for this life or love for others the way hooks writes about it, but in a sense of longing for the better life that was being promised to me. If I was living to the fullest, why was I so anxious for Jesus to return and bring it to an end?
In contract to this perspective of love as a sacrifice, hooks believes that the true foundation of love is honesty. Without honesty, the heart and soul connection involved in loving someone would simple not be possible. hooks has a very strong conviction that before we can experience a true connection with someone, we have to start by being honest with them. She writes specifically that men are taught from an early age that dishonesty is power and that withholding emotion is strength. This partially explains why men may be less capable of love or prepared for love. Lies often allow us to believe what we want to believe about ourselves and others. In this sense, “Lies may make people feel better, but they do not help them to know love.” We must unlearn this view of honesty in order to experience intimacy, to experience love.
This idea of love requiring honesty seems obvious, but it is not at all the understanding of love that I learned early on. While reading this book I started to wonder if dishonesty is actually central to the Christian faith. It’s not just that Christians can sometimes seem fake, for instance, when they pretend to be happy, but they are obviously not. It’s that Christianity encourages people to believe they are happy when they are not, to reframe trauma and hardship as opportunities for spiritual growth, to maintain optimism in a situation when reality has obviously moved on.
In thinking about this, I realized for the first time that honesty is not listed in the Ten Commandments, the Fruit of the Spirit, the Great Commission, or the Greatest Commandment. There are verses about honesty, but they aren’t really the most famous and even those are not referring to personal honesty. Sometimes they are referring to honest business practices (accurate scales) and other times when the Bible uses the word “truth” it is referring to Christian doctrine and faith, not one’s personal truth, what someone thinks or feels. It often feels like personal truth is supposed to be replaced with a higher “Truth” so honesty in the Biblical sense is the act of speaking Christian doctrine. Personal experiences are always framed through that doctrine. This connects to the idea of dying to ourselves and being “reborn.” Being totally honest (for instance, admitting that you dislike someone) might be seen as giving too much attention to our “old, sinful selves” whereas “Truth” is focusing on our new, transformed, reborn selves. Even the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is not a direct admonition to be honest about your personal experience or life, but seems specifically related to the act of slander, of harming someone’s reputation, or of not representing God well to someone else.
We’re so convinced that we have been transformed that we believe we are being honest when we represent ourselves in ways that don’t reflect what we are feeling or thinking on the inside because we convince ourselves those thoughts and feelings are not who we are any more. Those thoughts and feelings are our “old self” clinging on to power inside ourselves and we need to ignore (actually, kill) those old selves and focus on God and the person that we are being transformed into – that is our True self.
While putting this post together it really started to sink in how exhausting it all is. And the end result is people who do not trust themselves, know themselves, or know each other and, hooks would say, do not know love. After taking a step back, I have been able to view this “die to yourself and become a new creation” mentality more simply as deception. Who are we serving well by deceiving ourselves and others that we don’t think what we are thinking, feel what we are feeling, want what we are wanting? And encouraging young people at very formative stages of life to do the same?
When we primarily share ourselves and our stories in the form of confession, prayer requests and apologies, we are saying that we regret who we are, we are afraid of ourselves, we are skeptical of ourselves, we want to believe that we are not ourselves. Our only hope is in becoming something new. Nothing about this view of life encourages simple, true, obvious honestly. It is actively working in the opposite direction.
While Hooks writes that many who are dying regret not loving more and not being more fully honest, I was always raised to believe my only regret would be not witnessing to more people, not doing more to share the good news of the gospel. The true way to love people, I was taught, was to tell them about Jesus and let God’s love shine through me. Fortunately, it’s possible to know what people actually regret when they’re dying and it’s much closer to hooks’ perspective. Over the last decade or so, Bonnie Ware has been collecting and sharing reflections of people who are dying and has summarized her collection into five regrets:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Honesty, love, and death. I keep coming back to this simple, aspirational progression. It could take years for us to shift our understanding of love, but it just makes sense, it feels obvious. In the end, it will have been worth it.