Note: this web page is a work in progress.
If you have ever loved, been loved, or wanted to be in love, you have had to face a frustrating fact: different people mean different things by that simple phrase: “I love you.”
—John Alan Lee
Love is the most important thing in our lives . . . yet we’re reluctant to linger over its names. Without a supple vocabulary, we can’t even talk or think about it directly.
If our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of love would not be so mystifying.
bell hooks, Diane Ackerman, and John Alan Lee.
Photo credits: Barbara Reis, Sue Michlovitz, and JohnAlanLee.com
why talk about love literacy?
In the US, we are literate in so many ways. To name just a few, we are certainly literate in technology, agriculture, and science. At the same time, we are severely limited when it comes to love literacy—when it comes to understanding what love is and what love does.
We don’t have good definitions, yet we have plenty of misconceptions.
We have one word for love, or at least one word we use and overuse for it. We use “love” when we talk about “genuine love” (we’ll get to what that is in a moment) as well as for how we might feel about a funny reel or about a yummy guacamole.
Often, if we look to our friends, family, and romantic partners, we get confusing and contradictory definitions of love. If we look to films and to the internet, we mostly get ideas about manic (synonymous with romantic) love, and become further lost.
My purpose with Love Literacy is to write candidly about what I call “genuine love” and also dialogue with you on the topic.
I hope this page can offer guidance, resources, and inspiration to those of you who may feel conflicted and confused on what love means. I also hope this page can hep each of us arrive at a better understanding for what genuine love is and for the ways it is active and can be more deeply seen, felt, and heard in our lives.
5 keys to understanding love:
Defining love, love in action, ways we love, love languages, & building a supple vocabulary
The quotes at the top of this page illustrate keys to understanding love. We need to define love clearly. We need to have a supple vocabulary for it. We need to witness love in action by seeing examples in our daily lives. It’s also important to be cognizant of the ways we love and what love languages we use.
defining genuine love
Below, I’m going to share four excellent definitions of love, and then using their strengths, craft a solid definition for us to work with.
This is a lot, I know, but please bear with me.
Love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” (M. Scott Peck).
“Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely both an intention and an action . . . We choose to love” (M. Scott Peck).
For love, “we must learn to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication” (bell hooks).
For love, we must “allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known… it’s [love is] something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can be cultivated between two people only when it exists within each one of them” (Brené Brown).
I know that’s a lot to digest, but please continue to hang with me.
These are 4 different definitions, and with their commonalities, Peck, hooks, and Brown provide us with an even stronger, more robust definition of love than is held by one single definition.
With the foundation of self-love and through deep vulnerability, genuine love nurtures your own spiritual growth or that of another person. Genuine love is a willful choice, and its ingredients include care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest and open communication.
exploring our definition of genuine love
Now that we’ve defined genuine love, let’s explore that definition more deeply.
The first part of genuine love is “the foundation of self-love” (philautia from the Greek).
We’ve all most likely heard the phrase: “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love anyone else.” While ultimately, I think that is an accurate statement, I agree with bell hooks that this statement is also quite confusing.
What if, as bell hooks and Brené Brown write about, you grow up in such an environment that you view yourself as unlovable? Then what? How are you able to love yourself? Or what if you grow up in a loving home, and life happens, and you struggle to love yourself?
In All about Love, one of hooks’s most illuminating points is this: “self-love does not happen in isolation.” So we don’t go immediately from unlovable to lovable on our own. It’s a process that most likely includes others, and hooks suggests that some of earliest experiences of love may in fact be “care.” From parents we may not receive love but we may receive care—getting our needs of food, shelter, and education met. That is of course very helpful, and it’s a better state than one of neglect. But care alone is not love.
For many of us, myself included, genuine love during childhood comes from friends, teachers, and/or extended family. For example with me, I had an extraordinary sixth grade teacher, Mrs. W. During yearbook signing day, she discovered that I had paid a classmate to procure a signature from a beautiful eighth grade girl I was too shy to approach. She sat with me for a while and told me that I didn’t need to pay a classmate to talk to a beautiful girl. She said that I was a great kid with more than enough smarts and charm to speak to any girl I wished. That day, in the hallway outside a bustling gymnasium of middle school children, Mrs. W taught me a great lesson in self-worth. She also demonstrated genuine love because through action she extended herself to nurture my spiritual growth.
Each of us has to face various obstacles to achieve self-love. I believe these obstacles typically arise from feelings of unworthiness, which Brené Brown has valiantly noted in her research.
As children, we are socialized in certain ways. We often receive messages that we are not good enough, smart enough, skinny enough, tall enough, athletic enough, and so on. These messages are harmful, and we must do as the sage Yoda in Star Wars urges Luke, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”
How do we do this? How do we unlearn the strong messages and training of our past?
There are many ways. Talk therapy, EMDR therapy, yoga, meditation, daily affirmations, reading, joining a support group (in person or online). I use each of these methods either daily, weekly, or monthly, and they have contributed to my growth as an individual.
To use the language of Internal Family Systems (IFS), I have become an individual who can flow with life and in the world as a fifty-five-year old adult and not let the younger parts of me run the show. This provides me great joy, yet life remains a process for me, as my younger parts can get activated, particularly when it comes to illness.
I get activated because when I was a child, my parents did not teach me the appropriate skills to deal with health-related incidents. Thus, in adulthood, I became hypervigilant to the point of my body’s detriment in several cases, most recently a root canal run amuck. For me, navigating good health is one of my biggest obstacles to self-worth and self-love, but I make strides every day.
I share the above examples from my life to help you in your journey. If you struggle with self-love or self-worth, I encourage you to explore the works below in References and Resources. I encourage you to consider talk therapy and the many therapies and practices that exist to aid in personal growth.
I believe with work and discipline, each of us can discover and thrive in philautia or self-love. I believe we do so both in solitude and in relationships. This type of work is often difficult (and an ongoing process) but ultimately it’s very rewarding work in our journey into wholeness.
This part of our definition chiefly comes from researcher, storyteller, and vulnerability expert Brené Brown. What does deep vulnerability mean? And how is it a component of genuine love?
Brown talks about vulnerability in a number of places, including in her book Atlas of the Heart and her popular 2011 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”
When Brown studied certain people whom she termed “whole-hearted,” she discovered they had some common traits, including the ability to be compassionate to themselves first (i.e. self-love) and then with others. Overwhelmingly, this cohort was willing to be vulnerable.
For many of us, we are afraid to be vulnerable. That makes sense, and it’s an observation—not an accusation. Brown notes that we can “numb vulnerability” through food, alcohol, and drugs. She makes the excellent point that you can’t numb selectively however; in other words, when you numb the pain away with “a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin,” you are also numbing joy, happiness, and gratitude.
In her research, Brown discovered that the whole-hearted, “all embraced vulnerability. They believed what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.” And yet, they didn’t necessarily feel that this vulnerability was “comfortable” nor “excruciating.” The interview subjects had found a middle ground with it, and they said vulnerability was “necessary.” Brown gives examples, such as being the one to say I love you first, to take risks, to feel what is there when waiting for mammogram results, or to “invest in a relationship.”
Brown argues that for “connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.” It is my belief that for genuine love to happen, we need to be vulnerable and be deeply seen. We need to take risks. As Peck discusses in The Road Less Traveled, “love always requires courage and involves risk.” This is genuine love.
love in action: examples & stories
This section is in progress.
6 ways we love (love styles)
This section is in progress.
Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of Love. Random House, 1994.
Brown, Brené. Atlas of the Heart. Random House, 2021.
Brown, Brené. Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough. SoundsTrue, 2012. Audiobook.
hooks, bell. All about Love. Harper, 2000.
Lee, John Alan. The Colours of Love: An Exploration of the Ways of Loving. New Press, 1973.
Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled. Random House, 1978.
Crappy Childhood Fairy Website. Self-taught and ever helpful, Anna Runkle has a great daily practice of writing about your fears and resentments, ripping up the page, and letting those obstacles go. This isn’t a huge time commitment, and it provides great value.
Hay, Louise. She has excellent positive, uplifting daily affirmations. This one, “Experience Your Good Now,” from one of her CDs is accessible on YouTube.
Internal Family Systems (IFS). You can learn more about IFS on the IFS Institute website.