Beyond the biblical definition of what love is: kind, patient, does not boast, does not think of evil, always hopes, is not self-seeking etc. I have had a serious struggle with love, loving and being loved. At times when thinking of love the words of African-American writer James Baldwin came to mind with his very sobering recognition that ‘love does not begin and end the way we think it does, love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up” or when he said, “Love takes off the masks we fear we can’t live without and know we cannot live within.”
Here, Baldwin offers a complex understanding of what love is, which contradicts the dominant popular culture or what depictions of love in mainstream media would have us believe. This type of love, Baldwins’ love calls one out, holds one accountable, forces one to face reality without rose-tinted glasses without the endorphins that rush to the head when we’re in love, obsessed and infatuated with an idea, something or someone. This love is about taking responsibility in this moment, in the now, for future generations. It is about temperance and balance, it is a sobering love.
Yet often when one thinks of love, one is not met with images of war and battles even if those people waging said wars might say they are motivated by the love of country, spouse, family member etc. The word love often conjures up images of comfort, affection, passivity and care.
Instead of love being used as a positive change agent it has become a platitude. Much like, beauty, intensely arresting, fleeting and almost always intangible.
Personally, I have struggled with knowing or identifying what true love is, when love begins, when it ends, when to recommit or when to leave a relationship or situation. I have not always known how to be both loving to myself and to another in such a way that both parties are aware or understand that the act of love is taking place. Often my struggle with love, loving and being loved has been internalized, hidden from view. At times, my words have fallen on the floor forcing me to retreat further into silence.
Now I understand Baldwins’ assertion of love being a battle and a war, to be one which a person embarks on internally. The journey to love is in effect an interior one, it is an inner conflict – a journey towards an interior conquest and domination of ones’ self, of one’s impulses. This journey is about developing self-control by voluntarily putting limitations on ones’ desires, urges, anxieties and proclivities. While the masks love removes can be very personal they also represent the ‘gods”; they are the personification of power structures in any society. Removing the masks in effect removes your dependence on them.
Speaking of race and racism in the 2016 film, I Am Not Your Negro – Baldwin removes race or racism as an objective reason for misbehaviour in our society. “It’s not a racial problem,” he says ” it’s a problem of whether you are able to look at yourself, are willing to look at your life, take responsibility for it and be willing to change it”
Baldwin’s statement which personalises a systemic (structural) problem in diverse global societies might seem misguided at first, but when used to analyse a society like South Africa where Africans and or non-white people hold the seat of power – the truth emerges. Because within this framework it makes no sense to continue to blame white supremacists’ capitalist patriarchy or Apartheid structures when we are the ones who are in control. The white-supremacy-capitalist-patriarchy complex is no longer an outside enemy personified by white men and women – it is in-fact an idea which resides within- for which we have become willing and active agents. We have broken through these constructs as fact and understand them to be a metaphor. We have become representatives of what these metaphors stand for.
So, it makes no sense to continue to focus only on the Guptas or the Zumas, even the ANC as the sole progenitors of our collective malaise. Love would require us to be cognizant of reality; of what is going on, that we are also active agents in our own oppression. We, like them, have fallen victim to these external forces because we lack self-control. We are out of control. As individuals and as a nation we have voluntarily given our power away. We refuse to take responsibility for our own lives and so for this reason if it’s not Zuma, it’s the Guptas, if it’s not the Guptas it will be white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy if it’s not it will be white monopoly capital, if it’s not then it must be China, if not then it’s the third force, if it’s not the third force, it is the DA, EFF or IFP, if it’s not then it is surely the foreigners, the immigrants, the men, the women, our neighbours and then finally the ever-elusive demons.
This type of thinking allows us to remain perpetual victims; people who are incapacitated – who are always powerless against external interventions.
I think of love today and I know that I cannot claim to truly love anything or anyone if I don’t speak the truth for fear of being abandoned or isolated from it. That’s the risk one must bear as a practitioner of love. Just like a normal parent.
The Guptas may be on our stoep but we invited them in and served them whiskey or tea on the rocks.
Whether the cause of our pain comes from systemic racism fuelled by white supremacist’s capitalist patriarchy or not, as individual men and women we still need to take responsibility for our roles within the system. We must recognize that we also have something to do with it. When we do we’ll find out that we have been, for the most part, hiding behind these constructs in order to continue our lives as victims of something or someone because as victims we cannot be held accountable or made responsible for anything that happens to us. Much less what we do or do not do. If we remove white supremacist’s capitalist patriarchy, racism and all its appendices we find that we are ultimately responsible for our lives. We are responsible for our communities, countries and nations. We are responsible for who we are in them, and how we choose to show up. We are responsible for how we treat each other.
Part of regaining our power will be to embrace radical openness in our public and private lives. To learn or know how to hear information and think critically about it, without eliminating or silencing dissenting voices or every and any opinion that goes against the status quo. Because the more we suppress and annihilate radical opposing voices the more we will suffer as a result, this is what silencing does, it makes the problem worse. Examples of this are too numerous to list. Taking control of our personal and public lives, acknowledging our limitations and identifying our strengths; being conscious does not make us victims but equal partners at the seat of power. Because when we do that, we cease to be slaves to our own appetites, good or bad. We are not victims.
African-American cultural critic and writer bell hooks notes that we’ve always thought of our heroes as having to do with death and war. Referencing Joseph Campbell and the whole idea of a heroic journey (A Hero With a Thousand Faces) hooks says this journey is rarely a journey that’s about love, it’s about deeds that have to do with conquering and domination she adds. “Living as we do in a culture of domination, to truly choose to love is heroic, to work at love to really let yourself understand the art of loving.”
To choose to be patient, or kind. To trust, to always hope and to persevere.