There’s a popular Nelson Mandela quote, which people tend to abbreviate to something like “hatred is learned”. And while that’s essentially accurate, I think we need to pay more attention to the lesson in its entirety. The full quote reads:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
I’ve all too often heard people say something along the lines of “Hate is learned. Love is innate”. But what Mandela is telling us in his quote is different: that while the heart is more receptive to love than to hate, that both hate and love are learned. And why is that distinction important? For one: it offers not just the means of understanding the problem of hate, but also proposes a means to remedy the problem. Understanding that some people grow up with violence and hatred, and that without appropriate role models of sympathy and compassion, they will lack the necessary resources to pave their road to love from hate. And while that’s a worthwhile conversation, I’m more interested in the secondary significance: how he challenges us to examine what we have been taught about love and to relearn how to love as needed.
I’ve often discussed on this blog my skepticism of much of what we’re taught about romantic love as a society. Even more so I question how many people have healthy role models for romantic love.
How many people believe that someone can both love them and hit them? Love them and demean them? Love them without respecting them? Love them but not trust them? Love them but only to the extent that they can control them?
Just the other day I was listening to a song which had a little outro wherein children were discussing the difference between love and infatuation, and the discussion seemed to conclude that the different was that it’s only love if you can “love” the person no matter what: regardless of what they look like and regardless of what they do. And while I completely agree that love isn’t love which is only skin deep, how can it also be true that love is love which disregards the things a person does?
Because the things a person does says a lot about the kind of person they are. And I truly worry that this is the kind of thinking which keeps people in abusive relationships, and which results in so much enabling of bad behaviour.
You see: I love my husband because he’s smart and hard working, kind and considerate, and unwaveringly moral. A real Mueller type. I also love him because he laughs uncontrolably at cute animal videos and blooper videos, and because he’s such a nerd for cars and European history / local factoids. I love him because I believe that I know him and because I love what I know about him. But if, for example, I were to find out that he was sneaking out at night to participate in some Ocean’s Eleven shit, I would obviously have to reevaluate my feelings for him.
I don’t think my love is any less true and committed than anyone else’s, despite that it does not permit deception or cruelty. I rather think that love is not love which we find has been based in lies or which allows for or enables cruelty.
But where did I learn this model for love? It certainly wasn’t my religion, in which Jesus tells me to love unconditionally and Priests preach that divorce is impermissible. And the pop culture I grew up with was still dominated by love at first sight narratives and women who fix guys / forgive guys / are rescued by guys.
I think it was Simone de Beauvoir who helped me to form my understanding of love. She taught me that I do not have an inherent identity; that I am nothing without action / without choice. She taught me that I develop an identity only in so far as I exercise agency. Likewise, others don’t have an inherent identity; no core identity which is independent from, and unaffected by, the things that person chooses to do. And, therefore, to loving a person is meaningless if I don’t love how they exercise their agency.
And so, then the question becomes: what, in another person’s behaviour, marks the difference between those I like and those I love? I think the root of the answer lies in de Beauvoir’s quote:
“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself–on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.”
Therefore, learning to love is part of a process of learning about ourselves. Finding the very rare kind of person who makes us more ourselves, and vice versa.