This Valentine’s Day, Celebrate Love as Growth and Liberation

In her book, All About Love, bell hooks borrows a definition of love from Scott Peck: Love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”

I love this definition. It is so active. It is about gardening the self and another, tending to growth, extending the self — the time, care, skill, the irretrievably precious moments of life — to the work of growth.

I love that it recognizes love as the same act whether toward the self or toward another, in family, friendship or romance.

This definition reminds us that though love can feel like lightning, and though it is pitched to us as a prize of fortune and spoken of as a pleasant dream sinkhole we fall into by accident, love is not a random occurrence. Love is a practice, an intentional act we opt into from the core of ourselves.

I have returned to All About Love several times in my life, in part because I love the vulnerability of the text, in part because I want to hear every scholar I respect reflect on love.

This time I am reading it with my partner as part of a salon called Black Honey on the new social app Clubhouse. The series features lovers reading texts from Black authors — before hooks, we read Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic as Power.

I’ve read both texts multiple times, but reading them back-to-back now, with someone I love dearly and daily, I feel a resonant message occurring about the taut connection, delicious or debilitating, between love and justice, pleasure and power. There is a tension, sometimes an outright contradiction, between what we practice at the most intimate personal level, and what we need to practice at the most collective societal level.

What does it look like to intimately practice nurturing our growth, claiming our own aliveness? Well, many of us are in that scholarship as pleasure activists, pleasure ninjas practicing pleasure politics, pleasure practitioners, joy pastors, love warriors, lovers, scholars of belonging and so on.

I often get chills dreaming of the kind of society that could emerge from movements rooted deeply in love that is cultivated not necessarily from the inside out, but in both directions at the same time — nurturing ourselves and extending towards the growth of the communities we belong to.

Where do we learn that kind of love, that kind of nurture?

Can we learn it from our parents? The parent could be seen as the ultimate embodiment of this love in our cultural narrative: The parent loves the child unconditionally and wants to see them grow fully into what only they can become, to love them, as Thích Nhất Hạnh teaches, in “such a way that the person you love feels free.” Free to make mistakes, get lost, hurt themselves or others, and recover, grow. Still be loved.

But bell hooks holds up a mirror to show that many of us grow up without the truth of that kind of love. We grow up inside of patterns of abuse that shape what we call and experience as love when we get older. Or we have loving childhoods where we try to hide abuse that happens in school or religious community. Or we get caught up in the patterns of abuse taught in magazines and movies about love, or elsewhere in the culture. hooks challenges us, pointing out that love and abuse cannot co-exist, and reminding us of a wisdom that Martin Luther King Jr. channeled, “There can be no love without justice.”

This definition of love and hooks’ writing around it make me feel clearer about what we need to attend to if we want a society based in love rooted in spiritual growth, versus war for material growth.

When we love our communities, we extend ourselves to nurture the land, the people, the relationships between the people, the dreams, the familial structures, the health, the spiritual growth of the community. This is not a transactional offer, made with the expectation of money, access or power. No, it is an offering of love — the growth itself is satisfaction.

Many of us have been looking for that love within an abusive power dynamic with the nation. I speak from the Black experience, from the queer and increasingly disabled experience, from the fat experience. I have felt the punishment this nation metes out in the name of justice and accountability. I have felt the absence of nurture at an individual and collective level. The U.S. has been, and is, the abusive parent, saying that if we change our behavior, it will stop hurting us — making love transactional, offering shoddy inauthentic apologies, confusing the controlling, dominant behavior of wielding power with the extended, nurturing behavior of love.

As hooks, Lorde, Hanh, King and so many others teach us, true love is non-negotiably bound up with nurturing, relating, with liberation, with growth toward justice — these are the strands of DNA for a human society that can survive its worst aspects. It’s clear enough to echo across love teachers from every background and timeline: Love is a practice that doesn’t have room for abuse or injustice.

So, this Valentine’s Day, extend toward your own growth and liberation as much as you extend toward flowers, chocolate or romance.