Saturday, February 14, 2009

On Valentine's Day - What I Said

I wrote this last year, and after reading it, I have to say I kind of like it. So, yeah, it's a repeat, but it's also a nice summary of the way I feel about this whole fake "Love Holiday" thingy.

Like my Halloween post, I want to say up front that I find Valentine's Day to be a false, commercial holiday. I also find others' behavior during the run up to the day amusing, as desperate men search for "just the right gift" to show the special someone in their lives how special they are, just like everyone else. I told Lisa years ago that it was the hundred things we did for one another all throughout the year that meant far more than a card and something silly on February 14th. She agreed, and we haven't exchanged more than a kiss on the day for years.

We live in a society that is confused about "love". A nation of romantics, we believe the purple prose of the "power of love", we listen to songs that encourage us to surrender ourselves to others, often with little knowledge of who that other person is. We equate love and sex. We equate love and marriage ("it goes together like a horse and carriage", a couplet that, if thought through, might give one pause). We snicker at the moony teenage couple, yet celebrate its perpetuation in to adulthood in our popular arts - who are Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, but superannuated adolescents, reacting to a physical chemistry in the midst of the tides of war, and calling it love, jeopardizing their own lives and the lives of others because they enjoy one another's company?

I want to admit up front that I am not immune to this way of thinking. I am the original moony teenager, to be honest. I bought so much of the hype, I sometimes think I am still in debt. I remember earnest conversations with a young woman when I was in high school on the difference between "loving someone" and "being in love" - and remembered that it had been gleaned from, I think, either Ann Landers or Dear Abby. Yet, I nodded my head in complete agreement with this nonsense. I have written poetry for women, dedicated songs, sat around in a state of confusion and wonder as relationships made their natural course and my emotions seemed a jumble it was almost impossible to sort through. I pledged undying fealty to one woman after only a few weeks together, and was not only sincere, it was so brutally honest it scared me. I don't think I have to tell you that she and I parted.

Having said all that, and sounding like a big jerk, I suppose, I want to say that I think there is nothing more wonderful, mysterious, or powerful than the bond that forms, through some mysterious combination of emotion, physical desire, and the rational desire to keep alive and perpetuate the good feelings one has when one is with another. I will go even further and say that there is nothing more radical, more revolutionary, than the fact of romantic love. It can alter lives, even human history (The Iliad is one long paean to the power of human desire to move entire nations and even the gods). It can overwhelm our ability to act in our own interest. It certainly, for a time, overwhelms our ability to consider our lives rationally.

Our capacity for love makes us better creatures than most. Some other animals - some species of birds, for example, and by evidence elephants, whales, and the bonobo - seem to display behaviors we associate with romantic attachments. Yet, this odd emotion, either a by-product of evolution or a gift from God or some strange combination of both, gives to us both a grandeur and a meanness that is fascinating. Quite contrary to our own best interests, we open ourselves to another, invite them in to the hidden places in our lives, let them know our most desperate fears, give them the keys to our emotional core, trusting they will not abuse the privilege. And others do the same for us. I think we do love a disservice by reducing it to treacly verse composed by greeting card company employees and bad chocolate, flowers that wilt and balloons.

Rather than buy a bunch of unnecessary junk one day a year, consider telling the special other in your life what he or she means to you on August 8th, or May 23rd, or September 9th. Consider just how much you have invested in the other person who shares your house, your bathroom, your washing machine, and the wonderful duty of emptying the cat litter box. Love isn't always about gazing in to each others' eyes; sometimes it's about making the bed together, folding laundry, sitting down and paying the bills together. It should become clear that love is something far more mundane, yet profound - we open ourselves to another, and become more, and better, because we share our lives, the great and powerful, the mundane and base, with this person.

One more thing. There is no rational explanation that could possibly convince others as to why we choose to spend our lives with just one other person (actually, many if not most people do not so choose these days; we are serially monogamous creatures for the most part). To say that we are marrying "for love" is no more an explanation than to say we are marrying "for good cooking". Prizing our rationality above all other traits, we nonetheless betray what we claim is our most prized possession in the most important, most deeply personal parts of our lives, making ourselves emotionally open and vulnerable to the deepest pains and pleasures for no good reason. I will submit that I believe we surrender our rational capacity for one reason and reason alone - love is its own best reason. We are better individuals when we surrender ourselves to another, with all the risk - emotional and otherwise - that entails. It may not be rational, but it is the most deeply human thing we can do, far more than figuring out E=mc squared or the theory of evolution. Nothing can change the world like the real, honest love two people share.

Virtual Tin Cup

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