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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

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Anti-Valentine’s Day support group

The strongest love is the unexpected kind. Valentine’s Day promotes the opposite.

On Feb. 14, we celebrate love. We honor it with frilly pink and red hearts, chocolates and flowers. How cute.

If you want to commemorate love this way, I’m happy for you. But if there’s something about Valentine’s Day that doesn’t sit right with you, rest assured that you’re not alone. There might be good reason for such apparent grumpiness.

At least one Observer author agrees that obligatory gifts and girly traditions are a weak representation of the most powerful force in the universe. Let me underscore that if you like some of these silly rituals, go crazy. But if you find them a bit odd or unsettling, it might be because Valentine’s Day is a commercialized holiday that fails to live up to the immense sorrow and joy of love. Despite its fanfare, Valentine’s Day often implies a limp and uninspiring definition of love.

The pink or red heart is a shining example of this phenomenon. The symbolic heart is a far cry from the thing it claims to represent.

Have you ever taken a moment to think about your own beating heart? Or pictured the same life-giving organ inside someone else? There’s something gruesome about it — all those vessels and blood so red it can’t be captured in a paint swatch. This miraculous thing at the left-center of our chest pumps blood to our extremities. It beats whether we ask it to or not. It speeds up and slows down to the tune of our striving, our fear and our desire.

It’s no wonder that when trying to describe love’s source, we choose something as horrific and beautiful as the human heart. Yet when we represent this heart for Valentine’s Day, we strip it of anything harsh or powerful and turn it into a less offensive, more agreeable symbol. 

Your favorite profiteering candy company presses them out in pastel-colored sugar and stamps them with edible ink messages. The cheery result hides anatomical grossness. Such silly conversation hearts are a distant distraction from the real beating heart — one that’s there every day of the year and not just on one arbitrary day in February. 

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some heart-shaped pasta and candies if you’d like, something is lost when love means nothing more. 

To me, there is something borderline offensive about how Valentine’s Day seems to suggest that “love” is a contrived little game of gifts and luxuries, marketed largely to women. Stated or not, women face a pressure to receive something on Valentine’s Day. We’ve been deceived by this holiday into thinking red roses are a measure of love. The whole affair seems to say: If no one concots a grand but perfectly understated gesture for you, you don’t know love. That is a lie. Love is not only for the girls, and it is poorly measured by Valentine’s Day. Even those who have never had a romantic interest, already know and give love.

My anti-Valentine’s Day take is not new. Many have voiced the idea that the holiday is merely a scheme contrived by the greeting card and chocolate companies. Those arguments are fine, but they miss the point. Valentine’s Day is not too extravagant, but rather, too weak for love.

To understand this misgiving, love must be defined. 

What is the definition of love implied by Valentine’s Day? Love is a happy-go-lucky feeling, the headrush of romance all dressed up with red wine, red lipstick and red bows on expensive gifts.

I believe this is a terrible definition for love. The strength of love flows from its unmerited and unexpected qualities. Love is a force that moves in each of us and calls us to actions that will the good of another for no conditional reason.

You might not agree with my definition, but the question is worth asking. What is love? Do the festivities of Valentine’s Day live up to your definition?

In my opinion, the expressions of affection on Valentine’s Day mean less because they are expected. There is something contrived, or at the very least trivial, about it. Is love trivial? Are the obligations and expectations of Valentine’s Day on par with the kind of love humans desire?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather receive one wilted dandelion from my younger cousin on a random afternoon in July than a bouquet of roses every year on Feb. 14. An automated subscription service could do the latter.

The celebration of Valentine’s Day can cheapen the love we experience in countless moments throughout our lives. The holiday seems to suggest that we can express this miraculous force only one day of the year. Choose any other time to write a kind letter or share a treat, and it is branded as strange. 

But what about all the times you have experienced love unexpectedly or been given a gift without obligation — freely, not because of some calendar holiday. Love shocks us with its goodness. We learn more about love in those milliseconds than could be understood by an infinite number of Valentine’s Days.

This kind of love is not the reciprocal romance propagated by the celebration of Valentine’s Day. It is not “I love you because you love me, and you love me because I love you.” It is more like a promise, an oath to give every heartbeat to another — not only when it is convenient and expected but particularly when it is inconvenient, unexpected and even undeserved.

Sacrificial love — agape —  can no doubt be expressed through romantic love. But the very premise of Valentine’s Day is an expectation of affection. Expectations are not always a bad thing, but they are a poor measure for love. Thus, Valentine’s Day should have no claim over the word. Many who have never had a romantic relationship, know much about the most powerful kind of love. After all, it’s in our blood.

I believe there is a sacrificial love that says: I will love you no matter what you do. If you stumble, if you hurt me, if you write a disagreeable column — I love you still. There’s nothing you can do to run from it. You can’t pin down agape to a square on the calendar or a heart-shaped pizza.  

We’ve glimpsed this kind of love — from friends, siblings, parents or mentors. Maybe you’ve even felt it for someone dear to your heart.

Valentine’s Day can feel like a disservice to that kind of unconditional love we know. If our heart beat only one day of the year, indeed, we would die. 

Perhaps there is some hope for my fellow Valentine’s Day scrooges. There is something a bit silly and discordant about those decked-out grocery store aisles and restaurant specials promoted in the name of love.

Celebrate Valentine’s Day however you’d like, but don’t forget the reality of love. It looks a lot more like a human heart than a candy one.

You can contact Maggie at meastland@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.