Valentine's Day is lame. The holiday designed to celebrate love somehow makes most of us feel dissatisfied with our relationships or defensive about our relationship status — whether you're single, married, or dating.
One of us is single. One of us is in a relationship. On Valentine's Day, we both face arbitrary choices about our plans, choosing from a menu of clichéd, commercialized options that say nothing about our relative happiness or the health of our relationships … or even our interest in Valentine's Day itself.
So, this year, we are asking ourselves: Is there a way to redeem Feb. 14?
Do We Have to Be One of 'Those Couples'?
You may think that the terror of Valentine's Day flees when you are in a relationship, but no. The pressure's on for the right amount, the right kind of celebration. If you do like chocolate and roses, you're one of those people who buys into impossibly cheesy, disconnected-from-reality fairytale romance. If you stay home with pizza and beer, you're one of those people, trying to be ironic and hip, without a box of candy or card in sight. For the record, I'm the latter.
My significant other feels the tension too. He says:
We really are in a bind. Yes, it's a schmaltzy holiday, originally associated with St. Valentine, as the legend goes, now thoroughly co-opted by capitalism. Yes, it's better to just have a nice talk about how awfully exploited we all are, by the hype, and how we should just go about our relational business.
But pragmatically, we can't just ignore the day entirely. Even the most jaded and snarky woman will want something special on the day of. Just "nothing too cheesy," or "nothing too romantic," she'll say.
That's basically a paradox that would have made British journalist G.K. Chesterton proud. But Chesterton, a joyfully married Christian man, also had a realistic view of his own kind: "Women are the only realists; their whole object in life is to pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men."
Our idealism is born out of a healthy desire to honor the relationship we're in, including where it's been and where it can go yet, by God's grace. It expresses itself in terribly awkward ways, like boxes of waxy chocolates, botched dinner reservations or overly bounteous bouquets of red roses. But I suspect that what they (the women) really want is an attempt, however lame, to honor them and show them affection.
Cupids and hearts and red roses and chocolate and champagne sales aside, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with social encouragement to celebrate important relationships. If we're going to paint a bulls-eye on V-day for commercialism, we also have to target Mother's Day, Father's Day, and the entire wedding industry.
Rowan Williams recently commented on our culture's odd obsession with days of celebration, over and above the long-term commitments and day-in and day-out sacrifices that mark real love. He claimed that the "marketization of marriage" poses the greatest threat to the long-term success of the relationships. Like marriage, Valentine's Day and other relationship celebrations can be taken to rabid extremes.
However, the instinct to celebrate important relationships in community is crucial. That is where the real problem lies with Valentine's Day. It is, at heart, not a communal celebration of critical relationships. It is an inward-focused holiday that focuses myopically on one bond. Instead of celebrating the power of that bond to enrich the lives of dozens it touches, Valentine's Day measures the strength of the bond in teddy bears, hearts, and chocolate, none of which passes beyond the two people in the relationship.
A relationship, done well, should be a glimpse of Christ's love for the Church. That love is outward-looking and hospitable above all. We're not called to ignore our relational ties; indeed, if we take Christ and the Church as an example, we are to spend significant, dedicated time investing in those ties. A relationship is an exercise in aiding each other's weaknesses, that two may be stronger than one.
But that strength means nothing if it is not expressed and celebrated in community. A love that enriches two people only is more an exhibition of human selfishness than a mirror of the life-giving, sacrificial love we are called to practice.
Relationships should make us more eager and able to invest in and love those around us. Valentine's Day takes a celebration of what should be life-giving and communal and celebrates it in the most insular way possible — drinks for two, dinner for two, roses and candles and champagne for two, with no room for love of others.
Meanwhile, All The Single Ladies…
If you want to know how Valentine's Day can make single women feel, watch 30 Rock. The unattached Liz Lemon goes to extremes, even sedation via oral surgery, to avoid it. Better to be unconscious than fend off what can seem like a nationwide conspiracy to make you second-guess your relationship status, she reasons.
Valentine's Day is the day that invites women everywhere (and it is, mainly, women) to ask: Would flowers, candy, a romantic evening make me feel better? What about a boyfriend? What about a better boyfriend?
That line of thinking makes Valentine's Day a particularly selfish holiday. The most selfish holiday, even. The typical responses are unhelpful: We all know a Smug Single, obnoxiously over-compensating for singleness by talking about how free she is to avoid a crowded restaurant and binge watch House of Cards season 2 alone instead. She will have friction with Miss Misery, who desires that her other single friends commiserate over the occasion, usually over drinks or chocolate. (Not that I know anything about either type.)
Much like Liz Lemon, as I've gotten older and remained single, I've learned that it's helpful to have a proactive Valentine's Day strategy. My approach is a little less dramatic, and — in deference to my mother's plea that I "don't be cynical" — more focused on the presumably good intentions of celebrating love.
After all, we already have dedicated occasions to celebrate a romantic relationship, don't we? It's called an anniversary. Ideally, Valentine's Day should be more like Mother's or Father's Day, two equally manufactured holidays but ones that can serve as a reminder to thank loved ones for their day-to-day contributions to our lives. Unfortunately, that's not what Valentine's Day has come to represent.
So what does "celebrating love" look like in reality? Well, my strategy involves deliberately seeking out the company of people that I love and that love me. Because we all need it: Yes, love, that stuff that often seems so sappy in a Hallmark card but actually forms the glue of our relationships, communities, and even our faith.
So my game plan is a good offense to defend myself against the temptations of selfishness and the tendency to look for pre-determined symbols of how much I mean to others.
Because we all have love, even if not in the form we (or jewelry commercials) conjure up in our minds. Often it's love we take for granted. There is no single person on earth who is unloved, by God if no one else. I know sometimes when I feel least loved, that's a good time to show love to someone else. So Valentine's Day might also be a good opportunity to look around at the actions of people you don't consider "loved ones" to find the description from 1 Corinthians 13 in unexpected places. Or it might be an opportunity to recognize the loving relationships around you. This year, I'm blessed to celebrate with one of the most loving and inclusive couples I know.
You can ask me Feb. 15 if my strategy worked better than dental work, but — sappy message alert! — I'm willing to bet on love.