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In Defense of Motions and Gestures

photograph of heart tattoo being done

Behold. One day of the year. They all grin and greet each other when every other day they walk by with their faces in their collars. You know, it makes me very sad to see all the lies that come as surely as the snow at this time of year. How many “Merry Christmases” are meant and how many are lies? To pretend on one day of the year that the human beast is not the human beast. That it is possible we can all be transformed. But if it were so… if it were possible for so many mortals to look at the calendar and transform from wolf to lamb, then why not every day? Instead of one day good, the rest bad, why not have everyone grinning at each other all year and have one day in the year when we’re all beasts and we pass each other by? Why not turn it around?                             

-Scrooge from Steven Knight’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol

Forgive me. I promise I know which holiday we’re celebrating and what month it reads on the calendar. It’s just that this very same “Humbug!” sentiment has been steadily creeping further and further into winter and appears dead set on choking out hope, smothering all joy, sapping the color from the world, and turning everything a pallid, lifeless gray. (Or maybe that’s just COVID and the inability to taste or smell.)

Regardless, I refuse to accept that it’s only rubes and suckers naive enough to willingly celebrate the occasion. I don’t mean to be an apologist for the harm the commercialization and serialization of Valentine’s Day brings. There are a great many reasons to loathe this Hallmark Holiday (as our own Madalyn Sailors has just pointed out). But at least some of the animus feels undeserved, misdirected, and ill-conceived. Surely a bit of heart is in the right place.

No small part of the hate aimed at this day of love seems to be the product of deep and intractable cynicism – what the School of Life paints as “a near-hysterical fragility around the idea of expecting anything which turns out to be less impressive than they’d hoped.” Having been chronically underwhelmed, we’ve hardened our hearts to the torment of eager anticipation consummated by utter disappointment. Once bitten, twice shy. We won’t get fooled again.

Now, hard-won experience grants us the power to see past the ruse. Aren’t we all just frauds and phonies for confining to a single day all love’s labors – a single day to declare our undying adoration, pledge our unwavering fidelity, and stage the grandest of grand gestures – only to wait until this precise moment next year to enact the exact pantomime all over again? Are we not simply admitting that things could be different if we could just find our resolve a dozen more times each year? Does this day not make fools and liars of us all?

If right, upstanding, moral action is to be found in moderation between extremes – neither cowardly nor capricious, neither despondent nor devout, neither guarded nor gullible – then we should resist the allure of this dead-eyed cynicism that hollows out sentiment and replaces passion and optimism with contempt and scorn. Mind the golden mean.

What’s more, we have plenty of good old selfish reasons for resisting this siren song of sour grapes. It will come as no great surprise to anyone that thinking the worst of others proves detrimental to one’s health. As Isaac Asimov cautioned, these psychological defenses pose a serious threat to our mental well-being:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable of enjoying the good things.

It all comes down to a habit of mind; perception is reality. By deadening our insides and numbing ourselves to the inevitable injustices this world will bring, we insulate ourselves from hurt and disappointment. But we also forgo the experience of hope and the opportunity to dream. Our coping mechanism becomes all-encompassing.

So, act as if. Mark a big, bright ‘X’ on your calendar. Make the space. Find the time. Schedule it. Perform it. Embrace the ritual. Because making the effort matters, even if it’s forced. At the very least, you owe it to yourself. And who knows, it’s always possible people might surprise you.

Breaking Up With Valentine’s Day

photograph of heart graffiti over crack in wall

At first blush, Valentine’s Day seems a harmless celebration: a quaint, centuries-long tradition promoting love and romance between couples. But a closer look beneath that thin veneer reveals significant blemishes. Combined with modern-day consumerism, Valentine’s Day becomes a trial for single people and a farce for couples. All the imagery of candle-lit meals shared between lovers staring longingly in each others’ eyes excludes many. Truthfully, everyone pays more attention to the holiday’s customs than the intentions behind them.

There may not be one perfect representation of love, and that is precisely the problem with Valentine’s Day: it portrays only one view. The reality is not everyone can be (or wants to be) in a romantic relationship. Singles often feel frustrated on Valentine’s Day because they fail to meet relentless societal expectations: fall in love, plan a wedding, pick out baby names. This narrow interpretation of love limits Valentine’s Day to a particular set of checkboxes that only fit some people. (If being on one’s own was considered a good choice, surely we’d be celebrating “Single’s Day.”) But Valentine’s Day presents a meaningful opportunity to platonically connect with a friend, relative, or other loved one. It’s wrong to assume that romance should always be celebrated and that singleness should always be pitied. Ultimately, Valentine’s Day cannot speak for a broad population which varies in preference, relationship status, and long-term plans for their romantic lives.

If someone celebrates love and romance on Valentine’s Day, they should do so authentically. While it may feel right to put together an impressive display, it is important to remember why we do it: is it truly because you know this person will value it, or because you value your effort in giving the “right” gift? Tradition and representation often form the image we have in our heads. Don’t settle for the stereotypical gifts – the flowers, the chocolates, the hearts, the stuffed animals – just because we’ve been taught to do so. We have to stop placing the Hallmark rituals above the genuine interests of the person we seek to connect with.

These normalized ideas about how the holiday’s celebration come at a young age, when schools hold annual Valentine’s Day parties that communicate (intentionally and unintentionally) the celebration’s supposed importance. Again, this seemingly harmless tradition puts lasting thoughts in our heads about what love and romance are supposed to look like. Our infatuation with the holiday fuels false expectations that can frustrate and disappoint partners. The pressure and strain are real. But it’s inauthentic to measure the value of a relationship based on the material goods exchanged. And often, companies feed into the consumerism that upholds Valentine’s Day standards. Companies benefit, while couples miss out on a valuable opportunity to share sincere gifts. Ironically, Valentine’s Day cheapens the love it is supposed to value.

In order to promote genuine connection, Valentine’s Day must make room for everyone’s unique interests and desires. It should be inclusive of everyone: couples who celebrate, couples who don’t, and singles. Further, if a couple chooses to celebrate, each person should share their preferences with their partner. If we fall back on the idea of what celebrations like Valentine’s Day are supposed to entail, couples will lose out on the possibility of genuine connection. No one should assume what their partner will appreciate; to know that takes a certain depth and attention in a relationship. The consumerism in this holiday will only encourage couples to skip this crucial aspect of their partnership. If couples celebrate the love they share and ironically do so at a cost to their relationship, perhaps we should forego the holiday altogether.

Competing Desires: Casual Sex in a Monogamous Society

Last week, I spoke with an elderly couple. They’re both in the sixties now, but when they married each other, he was seventeen and she was eighteen. Sounds crazy, right? Furthermore, they were both virgins when they put the rings on each other’s fingers. A situation like this is nearly unheard of today—especially for millennials. On college campuses across America, casual sex has become the norm, and long-term relationships and marriage are generally regarded as an endeavor to undertake far in the future.

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