(From the February 14, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune)
It’s cold outside. There’s a minus sign in front of the number our digital thermometer gives us as an indication of the outside temperature. We’re told by the authorities to stay inside because of the extreme weather. So I stand at the window of our library in the front of the house and look out the window, at the light-up candy canes that remain from Christmas. It has been too cold to take them inside. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I will rotate them so they are not a row of eight candy canes, but a row of four red and white hearts.
Frozen hearts doesn’t seem like a good image for Valentine’s Day. It would seem they should be warm, or even hot. Or perhaps not. Maybe Valentine’s Day should be less about our hearts, and more about our heads. I say that because when I think about Valentine’s Day, I feel confronted with another one of many contradictions in our society.
On the one hand, we celebrate marriage. You probably read or hear a version of the story every year. The cruel Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage because he thought unmarried men made better soldiers. A priest named Valentinus married people in defiance of the decree til Claudius had him beheaded on February 14. This makes Valentinus perhaps the first to lose his head over marriage. It also marks the beginning of a day that we celebrate to this day in recognition marriage.
But there’s the contradiction. Our society doesn’t celebrate marriage beyond this day anymore. I recently saw the original cast of “Family Ties” on the Today Show. The director of this 1980s situation comedy said Hollywood moguls at that time were doubtful about the potential of a show that actually depicted a married man and woman. Today, at least as reflected in our entertainment and news media, marriage seems an afterthought for many. Living together, co-habitation, and free love are hip. Valentinus would be called a fool by people who by personal choice rather than civil decree choose not to marry or to divorce on a whim.
Instead, on Valentine’s Day, our society seems to celebrate some notion of love. They even get that part wrong. Our English language inhibits our understanding of the word. The Greeks had several words for love. Among them were “eros,” which referred to lust and intercourse, and “agape,” which had implications of almost divine, self-sacrificing and thoughtful love. Hollywood is confused and dwells on the former. What’s needed in our society is marriage understood and celebrated in accord with the latter term.
That’s how the Apostle Paul—a single man—described love in a letter he wrote to people in Corinth about 200 years before Valentinus. Paul wrote: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered; it keeps no record of wrongs.”
In other words, it deals with the thorns on the roses. It recognizes the mistake of equating love with fluttering eyelids and beating hearts. True love is less about excitement and ecstasy than it is about comfort and commitment. It’s not about the wildly beating heart but the familiar touch of a hand. It’s not about heavy breathing, but pleasant conversation. It is not about seeking pleasure in the moment, but cherishing the gradual accumulation of years of shared episodes in life.
Another revolutionary captured that spirit of love. Jose Marti was a Cuban who served as a leader in the fight for independence from Spain. He was also a poet who penned these words about love: "Love is . . . born with the pleasure of looking at each other, it is fed with the necessity of seeing each other, it is concluded with the impossibility of separation."
It seems that too many today celebrate Valentine’s Day as if they are Charlie Brown regarding the little red-haired girl from a distance, too caught up on the pleasure of looking at each other. We need more emphasis on the impossibility of separation.
So, on a cold day, with a warm heart, I contemplate my candy cane hearts from the window. When the snow melts, these decorations will be put away, stored unceremoniously with the other accumulated marital clutter. They’ll return next year.
What is more important is what happens between February 15 of this year and February 13 of next, and all the days of all the years to come. Perhaps none of us will have lives worthy of a Harlequin romance or a made-for-TV love story movie. But why hold such folly in our hearts? Instead, we should use our heads and decide to savor the love we have, all year long. There will be kisses in the kitchen, hands held on the pier, folding laundry, dusting, mowing the lawn, doing favors for the other just because, minor repairs, a few crises, meaningful conversations, and maybe even an exotic vacation now and then. All of it, the mundane and the marvelous, can happen together with the one person to whom we have been “joined together.” Having so decided in our heads, we will certainly feel it in our hearts. That’s worth more than one day of celebration.