Editorial: A February day shaped like a heart

Published: 2/14/2019 12:05:06 AM

The story of St. Valentine is hardly a romantic comedy. As Lisa Bitel, a professor of history and religion at the University of Southern California, wrote in Smithsonian Magazine last year, “St. Valentine was no lover or patron of love.” The real history, she said, involves the beheading of multiple St. Valentines, animal sacrifices and other ritualistic acts of violent depravity. It took Chaucer and Shakespeare, as well as the February mating schedule of certain English birds, to transform a day marked by blood into a holiday where people might be moved to buy red roses, chocolates and greeting cards to express romantic love as well as its platonic variants.

Give it up for the poets, who find bits of light where there is only darkness and then say in words that which cannot be said in words. But not even the Bard can rescue Valentine’s Day from its most fundamental deceit, that a day set aside to celebrate love is a perfectly legitimate way to celebrate love.

To love somebody, whether a romantic partner or valued friend, is to do so involuntarily and spontaneously. Real love is not premeditated, nor can it be offered out of a sense of duty or obligation. It cannot be benignly faked, nor can it be rescued from chaos and placed in a two-dimensional box on a wall calendar. Love expands infinitely beyond its host and target, and once experienced alters the way one exists in the world forever. Any search for life’s meaning begins and ends with love.

We don’t have a problem with the commercialization of Valentine’s Day any more than we have a beef with the weather. It just is as it is. But because love is its own reward, and the highest reward imaginable, the holiday feels cheap and reflective of a wider corruption. The 14th of February belongs not to love but to the human ego, which desires control above all else. When control of the uncontrollable becomes the prize, fear and anxiety corrupt and then obliterate.

Love, like the people it intoxicates, has its vulnerabilities.

Emotionally mature people understand that the surest way to destroy love is to hold on to it tightly, as if it can be possessed, and they know this even when their actions betray that understanding. Any poet of worth has walked that ground, and Hollywood has practically turned it into a sub-industry. But romantic love is not the only stage on which the drama plays out. The desire to manufacture and control love is at the heart of most kinds of dysfunction, including American politics.

There’s not a lot of blatant misanthropy in the world, even in politics, but there is an abundance of corrupted love. A genuine love of all humanity is the foundation of spirituality and the apex of human existence, but cupids of the left, right and center pass off a love of country, love of party, love of the like-minded, love of political victory, love of clique and clan as substitutes of equal value. Once that trade has been made, there is nothing left to do but join Linus Van Pelt beneath his comic strip bubble: “I love mankind
... it’s people I can’t stand.”

Valentine’s Day is a light-hearted holiday, perhaps even purposely trivial, and so we apologize for the weight of our tone. But when prompted today by the sweetness of chocolate or the perfume of a rose, at the very least consider for a moment the way you love and are loved. Do it for the poets, who even in the depths of blood and myth managed to salvage something resembling the human heart.

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