I'm not going to beat up on Valentine's day per-se, calling it a Hallmark Holiday, or implying that it is just another ruse by retailers to get us to part with our money in exchange for meaningless trinkets. I'm not going to lambaste this little love-fest for its swirling streams of iconography that not only fail to capture the deep complexities of human bonding, but actively trivialize all of it. As if a heart-shaped box of chocolates might contain the myriad thoughts and desires of the heart whose hands bestow it.
Nope. Not me. I am not gonna beat up on Valentine's Day.
I sometimes - often - quote a man who was very influential for me, in the gathering and testing of ideas that have settled into something akin to a personal philosophy. Ed Kirstie was his name and he is the "old man" in my song, Times Like These. Once, Ed and I were talking about love. Ed got that bemused expression on his face that always told me to take notes, and said: "You'll be alright as long as you know this: when a woman looks you in the eye and says 'I love you', you have NO IDEA what she means."
That might sound a little bit absolute, and I suppose that usually I might be able to garner at least some idea of what she means; but Ed's little bit of understanding has held up well as I've crashed into and out of the lives and hearts of a handful of women since. His point was that "Love", in the romantic sense, is so much a construct of a person's own perceptions and expectations that no clear society-wide understanding of it is possible. And he wasn't just talking about women. Ed knew, aa I know now, that romantic love is, by definition, a bit of a trick played by one on one's own foolish self. As quick proof - is there any relationship in your larger life that is given better chance at success by the romanticizing of it's members or meaning? Any task best approached by first cloaking it in mythology and mystery?
I've come to believe that any sort of idealization of human interaction is a sort of gauntlet thrown before the fates. It is a way of declaring to the world that: I WILL SEE WHAT I WANT TO SEE. And demanding that all facts and fancies line themselves up to support that vision. Now that is fine if you are making paintings or poems, but if you are building a structure to safely contain two fragile souls, there is no substitute for the clear-eyed gaze.
Am I suggesting that one ought to approach companionship like an accountant; carefully and dispassionately adding figures in columns? That the business of love ought to be just that, operational and free of whimsy? No I'm not. I think that keeping one's wits about him when around the opposite sex - or same sex if that applies - would actually make loving more beautiful in the long run. And the long-run longer to boot. I have the sense that without all the added filigree, love would still be a pretty fine endeavor. Stripped to its basics, I think a relationship should be as sinewy strong as an athlete, drawing its beauty from its function. Of course there has to be some chemistry too.
As fervors go, I think that Romantic and Religious are very close cousins. Both grab us up and take us into the border-less world of the non-rational. We are transported, possessed. At least for a while. I have friends who have had the born-again experience. It is, I guess, a major moment for them. They usually had already been believers, but not passionate. And then something happens - a sort of internal lightning-strike, and they suddenly know God ... or Jesus in a deeply personal way. And also have the sense that they too are known - and accepted completely. Sounds like falling in love, doesn't it?
It's little wonder that ritual grows up around religion. Ritual is, at its best, very good at stimulating and magnifying the emotions of its participants. Long after I left the faith of my upbringing I went to hear my father sing at Christmas Eve high mass, and as the choir swelled up and up, I was as filled with the spirit of it as anyone there. Would I call it the Holy Spirit? No, but I believe that I was feeling that thing which gave rise to the myth which gave rise to the church.
In a sense, religion is, on a Macro scale, what romantic love is on a Micro scale. Both imbue a person with a sense of meaning, a sort of justification for all the struggles we live with. Both connect a person to something larger than just themselves. Both can comfort us, motivate us, and make us smile. Both have behavioral requirements, some serious dos and don'ts. And both offer a promise that one's dying thought need not be one of regret.
Some think that all the feelings we call mystical or spiritual are part of our on-board equipment, there for evolutionary reasons, and that we have invented gods to help come to grips with them. Others believe that there is an actual being who created us, who lives outside us - directing our lives.
In a very similar way, for some, Love has become an entity with a type of will ascribed to it. A friend of mine has a beautiful song. It's my favorite of hers, and touches all who hear her sing it. It's the story of her search for love, so truly told. And in its refrain this prayer: "Oh how I wish Love would find me". And this is how we think of love, many of us. We've turned it into a being, a spirit if you will. We think that Love is out there somewhere, working silently on our behalf. And that when Love has made the thousand tiny adjustments to fate and moved the thousand obstacles ever-so-slightly, we and our intended will find ourselves in the same place at the same moment. And our eyes will meet ... and we will know.
And if this is our experience of romance, either personally or culturally, it's little wonder that we would develop rituals and imagery and stories and songs to honor it ... and to keep it alive in our minds.
So what's the problem? The problem is not the descriptions we give to love when it is upon us. The problem is the expectations we attach to its arrival. If love is a fated thing, a sacred thing ... even a rare and precious thing with no spiritual trappings whatever; then it presents a monstrous opportunity for failure. If the thing itself - is itself a thing; if a certain bunch of world-tilting emotions is 'LOVE', with its promise of emotional salvation, then IT is profounder than WE. If we fail to give it a proper home, this Love might fly away again. And then we are left to our own shame. Failures of the heart. Eventually, perhaps, unlovable. Or we may stop believing in Love altogether ... a crisis of faith.
It's interesting to me that often the most devout religious people - or those most encapsulated by other traditions, seem not as interested in the thunder-struck version of love that we celebrate in western secular culture. We modern westerners get the willies at the thought of an arranged marriage. Yikes, we think, how creepy. That somebody might be selected for you, and that you would then have to be intimate with that person, and faithful to that person ... for a lifetime? That is so far outside western thought that it is nearly impossible to grasp. It seems an affront to individual freedom, if not an evil vestige of chattel laws and all things oppressive. And worse ... it deprives us of the lottery-win of Love finally pulling our names from the cosmic hat. Learn to love? Not for us.
Perhaps as we have pulled farther away from the traditions that once lent us our identity as members of a group, we have held firmly only to this last group affiliation - that of half of a perfectly selected couple. And that as belief in a good God wisely guiding our steps has gradually dissolved in this scientific, logical world ... we have given our belief over to the amorphous intentions of a force called Love.
God is Love, said the groovy preachers in an attempt to keep the pews filled. Well now, I think we've flipped it around. Now, decades removed from the chapel, we say: Love is God.
It's a very tenacious belief system, this notion that romantic love will deliver us to our best selves at last and solve with a sweep of its gossamer hand our loneliness and sloth and inhibitions and the 4am fear that we have lived for nothing. It's a lot to expect from a force we don't understand. And when, after the butterflies have left our tummies, and we are faced with the clay-footed human being with whom Love has "blessed" us, where do we aim the weapons of our disappointment?
At this point, traditional religious thought has it all over our spiritualized Romantic Love. Because God is working on a bigger canvas, with billions of souls, individual suffering need not destroy the belief or disable its ability to comfort. But when Cupid fucks up ... it's personal.
But in spite of high divorce rates, dizzying options, and the education on-line dating has given us as to the staggering numbers of the deeply weird; we keep lining up for another ride on the carousel, sure that we'll snag the ring this time. We comb the bars and gyms. We search Facebook for that one resonant mind. We cry every time that Adele song comes on. We may not be as bright as we are hopeful. But hopeful we surely are.
So what do I recommend? What sage advice do I proffer from the snug comfort of my Hobo Dojo in the wake of V-day Twenty-Twelve? Well, as one who has left his better judgement at the door more than once, I know all too well that we are not likely to grow up and start treating one another as free individuals without all the crazy jealousy and blame and rejected-ness that plume up like plaster dust when the hot-rod of desire careens head-on into the brick wall of our stubborn human-ness. That's not gonna happen. We are and shall remain, a bunch of clever apes with day jobs and high opinions of ourselves. Still it seems that something ought to come of this little ramble through the haphazard landscape of Love American Style. So, a few simple suggestions.
1. Don't expect Love to find you in your apartment. Go out. A lot.
2. Don't expect people to change very much. They won't. (though they will pretend to)
3. Don't ask your loved ones to read your thoughts. Just tell them what you want.
4. Stop staring into each other's eyes. Stand shoulder to shoulder looking forward.
5. Keep your friends. Both of you.
And remember, God may be Love, but Love is not God.
Dave Morrison February 18, 2012