“Write what you know.” How many times have we heard that advice? One thing I know is what Valentine’s Day is like when you’re single. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of Valentine’s Days since puberty I have spent with a significant other. Interestingly, most of them have been enjoyable anyway.
As I get older, more of my friends are now widowed or separated, and some of them have been sharing the struggles of being newly single. While the “newly” part doesn’t register with my psyche, “single” resonates well. What better time of year to give tips on navigating this society that my friend Ruth refers to as “a couples’ world” than on the day pop culture focuses intently on romance?
Pop culture is not to be trusted.
Pop culture is one of the most unhealthy places to get information about the “norms” of life. Unfortunately, in the 21st century it is difficult to escape. We have just navigated through a holiday season in which we have been bombarded by images of perfect families in their matching Christmas sweaters, children joyfully opening the perfect gift and being perfectly excited by it, sleigh rides in perfect winter settings, and perfect smiles on the faces of perfect shoppers who have not only money to buy the perfect gifts but also the perfect people in their lives to whom they will give those gifts. While most of us are intelligent enough not to expect this silver-screen perfection, we cannot help but feel envious of those around us who appear to be significantly closer to achieving perfect holidays than we are.
Just as we have pulled through the last disappointing minute of the old year, we crash into a display of candy hearts and jewelry at a local department store. Above, smiling into one another’s eyes is a perfect young couple, clearly anticipating a lifetime of “happily ever after.” It is almost more than anyone can bear, all this staged happiness, all this perfection we see but cannot attain. For the single people in society, it is especially cruel.
Where is the meaning?
Looking for meaning in pop culture is likely to be disappointing at best. It has never been popular to look at suffering. It will never be popular to show the mundane on television or in the movies. While extraordinary suffering may sneak its way onto the occasional talk show or the rare art house film, day-to-day emptiness of singles, widows and the divorced just isn’t interesting enough to turn heads.
With all this unacknowledged aloneness, how is it possible to enjoy a day so devoted to romantic love as February 14th in modern society? The answer doesn’t come easily; but where pop culture fails, I often find that a look at history and ancient tradition provides a more satisfactory solution.
The year I became Catholic, I received the most beautiful Valentine’s Day gift of my life. My sponsors sent me a card with a message indicating that a mass would be said for me at a nearby basilica. The gesture and the gift were inexpensive. I think they got the card and requested the prayers for a $5 donation. However, the love that came to me from that experience was unparalleled by any box of chocolates or bouquet of roses that I might have expected from some significant other.
The gift and a conversation with one of my sponsors started me thinking about the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is over 1,500 years old, an age which causes many facts to be replaced with myth and some facts to be presumed myth.
Any history that long becomes twisted and cloudy. What we can verify is this: February has been celebrated from ancient times as a month of romantic love. Fertility rites, parades and more have been a part of cultural observances of the month of February for well over 2,000 years. Additionally, there were a number of early Christian martyrs named Valentine, at least one of whom was martyred on February 14th.
Obviously, the Catholic church’s early observation of St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th had something to do with a response to other religious observances in the form of fertility rituals being observed at that same time. In fact, one of the legends concerning a St. Valentine from Rome is that he was martyred for secretly marrying Christian couples when Christianity was outlawed in the empire.
Other myths strike a deeper cord with me. It is commonly accepted that one St. Valentine suffered from seizures, possibly epilepsy, which is even today referred to as St. Valentine’s disease. This priest, however, was such a loving vicar that when he was imprisoned, the children of the village would deliver notes of love and comfort to him. This myth holds these messages as the beginning of the tradition of giving “Valentine’s” greetings to those we love on the saint’s day.
This last legend has been my inspiration for years. Although I am now happily married, I still think of Valentine’s Day as a time to remember all those I love. Rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself on this most romantic of all days, when I was single, I often celebrated by exchanging paper Valentine’s with my young nieces. When I worked with mentally disabled adults, I experienced some of the most pleasant Valentine’s Days of my life. The disabled people I served eagerly brought homemade gifts, cut-out paper greetings and other items to show me their appreciation. In turn, I always made sure to have something special for each of them. It had nothing to do with romantic love but everything to do with showing someone important that I cared.
No matter what your Valentine’s Day brings this year, I hope you can find some joy. Don’t expect to find it in pop-culture icons. Look, instead, to children, friends and the lonely people you meet throughout the day. Then, look into your heart, and find a way to bring a smile to one of them. Warm your own heart by reaching out to someone who needs you today.