Valentine’s Day Redux: Love, Self-Love, Love for Others…and Caramels and Dogs
So, despite Hallmark and Russell Stover and Dove Chocolate and rose growers gerrymandering this holiday, the truth is, Valentine’s Day isn’t originally about romantic love….though we aren’t exactly sure what it is about.
Turns out that St. Valentine Day may or may not be recognizing one, two, or even more people, the details of whom are so sketchy that we seem only to be able to agree that because he either insisted on converting or marrying people, Valentine was beaten by clubs and killed, apparently by way of beheading.
I was browsing the card aisle just yesterday, and although I did find all sorts of cards about love, and romance, and general schmaltz, I did not find a single one about such an occasion.
Even if not by such a violent way, the truth is, even in the best of relationships, they end.
For example, Egirl and I have recently come late to the Downton Abbey party. Oh my GOSH is there pathos there: when Bates and Anna finally kissed…only to have their love be taken away a day later…we haven’t been able to SLEEP since that episode, and are counting down the days for our next non-school night to see what happens next.
Death, brokenness, Life Intervening…all are sure causes for Relationships Prematurely Ending.
And another truth is, while my two children and I love to celebrate the day between the three of us (in fact, we spent Saturday adorning our windows and walls with hearts big and small, and we made dough for cookies this weekend that we haven’t quite cut out into Valentine’s Day cookies yet, and just yesterday E and I were at the store and she even let me pick out my present from her to me: sea-salt dark chocolate caramels, for the record, as long as I promised to act surprised when I opened them this morning, which I did to her satisfaction), I am fully aware of any number of families where parents and children strain to say, “I love you.”
And a related truth is, we can’t be dependent on another person for our happiness. Life, and people, both for any number of reasons, are too fragile, capricious, unpredictable for any of that.
So, then, what of love?
Of what virtue is this thing about which poems, hymns, ballads, tomes have been written, and countries risen and fallen, as have individual fates?
A handful of biblical texts have helped me ground both my understandings and expectations of this funny thing called ‘Love.’
Most famous, at least at weddings, is a passage found in 1 Corinthians.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
The word rendered “love” here is the Greek word, agape. It isn’t referring, actually, to romantic love (that’s Eros), but benevolent love, even self-sacrificial love. Paul’s describing here a love that, of course, is to be hoped for in a marriage, but isn’t exclusive to it either. Instead, Paul is addressing the sort of love that is to be shared within Christian community: for one another and for the world.
That notion of sacrificial love, however, can mess people up…especially, historically, women. It’s lent itself to the notion that relationships demand a person’s essence in order to keep the partner content.
Recall another text, this one found in Mark:
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
It’s this passage that is found in verses 31 and 33 that’s long caught my eye, not least of all from a feminist perspective. It’s fairly clear from the text and its reference to Deuteronomy 6:5 that the take-away is that we are to not live selfishly; instead of giving ourselves the benefit as we are wont to do, we are to see ourselves in the Other, and treat them accordingly (On this site, I found reference to a wonderful parallel saying in the followers of Pythagoras: “What is a friend? Another I.”).
But hidden in the text to love the neighbor as one loves oneself is the imperative, the implicit expectation that we are also to love ourselves.
If we have no self left, we cannot offer it for the sake of another. (It’s not clear to me who the author is of this short but good paper on feminist, theological, and philosophical takes of self-love: I stumbled on it because it references this text from Mark). In fact, the author draws on one of my favorite articles of all time: this humdinger of a theological barn-burner on feminine and masculine sin by Valerie Saiving Goldstein, written in 1960 as a female grad student in theology! Some of the gender references are awfully bifurcated, but she lays the groundwork for rethinking the idea that the source of all sin is pride: Goldstein says fine, if you’re a man, but the purported antidote to it, humility, is what we women do too much of anyway! Humility, she said, is the source of feminine sin, evidenced not least of all in the sacrificing of the self for the sake of the other so that there is no longer any self to give.
Every night, I bless my children twice: first, by asking: “Are you comfy? Are you cozy? Are you content? Do you know that you are loved? Because that is the most important thing.” And then I say the child’s name, and “You are beautiful. You are safe. And I love you.” And then I make the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and say, “And so does God.”
See, I want them to know that when–not if–but when their hearts are for any reason broken, when they feel alone, when they are alone, that they are nonetheless loved and lovable. I want them to know that they are treasured beyond someone’s potentially capricous or selfish external word or action. They are, within and in and of themselves, beautiful and beloved.
What has happened in them, however, is more than I could have expected when I started this blessing ritual well over a decade ago.
They have learned that when they suffer mild disappointments to adult-sized hurts, they can withstand the loss.
They have learned that while their sense of lovableness cannot be dependent on ultimately untrustworthy external people or forces, their knowledge of self-love which comes from deep mama-love and deep God-love is fiercely dependable.
They have learned that knowing that they are loved by their mother and their grandfather and dear friends and family with whom we share our regular lives, they are willing and able to engage the world despite the real possibility that it might reject them, or hurt them, or be flat-out scary.
And they have learned what those early Christians understood, and as Larry Broding said so well in this blog:
What did love for one’s neighbor mean to the followers of the Nazarene? For the evangelizing Christians, love meant a certain openness to the stranger, the outcast, and the sinner. For many Christians had found themselves with those titles in the past. In addition, it meant caring for those who had no one else to care for them: widows and orphans. Finally, it meant a code of conduct that showed the utmost fidelity to community itself. They clung to each other for survival, for strength, and for growth. After all, this was what was meant by the phrase: “Christians! See how they love one another!”
“They will know they are Christians by their love, by their love,” as the tune goes.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I understand what this day is about, and so does Scripture–even if we tend to make the erotic chaste.
And if you can find that in your world, have at it, and may every concupiscent Cupid surround you and your lover.
But for the rest of us, it’s no small consolation prize to know, as do you, that we are beautiful, and we are safe, and God loves us, and we are therefore loveable, and that we can share that love radically with the world.
Though if you have some sea-salt dark chocolate caramels to throw in, it does keep the spirits up a bit higher as we bask in God’s love and our self-love and share all that crazy love with with world.
And dogs: you can trust dogs to love you no matter what, especially dogs you take to the Big Lake.
So, as for me and my house, I guess it boils down to sticking with these four sources of love: God, each other, sea-salt dark chocolate caramels, and dogs.
A Happy Valentines Day to you from my family–including Gimli and Chutzpaw–to yours!