You can feel it in the air—the mad rush on Tiffany’s, restaurants booked-up for prix fixe dinners, store shelves cleared of teddy bears, chocolate and flowers. (And if you’re waiting until now to pick up any of these, good luck.)
Valentine’s Day—”Lovers’ Day,” as it’s called in the Romance languages—is right around the corner. It’s been celebrated for centuries, but these days, for my generation, I can’t help but wonder sometimes what February 14th means to us… and what it doesn’t.
My inner amateur sociologist has long maintained a particular curiosity about relationships, partly because mine have the curious habit of becoming disasters of an exceptional kind and I could use some pointers.
Sure, it could be said that my not-so-inner Italian hotheadedness has contributed to this, but only on occasion. The rest of the time—and this isn’t to absolve me of the many sins I’ve committed in the dating department—I’ve come to find that the culprit is something much bigger than myself and, for that matter, any one of us.
I’ve seen a lot of relationships and near-misses in my time: within my family, my circle of friends, my own turns at the roulette wheel. And looking around, it’s easy to be just a bit wary at the state of things.
You see, I’m blessed and lucky to have learned from my parents’ playbook. After 26 years of marriage, it’s an inheritance worth its weight in gold. Sure, how my Mom and Dad treat each other and handle the hurdles of life is heavily drawn from the ways of the old school, but I’ve never known a happier, more fulfilled couple—not to mention that it’s rarer still when you can say this about people you’ve spent most of your life actually living with.
The Sky is Falling?
But most of my contemporaries haven’t had this kind of example—and the modern scene is paying a heavy price for the lack of it. You’ll hear a lot of “sky is falling” rhetoric out there about how the legal sanction of same-sex unions will cast the death blow to the sanctity of marriage. In reality, however, the inconvenient truth is that the commitment ethos has been dying a slow death since divorce rates began rising years ago, long before same sex marriage was even an issue.
This can be sliced and diced eighteen ways to Sunday, but the bottom line is that my generation’s concept of relationship has been radically altered— and not necessarily in a good way.
To put it bluntly, we’re afraid. Instead of valuing honesty we try to ensure at all costs that, if someone’s going to end up hurt, it’s not you. Intimacy, vulnerability, and the bonds that come with expressing them—i.e. all the good stuff that is the best of self-giving—are often replaced by a shield of self-protection and the alluring confusion of mind games.
Just in case you were confused, friends, that ain’t love, nor a way to build it once the potential’s been found. But it’s what’s out there, and it’s something I know too well as, far too often, I’ve let the gamesmanship, the drive to win, and the fear of loss, have its way with me.
Still, when the willingness to be burned has given way to creating the perception of seeming bulletproof, the Church keeps repeating the one panacea it’s got—a nugget which, in effect, is the following and nothing more: just don’t have sex until you’re married and everything’ll be fine.
Lacking further enlightenment, said statement is about as useful as making sure one’s bookshelves are dusted… before fleeing one’s burning house.
Some wonder why it all falls on more deaf ears than usual— which, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a lot of ears. And the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: our faith has a lot of work to do in re-emphasizing the role of relationship in the Christian life, both the one we have with God and the ones we have with each other.
The Spirit of Relationship
We hear a lot about teachings, rules, laws, prayer-texts, and these are each a precious and irreplaceable part of the treasury of riches that’s been handed down to us, the inheritance we’re charged to hand on to those who come after us. At the same time, however, without an equal reinforcement of the spirit that’s supposed to animate all these—the spirit of relationship, the vibe of a living encounter that, with all its challenges and difficulties, cherishes the dignity of the Other and allows us to find in them the door to things beyond—we become just one more organization with a lot of paper that people don’t understand and have no need to care about.
Late last week, I spent the last night of my first trip to Canada sitting around in a swanky bar with friends as matters of faith, love and literature came up. Long after Friday became Saturday, one of the group asked me why I do what I do. I replied as best I’ve been able to figure out after almost 16 years in the journey: that you can only love something when you know it. You can’t love, or even appreciate, what you don’t know, and the potential of knowing something—and, therefore, of loving it—only exists to the degree that you seek to know it, in making yourself available to explore it. This is the case whether the object of discovery is the Church, the girl, the stars, Mayan ruins, Canadian bacon, whatever.
Love and Fear
I’ve never been one for half-measures, and my candid, driven approach (which a friend’s dubbed “lock-and-load”) has had the effect of unsettling some. I’ve been repeatedly advised to soft-pedal it so as not to freak anyone out. Much as I’ve tried, however, I can’t. I’ve learned the hard way that no life can exist with those you’re unwilling to be honest with, whatever the price, and that to do otherwise often entails a higher sum— the gift of being yourself.
The clash between love and fear is nothing new. Two millennia ago, after all, it was no less than St John who wrote that “perfect love casts out fear” and that “he who fears is not yet perfect in love.”
In its truest form, when we’re able to give that lack of fear to our families and friends, those we serve and, most especially, to the ones we wake to in the morning and fall asleep with at night (or someday wish to), we transcend the often painful ways of the world and experience the comfort and presence of God. But for all that, getting there still is never easy.
As Valentine’s Day nears, alongside the chocolates, trinkets and heart-shaped everything, may we all bring ourselves ever-closer to that love without fear, where giving is receiving, and vulnerability is strength.