It's time once again for that day of obligation foisted on us each year by the commercial racket known as the greeting card industry. Happy Valentine's Day!
Valentine's Day somehow manages to turn voluntary acts of kindness and warmth into perfunctory gestures, and romantic candlelight dinners into onerous burdens — all in the name of "love" (read: commercialism).
Now, if those were the only things I didn't like about Valentine's Day, I'd probably keep my grumpiness to myself. But this holiday also perpetuates bogus, unattainable notions about romance, love, marriage, and sex that has probably contributed more to our unhappiness (not to mention our divorce rates) than anything else.
One such message goes like this: You need somebody else's approval and acceptance to be a complete, fulfilled person.
If Valentine's Day isn't the cause of this worldview, it most certainly has profited from peddling it. And while it's hard to pinpoint exactly where this notion came from, the rise of popular music catering to teenagers is a fair, if surprising, place to assign the blame.
Just as Valentine's Day seems utterly harmless, much of the "wholesome" music we grew up listening to fostered this pernicious worldview.
The Righteous Brothers, for example, sang: "Without you baby, what good am I?"
(The answer, I suppose, is … not much.)
"I could try to be big in the eyes of the world / what matters to me is what I could be to just one girl," declared The Beach Boys.
Anyone vaguely familiar with Christian theology and rhetoric will recognize the religious overtones. (We are advised to be in this world, but not of this world.) It's not the "world" that Mike Love (no pun intended) needs the approval of. His salvation is found in "just one girl."
She completes him. Until she leaves. And then his world crumbles?
Many people have an emotional longing. They feel empty. And the desire for affirmation from other people gives them hope. This sounds good, but it's a trap.
In his 1973 book The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker explained why we developed this modern notion, which he calls "the romantic solution."
In short, he argues it's because we no longer look to God for our personal fulfillment. Instead, he says, "Modern man fulfills his urge to self expansion in the love object just as it was once fulfilled in God."
To be sure, compared to today's coarse culture and music, it sounds absurd to criticize the sappy songs of the '50s and '60s. But the perpetuation of this romantic notion has arguably done more to pervert our understanding of the proper role of romantic relationships than almost anything else.
As much as we complain about Miley's twerking, the selling of sex is, at least, more obvious, and thus less insidious, than the selling fo the romantic solution. The fact that it seems so harmless — so wholesome and winsome — is perhaps why it's so seductive.
Of course, it's not just the music industry. Almost every romantic comedy is at least partially involved in advancing this trope.
It is so clichéd that we've begun seeing some pushback in other genres. "Too many guys think I'm a concept," says Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, "or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind; don't assign me yours."
She's right. The notion that if I can just get her to date me, everything'll be fine has gotten a lot of free publicity in movies and music. But it's utterly destructive.
If you don't get the girl (or guy), you can't be fulfilled. If you do get her, you'll soon learn that she can't live up to your impossibly high expectations — or you can't live up to hers. This will cause her to leave you — or you to leave her. Or you'll both be chronically unhappy.
Of course, the worst time to have the epiphany that you have wrongfully elevated your partner is after a few years of marriage and kids.
"The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy," wrote C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. "I am not now speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us."
Or, as Tim Keller, pastor of Christ Redeemer in New York City, has said regarding the Old Testament story of Jacob: "You go to bed with Rachel; in the morning it will always be Leah."
To some degree, this is about narcissism. "When people put themselves at the center of their relationship or their spiritual life — always asking what can you/God do for me? — it will end in heartache," says Lisa De Pasquale, author of the forthcoming book Finding Mr. Righteous. (Listen to my interview with De Pasquale here.)
It's also procrastination. Buying into the notion that your salvation is right around the corner means postponing any sort of self-discovery or self-improvement work that might actually make you a happy individual capable of actually attracting — and sustaining — a long-term romantic relationship.
If our value comes from having that special other person, then what about the people who don't have a date on Valentine's Day? Is it totally unacceptable to live a fulfilling life alone?
Here's the truth: You don't need someone else in your life for you to become the person you're supposed to be. You must first become that self-realized person, and then you will find that special him or her.
Don't count on someone else to make you happy or fulfilled.
And if you do marry, forget about all that love at first sight nonsense. Find someone you'd be willing to go into battle with — or, at least, go into business with. That's not romantic, but it's wise. Because — no matter what pop songs or rom-coms tell you — raising kids, paying a mortgage…all the stuff you do in life, is more like a business partnership than a date. It really is.
You wouldn't go into business with someone you didn't trust and respect; yet a lot of people put less thought and time (and vetting) into their marriage than into their business relationships.
Or at least try to find someone who will at least concede that Valentine's Day is an empty, engineered holiday that has little to do with true love and happy marriages. You'll still have to celebrate it, mind you. But at least you'll have someone worth celebrating with.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 things the world's happiest people do every day
- The 11 worst fast food restaurants in America
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
- Why are so many parents being arrested?
- Israel has only two choices: Eliminate the Palestinians or make peace
- What I learned from totally unplugging and shutting up for three days
- 9 things you probably didn't know about the moon
- 10 burning questions you've always wanted to ask about investing
- Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians
Subscribe to the Week