I’ve written before about the dread I feel about being single around the holidays, but Valentine’s Day isn’t one of those holidays. It’s just not a day that gets to me.
Here’s why: For one, it does not place as much emphasis on a picture-perfect nuclear family the way Thanksgiving and Christmas do. It’s not a particularly family-oriented day. For that, I am grateful.
The fact that it caters to couples hardly bothers me as much; perhaps because I recently found out that singles make up roughly half the country. I also feel it is extremely narrow in its scope of what love really is.
Think about all the people in your life whom you love and love you. Unless you’re in a relationship with all of them, most of the loves in your life are not romantic.
Romantic life takes up the vast majority of topics in movies, music, television and magazines, yet it makes up a tiny fraction of our lives. In our insidious and pervasive popular culture, attraction trumps platonic devotion every time. Chemistry trumps friendship. And looks matter more than everything else.
For example, growing up, our Italian nonna would intercept our laundry-doing chores to fold and iron our clothes for us. She did it every time. That is the kind of quiet, devotional love we experience far more than we do the breathless, moonlit seduction of a good-looking party guest. What does it say about us as a people if we revere the looks of a total stranger over the way our grandmother folds laundry? It may seem like a ridiculous example, but give it some thought. I have never, ever seen an article about Grandma’s laundry on the cover of Cosmo magazine. What I do see, aside from a cruel and repulsive image of womanhood, is the message that Grandma’s laundry is not love, or at least not the kind of love that’s worthy of a front cover. A scantily-clad model is, though; and that should be the focus of all our feelings about love.
What is wrong with that? Everything, if you ask me.
This may not seem to tie in to Valentine’s day, but it most certainly does. How many of us ask our grandmas to be our Valentine? How many of us think if we’re not romantically involved that we’re not loved, or capable of loving? Why should we think that the love of our friends, co-workers, family and pets is fine every other day of the year, but on Valentine’s day it just isn’t enough?
How limiting and narrow-minded of us. And how cruel and dismissive it is towards our loved ones.
I think, in order to truly see the vastness of the meaning of love, that this is a day not to sit around and pine for a date, but rather to perform a charitable act.
I have done the same thing — married, in a relationship, single or dating — every year around Valentine’s day. There is a large parish in New York City that serves free lunch for the homeless on the Saturday after Valentine’s Day. My mother used to take me when I was young. We went together until she was too fatigued by coming into the city. So now I go alone.
Every year I see the same faces: lonely, poor, hopeless and defeated. I serve them a hot lunch. They sit for a while, lingering over their last cup of coffee, staring into space, before going back onto the street. But on the way out, they almost always wave and smile. Most of them remember me.
Many of the repeat visitors ask me to be their Valentine. What kind of person would say no? Well, it would seem that the singles who are too wrapped up in their relationship status, who think Valentine’s Day is about candy hearts and flowers and good-looking strangers, who think that love is only about romance, would refuse such an invitation. Many, I suspect, would be horrified at the idea of a homeless person asking such a thing.
But not me. Because I can honestly say that I feel more loving and caring when I’m around those people than I ever would by buying someone a mass-produced card and boxed chocolate. And to me, that’s what should makes Valentine’s Day more all-encompassing than it is. So I say yes. Of course. I’d love to.
It’s the least I could do.
When I was teaching young children, Valentine’s Day was hands-down my favorite holiday to spend with them. Not only did I get pounds of chocolate (which I brought to the soup kitchen the Saturday after), but I swooned in delight at their cards for me. As the art teacher, I took so much joy in their hand-made efforts. Those red-and-white doilies, awkwardly-cut into hearts, misshapen and imperfect, were absolute beauty to me. I loved their declarations of love and affection, scrawled in their oversized handwriting, slanted and skewed.
To me, that love is true. It is honest and enduring and real and without pretense, manipulation, analytical neuroses and strategic thinking. It is simply pure appreciation for me as I am, regardless of looks, income, status and power. How comforting, how beautiful. What a wonderful reminder of God’s love for us.
Valentines from the kids were far greater rewards than what I was often met with that day: an obligatory store-bought Hallmark from a boyfriend who’d stopped fighting with me just long enough to hand it over, unsigned, followed shortly after by a return to the same fight.
No, thank you. I’d rather be single.
I am adamant when I say this: If you are single this year for Valentine’s Day, re-think your concept of what true love is. You will soon see how vast and deep and wide the loves in your life are. This is no time to wallow in self-pity just because you don’t have a dinner date. As one wise CatholicMatch member says: “There are so many more important things going on. It’s hardly the worst thing in the world to eat dinner alone.”
I fully agree. Especially when I think of those who came to me to get a hot lunch, or those children who are just learning to draw hearts.
So count your blessings and do some good for others this St. Valentine’s Day. Works of charity are the greatest demonstration of the vast, profound, all-encompassing love we experience daily.