Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 

By Their Love

One of my high school teachers—I don’t have to say who; if you attended my high school you’ll already know and if you didn’t you won’t know him anyway—wrote in my yearbook, “I hope you get what you deserve.” I wasn’t very good in this teacher’s class, but he explained to me, “I sign everyone’s yearbook the same way. If you do well, I hope you get rewarded. If you don’t do well, I still hope you’ll get what you deserve.” This teacher had a reputation for being somewhat of a philosopher, and his words have struck me as particularly appropriate for this moment. We, in the cosmic scheme of things, get what we deserve. As a nation I guess we deserve a First Lady, in an example to young women everywhere, has appeared naked on the internet. Her husband married her after two previous women and has made his views on gender perfectly clear. My conservative friends went to the polls knowing that. I hope they get what they deserve.

The problem is the rest of us are stuck with him too. I’ve lived through bitter, spiteful campaigns before. The genteel art of campaigning is thoroughly deceased. 2016, however, is the first year that I saw pure hatred as a political platform. And it wasn’t on both sides. Trump made of virtue of hating one’s neighbor and claimed the election was rigged until he won—then it was, of course, impossible that it would’ve been rigged. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who kept her dignity throughout, never stooped to inciting hatred of fellow Americans. It likely cost her the election. To the people now saying this is just politics and stop complaining I say we have all been victimized and we all ought to feel very ashamed. This election wasn’t about money. Or financial positions. Or foreign policy. It was about hate.

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Hate can only be counteracted by love. I have seen many women responding to a man who considers them mere sexual object by reaching out in kindness to strangers. Women organizing to try to make this country a more positive place. Meanwhile, I hear men I know saying at last we have a strong leader who will bring them prosperity. If money is what you care for, you have my pity. This country is about freedom, equality, and fairness. All of that was jettisoned last Tuesday. Even those saying “get over it” are doing so with a smugness that is a thin veil over intolerance. I’ve never carried on with frustration so long after an election before. That’s because never before has an election—no matter which party triumphed—been won by a platform of evil intent. My grandmother, a Teutonic matron of occasional Valkyrie disposition, used to sum it up well when we boys were getting out of hand. “Schäme dich!” she used to scold. I know a country that could use her words right now.

The Problem with Love

As far as we can tell, historically there is no Saint Valentine that is particularly connected to February 14. Even if there were, it is difficult to imagine a saint promoting what we know as love. Love is a slippery topic. The ancient Greeks (who did not marry for love) were so perplexed that they came up with three different words for it, and the nascent Christian community tended to prefer agape-type love. Love that expresses well-being for the community and has little to do with the physical attraction that people everywhere find so compelling. It is safe to say that Christianity has always been uncomfortable with the kind of love that Valentines Day celebrates. The holiday, because of its associations, has often been removed from the liturgical calendar a time or two. People are already prone to express their biological urges, so it is best not to give them an excuse, sanctioned by the church.

This is an odd situation, thinking love is wrong, or at best, tolerated. As far as we can tell, the earliest Christians had no particular concerns in this way. We can’t measure, of course, how people loved their spouses, but there was nothing inherent in the new religion to suggest physical attraction was bad. By the time Paul of Tarsus started writing his letters a couple of decades after Jesus’ life, at the earliest, some doubts had crept in. They seem to have been largely personal. We know little of Paul’s life, but we are aware that he saw the kind of love known as eros to be a problem. Concession had to be made to those who couldn’t control themselves, but otherwise, in good stoic fashion, love was to be ignored. By the time of Augustine of Hippo, some three centuries later, sex passed on original sin and love had become decidedly dark.

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Attitudes change with time, of course. After two millennia a certain practicality sets in. We have moved through the troubadours and courtly love to psychology and deep human needs. Arranged marriages are, for the most part, considered like shackles from the past. And love, that feeling that we never completely outgrow, is believed to be a positive thing. Saint Valentine (and there were at least two of them) would likely have disagreed. While the Romans celebrated sexuality, they also believed in restraint most of the time. Valentines Day, however, still has something to teach us. Despite the commercialization of the holiday, in a world with a surplus of hatred, any kind of love is, as long as it’s mutual, is worth celebrating.

Simple Gifts

Thing Explainer, a whimsical gift for my daughter at Christmas, is perhaps the trendiest present found here this year. Randall Munroe, who makes a living as a web comic artist (who knew this was even possible?) wrote/illustrated the book to explain complicated things in simple words. Indeed, he limits himself, with some license, to the thousand most common words in English. Due to the almost viral success of the book, websites now exist so that even those of us with advanced degrees can explain things with common words. It reminds me of the Common English Bible in that it attempts to make something complicated easy to understand by using a level of writing accessible to the majority of readers. Thing Explainer is, naturally, for fun. There is, however, an underlying question.

Have we reached a point where reading itself has to be enhanced by making it simple? Some things are, by their very nature, complex. At a time when more and more kids are being encouraged to attend college, the traditional basis of higher education (the classics, classical languages, the humanities) has eroded so far that higher education is not what it once was. My daughter’s engineering program is highly technical and doesn’t naturally promote the things I recall as “college.” Maybe I need someone to explain it to me in simple words. What’s wrong with being literate? With finding challenging books worth the effort to get through? Some things are complex.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

I wonder how a society survives when complexity disappears. Today my wife and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary. Marriage can be a complex thing, but it is something that can be explained in simple words. When we decided to marry the idea was lifelong commitment, not knowing the twists and turns that life would take. If the Internet existed in those days I didn’t know about it. (Certainly, being a web comic artist wasn’t a job that yet existed.) Doctorates still led to teaching careers. 9/11 hadn’t happened so that living in a modified police state wasn’t yet part of daily reality. There weren’t really words to explain it. It was one of those most basic human things. Turning to Thing Explainer I find that love is one of the thousand most-used words. It does perhaps show, after all, that complex things can be stated in a word we all understand.

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication

So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.