In the opening of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” one of my favorite movies, Joel Barish, the main character, wistfully opines that Valentine’s Day is “a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” I’m not sure he’s right, but his sentiment pretty well captures the plight of the single man or woman on Feb. 14.
We are young, and most of us are single. And as much as we console ourselves with half-hearted platitudes about the liberties of the single life, there are few, I think, who could dislodge Cupid’s arrows, dress the wounds and continue merrily on the path of singlehood. We see couples holding hands and ask ourselves, if only half-consciously, why they should be so lucky. Why can’t we find love?
Fortunately, we can — in a way. Love, after all, encompasses a great deal more than romance; it comes in many forms. We can love a spouse, and we can also love cookie dough ice cream. We can love a parent, a place, a work of art — even a stuffed animal.
One of the most common forms of love is simple affection. Affection grows out of familiarity and thus depends on regular contact over time. While a new home, a young puppy or an unheard song may bring excitement and adventure, they incite none of the tender fondness of the familiar home, the old dog, the longtime favorite song.
Friendship is another kind of love, one that incorporates affection but remains distinct. Whereas affection is a feeling, friendship is a relation. In contrast to mere acquaintance, it springs from and orients itself around a common interest, a shared pursuit.
But beyond romance, beyond affection, beyond friendship, there is another form of love — the highest form. It is called “agape” in Greek, “caritas” in Latin. Probably the best way to express it in English is “charity,” although it extends well beyond the act of assisting the needy.
Charity is a habit of the soul, a disposition, an attitude, and its aim is the well-being of others, even at the cost of self-abnegation. In the abstract it sounds laughably easy, but charity does not exist in the abstract. It exists in the gritty details of daily life. It exists in letting someone else go first, in listening before speaking, in forgiving an enemy’s wrongdoing or a friend’s betrayal.
Love did not have so high a standing in the pre-Christian West. Among the most esteemed virtues of the Greeks and Romans were courage, manliness, honor and wit. Christianity came along and elevated love to the highest place. “The greatest of these is love,” wrote St. Paul, and St. John went so far as to say that God is love.
But the supremacy of love did not seem to work. There was still pain, still hatred, still death. The founders of the modern era grew weary of the fantasies of love, and they turned to the more practical matter of improving man’s estate.
Machiavelli downplayed the power of love and advised rulers to maintain order by means of fear. Hobbes conceptualized man as an individual who relates to others not through affection, not through charity, but through a contract. Locke said that men join together in society not out of love, but out of a desire to secure their property. The new virtues became security, acquisition, innovation, efficiency and a justice conceived as the protection of individual rights.
Perfect love, to be sure, has never been realized in any society. But modernity is perhaps unsurpassed in the degree to which it scorns, hinders and distorts love in all its forms. Romantic love has been cheapened and rendered unfit to work toward the good of society, as we can decipher from the divorce rate alone.
Affection faces the threats of geographic mobility, incessant innovation and a market economy that says adapt or collapse. Can a place like Mory’s — for which generations of Yalies have felt affection — survive in the modern world?
Friendship and charity suffer from the modern tendency toward self-interest and self-promotion — one might say self-obsession. Rather than bear the burdens of others, we are inclined to direct them to the impersonal solutions of government and science.
But love, even so, lives on. No ideology has been able to efface it; no revolution has managed to overthrow it. And that alone, I think, is worth celebrating — with or without a date tomorrow night.
Bryce Taylor is a sophomore in Silliman College.