Although we can hardly be blamed for spending Valentine’s Day reading love letters instead of headlines, the front page of Sunday’s paper was not blank. After all, the world does not stand still each Feb. 14 while we enrich chocolatiers, knick-knack makers and teddy bear manufacturers. But what seems, at first, like an irresponsible disengagement from the broader world is in fact an important respite in our lives. Occasionally stepping out of the flow of events affords us the space necessary to write our private histories, even as the world continues to turn.
Those who picked up a New York Times on Sunday would have read a harrowing description of military operations carried out by one of the “surge battalions” of American Marines in Afghanistan. They might have been shocked by new revelations about Wall Street’s role in covering up the global financial crisis. Those who took the time to learn about the “warning signs” some saw on the track that on Friday claimed the life of an Olympic luger would shake their heads at how the accident might have been prevented.
But all would have been living outside themselves, spending their breakfast immersed in the stream of global happenings, transported far away from their own subjective experience. When our attention is focused unblinkingly on the latest happenings, it becomes all too easy to miss the smaller stories of more immediate personal relevance.
Yet, history, at its core, is little more than the writing down of memories. If asked, we would all recount the past seven days as we lived them: an exam, a paper, Sex Week, Valentine’s Day. We would not be wrong to do so. As much as some would decry our frivolity in the face of such an unsettled world, they would be mistaken.
While the history books will remember the past week for what happened in Afghanistan, if they remember it at all, I will not. Looking back over the years, I will think of trying to help my friend find a toaster to fill with tulips for his valentine or the serendipity of passing the flower lady on a day when everyone has a heightened awareness of flowers. These are moments the newspapers will always miss, yet they are also the moments we will remember when we consider the narratives of our lives.
Very few of us will make it into the record of the history of our world. We will be remembered as private men and women, not as public figures. The main events in the stories we tell will likely be small interactions: a conversation, a cup of coffee, a letter. And so it seems right that on certain days, we partition ourselves from the world’s unending shouts and allow ourselves to experience our individual lives as momentous.
It is our civic duty to read the newspaper, but our human imperative to know when to set it down. To ignore the world every day would make us evil, complicit in the wrongs that fill so many lives, but we should not regret the occasional occasions when we elevate our own histories to center stage.
Such holidays need not be official. In fact, it seems trite to celebrate ourselves only when Hallmark requires us to. But although I have a deep distrust of Valentine’s Day, it serves as a reminder of the purpose that a holiday might serve. Amid the cheap candy hearts and cellophane, we can step out of history for a day to revel in the stories of our lives.
Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.