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How to Enjoy Valentine's Day: Tips for Singles
What is Valentine’s Day like when you’re single? I can count on one hand the number of Valentine’s Days since puberty that I have spent with a significant other. Interestingly, most of them have been enjoyable anyway.
As I get older, more of my friends are now widowed or separated, and some of them have been sharing the struggles of being newly single. While the “newly” part doesn’t register with my psyche, “single” resonates well. What better time of year to give tips on navigating this society that my friend Ruth refers to as “a couples world” than the month when pop culture focuses intently on romance?
Pop culture is not to be trusted.
Pop culture is one of the most unhealthy places to get information about the “norms” of life. Unfortunately, it is difficult to escape. We have just navigated through a holiday season in which we have been bombarded by images of perfect families in matching Christmas sweaters, children opening perfect gifts and being perfectly excited by them, sleigh rides in perfect winter settings, and perfect smiles on the faces of perfect shoppers who have money to buy the perfect gifts for all of the perfect people in their lives. While most of us are intelligent enough to know not to expect this silver-screen perfection, we cannot help but feel envious of those around us who appear significantly closer to achieving the perfect holidays than we are.
Just when you have pulled through the last disappointing minute of the old year and endured the final television commercial during the obligatory ball games on New Year’s Day, you crash into a display of candy hearts and jewelry at a local department store. Above, smiling into one another’s eyes is a perfect young couple, clearly anticipating a lifetime of “happily ever after,” judging from the glittering ring on her left hand. It is almost more than anyone can bear, all this staged happiness. For the many singles in our world, it is especially cruel.
Where is the meaning?
Looking for meaning in pop culture is likely to be disappointing. It has never been popular to look at suffering. It will never be popular to show the mundane on television or in the movies. While extraordinary suffering may sneak its way onto the occasional talk show or the rare art house film, day-to-day emptiness of singles, widows and the divorced just isn’t interesting enough to turn heads.
With all this unacknowledged aloneness, how is it possible to enjoy a day so devoted to romantic love as February 14th?
The year I became Catholic, I received the most beautiful Valentine’s Day gift of my life. My sponsors sent me a card with a message indicating that a mass would be said for me at a nearby basilica. The gesture and the gift were fairly inexpensive. I think they got the card and requested the prayers for a $5 donation. The love that came to me from that experience was unparalleled by any box of chocolates or bouquet of roses that I might have expected from some significant other.
The gift and a conversation with one of my sponsors started me thinking about the true meaning of St. Valentine’s Day. Some research later, I found that the celebration of romantic love in February is millennia old. The celebration of Valentine’s Day, by that name, is over 1,500 years old, an age which causes many facts to be replaced with myth and some facts to be presumed myth. Meaning easily becomes cloudy.
What we can verify is this: February has been celebrated from ancient times as a month of romantic love. Fertility rites, parades and more have been a part of cultural observances of the month of February since ancient times. Additionally, there were a number of early Christian martyrs named Valentine, at least one of whom was martyred on February 14th. Obviously, the Catholic church’s early observation of St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th had something to do with a response to other religious observances in the form of fertility rituals being observed at that same time. In fact, one of the legends concerning a St. Valentine from Rome is that he was martyred for secretly marrying Christian couples when Christianity was outlawed in the empire.
Other St. Valentine myths strike a deeper cord with me. It is commonly accepted that one St. Valentine suffered from seizures, possibly epilepsy, which is still referred to as St. Valentine’s disease. This priest, however, was such a loving vicar that when he was imprisoned, the children of the village responded by delivering notes of love and comfort to him. This myth holds these messages as the beginning of the tradition of giving “Valentine’s” greetings to those we love on the saint’s day.
As a Christian and a Catholic, I find this myth to hold the truth and deeper meaning that has guided me through many years of being single on Valentine’s Day. The Holy Scriptures teach us about love. Throughout the Bible, reminders of hesed (Divine Mercy) and agape (transcendent love) are abundant. Is it not appropriate that followers of this faith take a day devoted to romantic love and fertility and turn it into a reminder of the love God calls us to have for all people?
How does this knowledge help?
A difficult time in my early twenties set me on a quest to focus on others who needed me. On the first Valentine’s Day after my life seemed to have fallen apart, I was working at an adult daycare facility as an educator and case manager. Knowing that these adults had a deep need to feel the warmth of human affection, I set aside my heartbreak for the day and focused on them. I spent a couple of weeks decorating my classroom and preparing Valentines for my 75 clients. Wonderful things happened that February 14th. My clients had a lot of fun, for starters. Unexpectedly, I received more Valentines than I had since grade school. Despite being an overworked, underpaid social worker, I had perhaps my best workday ever. Somehow, love (that agape kind) trumped any “poor me” thoughts or feelings that both I and my clients might have been tempted to indulge in that day.
It didn’t take any time at all for me to figure out that this needed to become a habit. Even though this was the only February I spent working at the adult daycare center, the habit of caring for others on Valentine’s Day stuck. My upbringing helped tremendously as my parents had always observed Valentine’s Day as a family with my sister and me. I began intentionally responding to yearly Valentine’s cards and small gifts from Mom and Dad with gifts of my own, much like I did as a child. For a few years, my sister and I lived together in Kansas City and enjoyed hosting or chaperoning dances or other Valentine’s Day events for developmentally disabled adults in our community.
When my sister married and had children, I began to enjoy Valentine’s Day by picking out and giving small gifts to her girls. One of our family favorites became special Valentine socks adorned with hearts in various colors and perhaps cute red or pink animals. The key, I found, was that of focusing on someone else, specifically a someone else who was nearby.
What behavior should we avoid?
Downfalls for singles and the newly single are abundant. Locking oneself away to avoid reminders of the abundance of romance blooming in February isn’t going to work. Wistfully pining for the one you miss or the one you want, isn’t going to do you any good. Admit your sorrow or that hollow feeling of depression in the middle of your heart. Perhaps watch a tear-jerker on the Hallmark channel (or pop a copy of Shadow Lands into your DVD player) and have a good cry to get it out of your system. Then focus on those nearby who could use a good dose of love.
What can we do?
Besides my family, I have a list of people I try to reach out to during February. As I mentioned before, developmentally disabled adults are a good group to reach during this month of love. Check with local developmental services to see if you can provided companionship at a social activity. Perhaps just get to know some of the adults at a local group home. This year I am making homemade Valentines with old-fashioned candy sticks to take over to a couple of the group homes in my community. (Make sure any food stuffs you bring are allowable for the person to whom you are reaching out.)
Kids are great, and you don’t have to have young family members nearby to make a child happy. Foster Care to Success, formerly known as the Orphan Foundation of America, takes donations of scarves from knitters and crocheters nationwide to give homemade red scarves to foster children on Valentine’s Day each year. Children’s hospitals also welcome volunteers who will come and help make Valentine’s Day a special time for sick kids.
Now that the holidays are over, soup kitchens, food pantries and other local assistance programs are in need of more volunteers than ever. What better way to honor the memory of a saint than by helping the needy in your hometown?
Last and perhaps most important of all, remember the elderly. One other project I hope to get accomplished this February is taking Valentines to one of the retirement communities in my neighborhood. These can be simple store-bought sentiments, a homemade goodie packed in one of those Cello bags you can get at the dollar store, or any number of simple tokens. The fact that someone cared enough to deliver a remembrance is all that matters.
Whatever you do this year, have a love-filled Valentine’s Day! Romance and fertility are nothing on their own if the residents of this world don’t extend the love and caring of tenderness and mercy to one another.