Today is Valentine’s Day, that day we celebrate all things romantic. I went to CVS yesterday to buy Joan something meaningful she will treasure the rest of her life. Perhaps a card someone else had written, or something delicious to eat someone else had made, something personal and from the heart to remind her of both my sincerity and my willingness to sacrifice for her. Unfortunately, the cards had been picked through. The only ones left were inscribed “to my favorite aunt,” which seemed creepy to me. I do have a favorite aunt, and I love her, but not in a Valentine’s Day kind of way. Joan doesn’t really like candy, but I do, so I bought her a chocolate rose, because I knew she’d want me to be happy.
For all the changes in our world, kids still pass out valentines at school and Madeline came home with a bag full, which she showed me, along with a little race car a boy had given her, scotch-taped to the card he presented her. Apparently, nothing says love like a race car. She liked the car, but told me the boy was naughty, who colored outside the lines in art class, on purpose, even after the teacher asked him not to. Just another example of kindergarten thuggery. And yet, on Valentine’s Day, he rose to the occasion and parted with a cherished toy to convey his appreciation for my granddaughter. He may color outside the lines, but that boy has a bright relational future.
Several weeks ago, we watched a Ted Talk about the Harvard Study on Adult Development and learned that the key to good lives were good relationships. So we’ve been reflecting on the characteristics of good relationships. We’ve said in good relationships, we allow others to be their authentic selves, while at the same time being our authentic selves. If someone’s authentic self is repulsive to us, that’s a good clue we might not want to be in relationship with them. We don’t wish them ill, we still want the best for them, but we don’t engage them in a relationship. Then we said good relationships tend to be positive, optimistic, and aspirational. And last week, Laura Jay-Ballinger spoke eloquently and powerfully about the importance and moral imperative of good anger.
Today, on Valentine’s Day, it seems appropriate to add romance to our list of characteristics of good relationships. Romance. Though we have customarily associated romance with sexual passion, today I invite you to consider another dimension of romance, and that is thoughtfulness. Long after the fires of sexual passion have cooled, long after our hormonal levels have subsided, and our genetic instincts to reproduce have quieted, there is a dimension of romantic love that is rooted in thoughtfulness and consideration for the beloved. For what is true romance, but the daily commitment to honor another with kindly attention.
When I was in college, I worked part-time in a nursing home, in the social services department. It was my job to assess the social well-being of each resident every three months, write a report, and insert it in the resident’s file. A woman lived there who’d had a stroke and was unable to feed herself. She was in her early 60s, not much older than I am now. Her husband took early retirement, and every day arrived before breakfast and stayed until supper was over, feeding his wife each meal, a spoonful at a time. Holding a straw up to her lips so she could drink. Changing her diaper. Brushing her hair. Dressing her. Day after day, week after week, month after month.
The day to evaluate her social well-being rolled around, so I started by looking at her previous assessment from three months before, in which I had observed the resident had few prospects for a meaningful life. She could barely move, her speech was unintelligible. But I walked into her room to find her husband seated beside her bed, holding up a picture album from when they’d first married and had children, and her face was lit up with joy. It now occurs to me, 35 years later, that it was the most romantic moment I’ve ever witnessed. For what is true romance, but the daily commitment to honor another with kindly attention.
Thoughtfulness and consideration.
I have a friend whose marriage I knew to be a little rocky. I didn’t think they were at risk of divorce, but it was obvious they weren’t happy either. Then one day I saw them holding hands.
The next time I saw my friend, I said, “I see you and your wife are holding hands. What happened?”
He said, “I stopped sitting on my chair watching television and started helping with the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.”
Thoughtfulness and consideration.
I don’t want to denigrate the importance of chocolate roses. I’ve depended upon them often in the course of my marriage. But I also know the importance of daily loving-kindness, of thoughtfulness and consideration.
I love the opening words of the Quaker wedding service, how it captures so perfectly this spirit of consideration. “Marriage involves at once the highest privileges and the greatest responsibilities of life. Its achievement of happiness and success is dependent upon the mutual love, the unfailing patience, and the absolute fidelity of one to the other. You will, from henceforth, live a blended life, each seeking and promoting the joy, the comfort, the health, and the enrichment of the other, all of which will divide your sorrows and multiply your satisfactions.”
That is the heart of romance—seeking and promoting the joy, the comfort, the health and the enrichment of the other.
Of course I know not all of us are married. But thoughtfulness and consideration are not the exclusive purview of married people. In all our relationships, we are called to be kind and caring. Too often in our hypersexual culture, too many people have felt free to make sexualized comments to others with whom they have no relationship. This is always inappropriate. It isn’t flattering, it certainly isn’t romantic, nor is it thoughtful or considerate. It is, in a word, creepy. Especially since it often involves an older, more powerful person preying on a younger less powerful person. Our Quaker faith rightly condemns all language and activity that objectifies or humiliates another.
When I worked at Public Service Indiana, I was sexually harassed nearly every day by an older woman in my department. It was demeaning and embarrassing, eventually causing me to quit. It wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t sexy. It was disturbing and cruel, and I know of no escape but to leave.
This is why in all our relationships, and especially in our marriage relationships, we seek to be thoughtful, considerate, and kind, knowing those are not only the hallmarks of true romance and enduring love, but the basis for all good relationships.