by Stephen Cox | Posted March 03, 2012
If you’re reading this, you survived Valentine’s Day. I almost didn’t. I made the mistake of shopping for Valentine’s cards.
I love those cards. I’ve loved them ever since I was in second grade and we were encouraged to make them out of construction paper and exchange them anonymously with fellow students. I discovered that under the right circumstances you can learn, or at least imagine, that some unknown, mysterious person actually loves you. I still like getting Valentines, and sending them. I even sign my name.
The problem is that over the years, the cards themselves have been going downhill. Steeply. I now have to shop in four or five places before buying my annual quota of four or five. This year was the worst so far. In fact, I can hardly imagine a year that could be worse, unless Valentines start saying “I hate you and I want to kill you.”
The contemporary language of love is almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness.
The current problem isn’t the threat of violence. It’s the threat of serious illness, induced by the contemporary language of love. It’s almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness. And often (let’s face it) it’s just plain insulting.
Love used to be a personal emotion. Now it often comes at you in its most generic form. Here’s an example — a Valentine’s card that first announces that February 14 is, indeed, Valentine’s Day, then explains what you’re supposed to do about it: “Treat yourself to your very favorite things [whatever those may be], and celebrate all the happiness and love you have in your life.” Thanks, sweetheart, for telling me that someone, somewhere, probably loves me. That gives me “happiness.” And thanks for inviting me to spend Valentine’s Day by myself, “celebrating” my own life.
Actually, I plan to spend the next Valentine’s Day doing one of my very favorite things — tearing up cards like that.
But now I’m looking at another card, one that gets personal, but not in a good way. “Okay,” it starts, “so here’s the truth about us. Our relationship is not perfect.”
Please! On Valentine’s Day, couldn’t you permit me my illusions? Nevertheless, the truth must be told: “We drive each other crazy.” I guess that’s so. Anybody who sends me a card about how imperfect “we” are must be telling the truth. Of course, the “we” means me, but never mind.
But wait! Open the card, and you’ll find “the other truth” about “us”: “I love us — just the way we are.” Aw! Now that really warms my heart. We have a mediocre relationship, but at least we are the mediocre people who enjoy it that way. Wouldn’t change a thing!
Shortly, I’ll return to this inspiring theme of “just the way we are.” Right now, it occurs to me to specify that none of my friends was tasteless enough to send me the cards I’m discussing; I bought them myself, so I could put them in this column. That’s the way I am.
Here’s a third card. It’s various shades of pink, with flowers all over it. Yet its subject isn’t hearts and flowers; it’s ethical teaching, of a peculiarly earnest kind: “You’ve taught me so much . . . about relationships – the importance of respect, compromise, and . . . what a true, deep, unconditional connection feels like.”
In the words of old Ben Jonson’s love song,
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine . . . .
Yes! And the vintage is . . . Respect! Compromise! A connection to someone whose standards are non-existent (unconditional)!
H.L. Mencken, reporting on a political convention, described one of the delegates as “the kind of woman who makes you want to burn every bed in the world.” I feel that way about these Valentine’s cards.
The closest thing to the anaphrodisiac Valentine genre is, of course, the genre of wedding vows. I mean write-your-own vows, the public oaths that are always supposed to be such unique and thrilling invocations of love. They have been with us for a long time. They first became popular at the end of (guess what?) the 1960s, when every one of America’s unique personalities (including me) was busy coming up with new and special things in which everyone could participate. Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, they now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.
Everyone who reads these words has witnessed the agonizing scene: a man and woman standing at the altar, or under the palm tree, or at the beach, or at the zoo, muttering, giggling, and weeping through the recitation of their profoundest feelings — private “vows,” publicly delivered. Well, the feelings are allegedly profound. And allegedly their own — because these self-concocted acts of self-display have become exactly as routine and predictable as any traditional vows. They’re just not as literate.
Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, write-your-own wedding vows now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.
The inspiration behind traditional wedding vows was the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I quote from the 1928 book: “I Mary take thee John to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”
That’s only 53 words, but it carries wedding promises about as far as any sane person would want them to go. And note: no odd stories are proffered; no private jokes are told; no incense is wafted toward the loved one, as if the whole thing would fall apart if he or she weren’t assured that “you are everything that’s good and pure and true and I worship you with my mind, body and soul.”
Those are the needy words of a sample wedding vow I found on the web today. There are hundreds of sites that offer such samples. Evidently there are many people here among us who cannot rest until they hear someone stand up in public and say, “May our hearts and very breath become one as we unite this day.”
“Our very breath”: that’s putting a lot of pressure on a relationship. But some people aren’t content with that. They’ve got to bring a lot of other things into it too. They’ve got to make the loving couple swear to solve all the political, ethnic, and “cultural” problems they can think of:
We will honor each other's cultures as we join customs to form a trusting relationship. We will protect, support, and encourage each other through life's joys and sorrows as we create a loving future. [Question: Does this mean you don’t have a loving present? Well, never mind. None of these words actually means anything.] We promise to establish a home for ourselves and our children shaped by our respective heritages; a loving environment dedicated to peace, hope, and respect for all people.
Imagine, if you will, growing up in a household where that promise was fulfilled. “Johnny, I’m sorry to say that by failing to eat your broccoli you are showing that you have not been shaped by the respective heritages of your parents, and that you have respect for neither the Estonians nor their neighbors, the Finns, nor any of the other diverse peoples who make up this world. I hope you will become more loving in the future. Peace out, Johnny.”
Even when international relations are not at stake, it’s quite a struggle, this quest for love and happiness — and contemporary brides and grooms are duty-bound to tell us all about it:
We have been together since the first day we met. We were so shy and scared back then, who knew our love could grow this strong. Freshman year i [sic] met you, you took my breath away. When your hand touched mine my heart fell to the ground.
You can almost hear the thud. Yet every up-to-date wedding-vow site assumes that no one will be happy unless a wedding ceremony includes enough good stories to stupefy the audience:
Write 2-3 of your favorite times together - the times when you laughed so hard you cried, or when s/he was there for you, or an inside joke, or something that happened long ago that you haven't thought about it in a long time.
That’s good. You’ve almost forgotten it, but it will be good enough for your wedding vows. And no joke can be too “inside,” if other people are being forced to overhear it.
You might also tell a dirty joke — sort of dirty, and sort of a joke. For instance: “May all our ups and downs come only in the bedroom.” While this is more amusing than “I promise to wipe away your tears with my laughter and your pain with my caring and compassion,” it’s sad to think that so many wedding speeches require standup comedy for their justification.
Sadder is the fact that so many brides and grooms find it necessary to spend their “vow” time complimenting each other. Sadder still, what they find to compliment.
“Compassion” is a favorite virtue. The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner, and that they badly need a therapist, if only to ensure that someone will always be around to feel sorry for (have “compassion” on) them. Another favorite quality is our old friend “unconditional” acceptance — a quality that therapists are paid to show, but that spouses often find difficult to work up, the third time the other person comes home drunk at 4 a.m.
The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner.
It’s interesting that this wedding psychobabble, which has been around a lot longer than most brides and grooms, should seem fresh and individual, special and personal, moving and inspiring, to anyone; that brides should wear away their evenings on the computer, looking for just the right sample jargon, and that grooms should then recite it with trembling lips and watering eyes.
One of my favorite wedding sites observes that you can either “rely on the traditional wedding vows, which by the way are cliche, or you can write your own wedding vows!” But in case you can’t find your very own words to express your very own, wholly unclichéd, emotions, the site offers such “romantic” formulas as this — a masterpiece of modest expectations:
I promise to give you the best of myself and to ask of you no more than you can give. I promise to accept you the way you are. I fell in love with you for the qualities, abilities, and outlook on life that you have, and won't try to reshape you in a different image.
People whose hearts are warmed by contemporary Valentines will find this heartwarming too. It must be easy for two mediocre people to vow to be mediocre together. That’s the “best” of themselves.
Mediocre is next door to generic. It is characteristic of our time that serious psychological difficulties are regarded as normal: predictable, common, even healthy — generic in the best sense of that word. Try this sample vow, which addresses problems that, though obviously severe, must also be normal, since they can easily be reduced to a fill-in-the-blanks format:
I used to be afraid of falling in love, of giving my heart away. How could I trust a (man/woman) to love me, to give to me all that I wanted to give to (him/her)? (Name), when I met you, I realized how much we could share together. You have renewed my life.
Life renewal? Window 2A. Fill in Form C.
But that’s an idea that Hallmark can use in next year’s Valentine’s cards. Why not this:
I used to be anxious/afraid/terrified about love/closeness/compassionate relationship (choose one from each list). But (Name), when I met you, I realized I would have a sweetheart/wife/husband/sex buddy for the rest of my life/this afternoon/as long as it all remains unconditional. So happy Valentine’s Day, you beautiful/adorable/sexy/hunky/trusting woman/man/friend/panda bear/whoever. I love you!
This edition of Word Watch, however, offers no such multiple options. It isn’t even equipped with plastic hearts. It is a belated Valentine, to boot — if you’ll accept it. But I hope you will. It’s very simple:
Dear Reader, I love you.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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