Facts sometimes make me sad. Especially when they concern my personal life.
My first kiss and last kiss are separated by little more than a year. I was fifteen when I had my first girlfriend and almost twenty-eight when I had my last one. And while each of my relationships has lasted longer than the one before it, none of them have lasted beyond that magical three month marker, where relationships (supposedly) start to get serious.
Which brings us to Valentine’s Day. I hate that fucking holiday, especially as it’s celebrated here. I much prefer Japan’s way of celebrating the holiday, with women giving chocolate to men (giri choco to friends and coworkers, and honmei choco to lovers and guys they want to be their lovers). And for those women who wonder why the men are getting all the chocolate, I’d like to point out that Valentine’s Day is followed, a month later, by White Day, when men reciprocate the favor (apparently with more expensive gifts, though no one complained about the chocolate that I gave them).
This brings up another sad fact: I have been single on every Valentine’s Day. Every single one. Sometimes I’ve spent it with friends who were also single; other times, I’ve spent it alone. But that was my choice. Being defiant is all one can be on that holiday when one is single. I had a few friends who would send me cards on February 14th, but all of them are married now, and buy cards for their husbands, instead.
Yes, relationships are hard. So is writing novels for a living. In both cases, the joys are worth the hardships, at least if it’s a good relationship, or a good novel. For those of you who wish you were single again, maybe your single lives were more exciting than mine has been, but it’s not that great. Really. Because you can never fully share your experiences with people who aren’t there with you. And shared experiences is how you learn about each other, and about yourself.
While in Japan, one of my friends loaned me a lovely book called Snow in the Summer, a collection of passages from letters written by a Buddhist monk to his Western students. In Chapter 7, he writes about friendships and relationships. Here, he is giving advice to a female student:
Love is not enough for two people to live together; deep understanding of each other is necessary. Love is not enough in a relationship; deep understanding and appreciation is [sic] also necessary. See if you can accept all the bad things about him without wanting to change him and see if you can also respect him as he is now. Dependent relationships don’t work well. (p. 89)
And then, a few pages later, comes one of the truest passages in the book:
Don’t be in a hurry to get married. Get to know her better. She’s a human being; like all of us she has her share of faults. Try to understand the whole person and love her for that, not just parts of her, or your own projection of her. (p. 93)
He goes on to write that one must understand what one wants out of life, out of relationships, before we jump into them. “Know thyself,” as Socrates would say.
And yet few people today (myself included) give enough time to introspection, to understanding ourselves, to what we want from the world, and the people, around us. I knew what I wanted in Japan; back in the U.S., I’m not so certain. Certainly I know myself more now than I did, but how much is still hidden from me?
To accept my flaws. That, I think, is the key. In order to forgive the flaws in others, one must first forgive the flaws in oneself. I certainly am more at peace with myself than I was as a teenager, and even as I was before I went to Japan (Japan, by the way, is a great country for introspection).
That, for me, is the problem with Valentine’s Day. It transforms love into flowers, and understanding into chocolate. Not that there’s anything wrong with giving both to someone you love. But love’s foundation is built on more than flowers, and relationships are built on more than love. We praise love, but we do not understand it. Sometimes we confuse it with sex, sometimes with gifts, sometimes with fairy tale endings, or happiness. Sometimes we confuse it with relationships. Relationships are built on understanding and respect. Love grows out of those two aspects, not the other way around.
People mistake love, or heart palpitations, as the foundation for relationships. It is not. It is what is added to already strong relationships to make them stronger. Relationships founded on love alone will fail, because the love has nothing to support itself with and, when tested, will crumble. That’s not to say that an attraction can’t lead to a strong relationship, but only if the couple focuses on understanding and respecting each other, rather than ogling each other’s beauty, or worshiping certain features of each other’s character, or rating how good the other one is in bed. Those aspects merely add to the whole, and it is the whole person that we must have the relationship with, not the parts.
And two whole people, who respect, understand, and choose each other, is what should be celebrated on Valentine’s Day.