There were several St. Valentines in early Christianity: martyrs with the famed name who went to their deaths professing their love for Christ and the Church. The St. Valentine, whose secular feast day is February 14, is a largely unknown figure of antiquity. Legend has it that he performed clandestine Christian weddings, a crime under Roman law. Whoever he was and whatever he did, St. Valentine is now best known (and appreciated) for boosting mid-winter sales for Hallmark, FTD, and Ghirardelli Chocolates.
It’s easy to be cynical about romantic love in the times in which we live: The way-too-public disclosures of celebrity marital infidelities; the hook-up culture of teens and 20-somethings; the use of sex and romance to sell everything from cars to cameras to couches.
There’s a new romantic comedy out this weekend called Valentine’s Day, which sounds like it might be indistinguishable from a bunch of old romantic comedies with Valentine’s Day themes. (Manohla Dargis takes it down handily in her review today).
I recently saw the movie Up in the Air, which no one would confuse with a Garry Marshall vehicle for Julia Roberts’ dazzling white teeth. It’s a disturbingly good movie, a meditation on a number of themes and trends that inform our anxious, troubled times.
George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is all about the avoidance of attachment, the refusal of human connection and commitment. The only contact he craves–intermittent sexual encounters–fits into his lifestyle as neatly as the contents of his perfectly-packed carry-on bag.
When he falls for Alex, a woman as narcissistic as he is, you worry that the story might get treacly and predictable. Thankfully, it doesn’t. The complexities of human relationships are honored, the messiness of choices acknowledged. That we live with the compromises we make is one of the film’s many heartbreaking truths.
And yet a sweetness comes through. When Ryan is recruited to calm the pre-wedding jitters of his future brother-in-law, he stammers and stutters and finally stumbles upon the truth of love: There is no “point” to it. The mundane realities of our shared lives–family, kids, school, work–are not means to some other, more glamorous end; they are it. In them is both regular exasperation and deep, abiding joy.
The sentimentality that Hallmark promotes and that Hollywood peddles (most of the time) is the stuff of Valentine’s Day consumerism. (And I like me some dark chocolate on February 14 as much as the next gal). But the rest of the year and all the years that follow are about the day-to-day ordinariness, the sometimes mind-numbing sameness of the life and love we are willing to share with those who make us crazy and make us happy, who drag us down and lift us up, who–in their willingness to stick it out for the long haul–give us glimpses of grace in these anxious, troubled times.