For Humanitarians, the World is Our Valentine
I had never identified with Valentine’s Day. Even though I’ve not always been single.
When your reputation for being a brain rather than a beauty is what precedes you, what happens is that you would not have been flattered by Valentine attention growing up. And you get to choose how to take that.
Besides, I’m contrary as well. Just the fact that media bombards us with the expectation of romance on this day, is enough to induce rebellion. It is a recipe for insincerity. I mean, I don’t even really do birthdays. I love being remembered, don’t get me wrong. But over time I’ve grown up enough to be forgiving about fixed calendar memorials. If not for calendar prompts and Facebook notices, I can hardly remember any dates myself!
So it’s not a surprise that I couldn’t even imagine a way in which this day could be meaningfully celebrated. In fact, I don’t even remember any Valentine’s Day in all my life.
Except one, last year.
My only Valentine’s Day of any significance
It should come as no surprise that the significance was not intentional.
Last year I asked someone I met a couple months before (on a volunteer program) for a game of Breakout. The day happened to be Valentine’s day. There is no connection; it was just a mutually open Sunday. (Or Saturday? Anyway, the point is it was just a weekend.) I had just discovered this ‘escape room’ thing the previous year, and was still enamoured of it. Other people I knew, not as much anymore. So I was elated when he agreed.
The puzzle with a sad ending
He let me pick the puzzle. It didn’t really matter to me, but he liked tech and globalist themes. So I thought the one about space would be good. The puzzle premise seemed to draw inspiration from space tales of recent memory, like Wall-E and Interstellar. Basically it involved a last-ditch endeavour to save a world at risk of collapse.
We failed the mission (sorry humanity). We ran out of time and ‘died’.
However, at the end, our Breakout guide walked us through the last few steps of the puzzle so that we (ok, I mean “I”) wouldn’t die of curiosity. At the very end, we discovered that (spoiler alert) the space station was doomed. And he would have to choose to either:
- send the plant sample back to earth and have a pretty reasonable (but not 100%) chance to save humanity from its current situation, or
- use the activated capsule to send me back with a higher likelihood of reaching home, but leave the fate of humanity to chance for a while longer.
He would have to choose quickly, or neither would happen.
Without hesitation (or consultation) he sent the plant back. We held each other and watched the capsule image on the screen go ‘home’ to our native and troubled planet, waiting to ‘die’ in the space station together. Strangely sombre, even though it was just a game.
I remember secretly musing over our ice cream if I ought to be flattered or offended, that he did not feel the need to ask if I would consent to be sacrificed.
‘I’m just a numbers man’
Much later, when I reminded him of this event, he told me that there was no great nobility in it. It was just a numbers thing.
In one respect he is being honest. I know he is much influenced by those philosophers who generate thought puzzles that for some reason, invariably remove respect for agency for the ‘bystander’ human beings in their puzzles, yet give the sole agent omniscience. You know, the kinds that ask if it’s moral for you to shove some guy into the path of a train if it saves several people. You get the feeling that the philosopher wants you to say (or at least feel profoundly challenged) that the answer is ‘yes’.
But on the other hand I also know he has a deep love for humanity. Both on a large scale, and a personal one. I have seen many examples of it through our brief friendship, always in great discretion. He just doesn’t seem to feel it’s socially acceptable to wear it on his sleeve. Or perhaps, that it somehow makes him less rational, a thought that disturbs him profoundly.
In my peer circles, it’s perfectly fine – even estimable – for a man to openly be compassionate. In my personal philosophy, there is no need to disown perfectly natural human traits in favour of another. So I never understood it.
The false choice of rationality vs. empathy
We are however, raised in a world that puts rationality and empathy in separate buckets. Especially those of us who are western educated. We are taught that there is nothing that a heart-centric viewpoint can say about rationality, and likewise there is no room in a rational worldview for emotional motivation. At least, not an esteemed room.
In this peculiar worldview, everything is assigned to buckets. I should know, I spent most of my life like this. I am naturally analytical; classification and ranking things against each other is my default way of making sense of the world.
So it is that we typically associate ‘sacrifice’ with a great emotional surge that eclipses your love of yourself. It doesn’t count in the popular imagination as noble unless you feel great emotion towards who, or what, you sacrifice for. So noble sacrifice goes into the emotional/faith-based/altruistic ‘decision not made with reason’ bucket. Rationals are supposed to scoff at such ‘irrational’ motivations. You can’t admit to such feelings if you claim to be logical.
But here’s a philosophical thought: a sacrifice is made because your relative value of yourself, and the value of those for whom it is made, is a certain way around. Does it matter if this is achieved by being capable of a greater love for the latter, or by being capable to clinically accept that the former ranks lower? Is it so that a person can only be capable of one mode or the other?
A false competition
I personally can’t swear that I can do it the second way. It’s one thing to rationally admit that you personally rank lower than many. Quite another to accept it sufficiently to act on it. I could perhaps imagine myself reaching the first way, swept under the right circumstances. But I can’t swear I wouldn’t hesitate.
So if I could make the sacrifice the way we collectively recognise a ‘loving sacrifice’ to be, is it really superior to the way he did it, if he could do it his way without hesitation? Are these two modes really actually the same thing? Just because someone rationally recognised his lesser significance, does that necessarily mean he can’t also feel love for humanity at the same time? Why shouldn’t it be ok to admit that humans do, in fact, usually have shades of both modes operating simultaneously?
My Valentine reflection
The reason why this holiday turns me off, is that it revolves almost entirely around the romantic expression of one person’s love to another. And ‘romantic’ has a very limited definition: the easiest, most superficial interpretation of it there can be. I mean, you can buy it. It’s mostly become a competition to display to others of your gender, that your mate is superior to theirs/ you are a superior mate.
Now I know there are many people who do so sincerely. There are those who aren’t reliant on this one day to express love. I know. But even then, it is not free from the yoke of being exclusively about someone’s personal romantic love to one other person.
I know that this is important to very many people. But personally, I think that sort of love should already spill out in the day to day. And if it has, then it doesn’t really need a Valentine’s Day. If it hasn’t, then both know that the gesture on this day is a sham. Let’s face it, this day is mostly of value to people in the courting stage, where there is insecurity and proof is still demanded. There is not nearly as big a market for V-day promotion, if there wasn’t so much romantic insecurity in the world.
One might say, it is in the interest of businesses that there remain a sustained pool of (female) insecurity and vanity in relationships. In an era of human history when capitalism is all-pervasive, is it realistic to pretend that out of all human weakness, this one isn’t also being actively and fully exploited for profit, to the net detriment of the human population?
This awareness is what makes it difficult for me to be into Valentine’s Day, even when in a relationship.
The one way I could do Valentine’s Day
In the course of our brief friendship, he and I did grow exceptionally fond of each other. In the end though, the immature drama of conventional romance claimed from him as tribute, all other ties.
However, the game that we played last year did make me realise that there is one way I can accept celebrating a day like this.
Imagine if the gesture and the gift is not about assuring the love of one of you for the other. Imagine if the day takes your bond as a given, and the proof of that is the good that your mutual love is able to bring to others. Just imagine.
I can see a point in setting aside a day to remind couples en masse to run a check on basically the evolutionary point of having a pair-bond in the first place: that it is strong enough to love those other than you (future children, at the very least). As in, what about it that enables good in this world? If there isn’t anything, then maybe work on that the next 364 days.
It moves the spotlight from the ego, to humanitarian good. It is (hopefully) harder for capitalism to exploit. And even if capitalism thinks of something, perhaps it is at least much less damaging to the mental health of collective – especially female – humanity.
But most of all, I think this way it would finally, absolutely, be a most romantic day.