Charles Thomas: When the Roses aren’t Red

I was hoping for my meet cute.

It was February 1996 and I was in a new city, achingly single and hoping to meet the Sally to my Harry. I knew the meet cute trope well by that time. A long-standing scene in romantic comedies, the meet cute is the part of the movie where the members of a future romantic partnership meet in an unusual or funny way. It’s awkward but at the same time effortless. It’s pure magic.

The meet cute is the kind of romantic experience the movies and television shows I’d watched had programed me to expect. But that winter, despite the numerous grocery stores and books stores I visited hoping to literally run into the love of my life, my meet cute moment did not materialize. I ended up spending Valentine’s Day in a state of morose loneliness in my new apartment, in my new city where I knew not a single soul.

Each year when Valentine’s Day rolls around, I’m reminded that there are millions of people currently experiencing the same melancholy that I experienced back then. Some are like I was, unpartnered on a day when it seems like everyone else alive has dinner reservations for a party of two. Others are struggling with discontentment or unhappiness in their romantic relationships and dreaming of the day when their tarnished relationship is polished into a gleaming partnership like Jim and Pam on The Office. And then there are those who grieve on Valentine’s Day; people who once were blessed with romantic love, but lost it through either death, abandonment or betrayal.

Sometimes the roses that arrive on our doorsteps on Valentine’s Day are not beautiful and red.

While there have always been people alone and sad on Valentine’s Day, I fear that the depersonalizing world of online dating is enrolling more and more of us into the lonely hearts club. Dating apps only make money when people are single, and so there’s a financial interest in keeping users single, unsatisfied, and looking for someone just a little bit better. I have a friend who—when he was single—told me about how even when he was dating someone, the siren song of those apps kept reminding him that he could probably do better, and that he should keep looking.

While perpetually looking for love may be good for Tinder’s bottom line, it’s not necessarily great for their customers’ mental health. For most of us, the best romantic choice we can make for our long-term mental health is to find a decent, albeit imperfect, person and commit to doing the hard work of loving them.

Because love always involves hard work.

My favorite quote about love comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the book, Dostoevsky writes a scene between a widow and her priest. The widow says she loves humankind so much that she often dreams of leaving her life of comfort behind and becoming a sister of mercy, caring for and cleansing the sores of the sickest of the sick. This dream, she says, fills her with an “invincible strength.”

It’s the same kind of strength that many of us feel when we dream of possessing the love found in romantic films.

But the priest cautions the widow that there exists a wide gulf between the kind of love found in dreams or fantasy and the kind of active love that is required in the real world. “Active love,” the priest reminds the widow, “is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Active love is harsh because it must always grapple with the possibility of losing the beloved. Active love is dreadful because of everything that happens after the credits roll at the end of the romcom: the fights, the money problems, the in-laws and maybe even the rebellious kids.

If you’re lonely this Valentine’s Day, I think it’s normal and even laudable to yearn for the opportunity to love in this active way and to find the kind of love that is real, harsh, and at times, even dreadful.

But dreaming of a love perpetually frozen in the moments after a meet cute is likely to bring only sorrow. While that kind of love does exist, it’s as fragile as a soap bubble that immediately pops when hit with the faintest of breezes. When that bubble has burst, we are left with a mess that must be cleaned up. Then it’s time for us to start the harder task of active love. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “to love means loving the unlovable.”

Even if you don’t have a partner this Valentine’s Day, that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate love during this coldest time of the year. Maybe you can love your fellow human by leaving an exorbitant tip the next time you go out to dinner or maybe you can send a handwritten note to a friend you know could use a nice surprise. Remember that there are many kinds of love besides the romantic kind. There’s the love between friends, parental love, and the greatest love of all, agape.

“Love is the greatest force in the universe,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said. “It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.”

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.