Friendship – viewing Valentine’s Day through an alternate lens
by Marion Van Driel
It’s upon us once more – the day reserved for romantic lovers. Flowers, chocolates, cards with big red hearts, and special dinners are synonymous with Valentine’s. For some, it’s an occasion to express their love in a special way – to nourish their exclusive relationship. But what if you’ve lost your loved one or if you’ve always been single? Just the thought of Valentine’s can intensify painful memories or feel like sentimental drivel.
February 14 has been a celebration of romantic (eros) love since Chaucer’s poetic influence around 1375. Long before, St. Valentine, a third-century Roman priest aided persecuted Christians and performed marriage ceremonies for Christian couples, resulting in his own arrest and martyrdom. Valentine is said to have healed Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer, Austerius, whose entire household of forty plus – both family and servants – then embraced Christianity and baptism. Impressed by Valentine, Roman Emperor Claudius II personally interrogated him, hoping to convert this devoted priest to Roman paganism. Valentine in turn set to convince the emperor to yield his life to Christ. Refusing to denounce his faith, Valentine was executed. An embellishment to the story reports that before he died, he sent Julia a letter signed, “From your Valentine”.
Valentine’s profile reveals a man whose life encompassed three of the four kinds of love we find recorded in scripture: storge (bond of empathy), philios (bond of friendship) and agape (unconditional, “God-like”). The only kind of love that isn’t evident in Valentine’s biographical account is eros (romantic).
While all four types of love are gifts from God, the lines between storge, philios and agape are slightly blurred, while eros stands out in its unique character. True friendship encompasses the bond of empathy and accepts the other as they are. As soon as it includes romance, it becomes a relationship exclusive in its intimate physicality. Having multiple friends enhances our emotional, spiritual and even physical health; having multiple lovers is dangerous to all aspects of our being.
Love that liberates
Paul Simon’s iconic (1964) recording, “I Am a Rock” is a poignant look at the bitterness of someone who has loved and lost, hiding away from the world in a bastille of poetry and books. The second verse is particularly heartbreaking:
I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship,
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island
This disillusioned view of friendship and love leaves no room for validation, support and the joy of emotional intimacy. Simon’s poem doesn’t tell us how he lost in love – through rejection, betrayal, self-sabotage, or death. We do know it has made him unwilling to love again.
God created us for intimacy. Everyone naturally craves to be fully known and fully loved. Timothy Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God says, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretence, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” Friends who know us and (still) love us are a true gift.
Friendships are as unique in nature as each person involved. Some run deeper than others. Some are able to sustain long periods of separation and come together as if no time has passed. Friendships often begin in social settings, based on common interests. Some evolve slowly; some solidify quickly.
Contrary to Simon’s sentiments, building a friendship includes inviting someone into our self-made refuge, permitting the walls to crumble. It involves vulnerability. Friendship includes acceptance, caring and enjoyment of the other. As the relationship deepens, trust, commitment and love emerge. Friendship involves the art of sitting together – sometimes in silence, sometimes in conversation, hearing one another and exploring one another’s dreams and fears.
Unlike a trove of friends on Facebook, solid personal friendships may seem inaccessible. They require time, work and certainly an element of risk. As Keller points out, we can experience a degree of love without really being known. If we want our friendships to last, they require commitment and grace, and working through issues that will surely arise, for we are all flawed.
Valentine’s concern for his jailer’s family portrays him as someone who launches past the superficial relationship, befriending even his enemies. Like Valentine, a friend seeks the other’s best. The link between romantic love and Valentine’s assistance to desperate young couples may have precipitated the tradition of hearts and chocolates on February 14. But as we observe closely, we notice that St. Valentine’s care for the wellbeing of his fellow humans extended much farther.
Precious friendships are worthy of celebration. Perhaps this is the year to honour friends who stand beside us in our daily walk, those who know our deepest flaws and love us anyway. So bake a cake, make a meal or organize a games night; invite the people who put a smile on your face and joy in your heart. St. Valentine would approve.