It seems impossible to get away from Fifty Shades of Grey these days. On Facebook and Twitter, as well as every news site, there are articles expressing their opinions on the film, whether they be for or against it. I don’t intend to offer an opinion of the film, but do recommend The New Yorker‘s review, as well as Emma Green’s article on the troubling abusive elements in Fifty Shades.
But as the movie is released in conjunction with Valentine’s Day, it makes one consider what love really looks like in today’s society, what sorts of relationships we crave and desire. The obviously marketed connection between Fifty Shades and today’s holiday is, at least, indicative of the things we associate with love, and of the increasingly prevalent equation of “love” with “eros” (and nothing else). As Leah Libresco wrote in her article about our “starved for touch” culture, “The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling.”
But even romantic relationships have been sadly degraded by this shift toward eros-as-love: because in the wake of such a shift, affection is constrained to the merely sexual, and our ability to demonstrate affection becomes sadly reduced. The simple sweetness of flirtation, admiration, even intellectual conversation, all become secondary to sex.
Several years ago, when my 96-year-old great-grandfather was ill, my family drove to his little farm house in Idaho. Great-Grandma Iva, who died before I was born, had been a brilliant musician. So my sister and I played some hymns on her old upright piano, and then Grandpa Walter shared some memories, like he always did. But then he did something different—he got out his love notes.
They were ones Grandma Iva used to write for him, on little slips and bits of paper. She would tuck them inside his lunch box. Nothing especially long, elegant, or sexy: just small, sweet reminders of love. Sometimes he had written little affectionate responses on the back. He kept them beside his chair, all those little notes.
How many couples in today’s world write love notes to each other? How many would be able to read those love notes to their grandchildren or great-grandchildren? Yet those notes kept alive in my teenage heart a hope: that love was real, and love could last.
Indeed, it often seems to be these little things, the tiny notes and little reminders of affection, that keep a love alive. My dad would always put sticky notes on my mom’s mirror: with a simple heart, or an “I love you.” Such tiny displays of thoughtfulness often take us by surprise—they fill us with warmth, even hope.
This is what I think of when I think of Valentine’s Day: small gestures of abundant love, a sweetness that can seep into the fabric of our lives, reminders of love that keep us going when the days get long and everything seems dreary or dark. It’s an opportunity to show sincere affection—and not just to a romantic love, but also to the countless friends and family who brighten our days: to surprise them with a classy or silly card and remind them how much they matter. We all need those reminders, sometimes. I have a friend named Chelsea, who during the most difficult semester of college, bought me bright yellow daffodils and a sweet card, and stuck them outside my door. We’ve worked on countless projects, experienced dozens of happy memories together. But when I think of Chelsea, I think of those daffodils.
Such gestures often seem difficult because they’re so small: because our world runs at a frenzied pace, and we forget to stop the clamorous procession. We get sucked into the fabric of routine, and forget to be creative—to reach past the self, and think of the other.
But it’s the love notes in your lunch box and the daffodils outside your door that make days brighter—that turn the doldrums of winter into Valentine’s Day. And it’s this idea of Valentine’s Day that has sadly eroded, in a culture that prizes eros over every other sort of love.