Love as a Muscle

February 14, 1999. My English teacher was waxing poetic thoughts on Valentine’s Day from the front of the classroom. ‘I don’t believe in this commercial holiday, other people aren’t going to tell me how and when to love my wife.’ This was met with a plethora of ‘years!!’ from the 16-year-olds empowered by resistance from a figure of authority. I vividly remember sitting there in that classroom, my 16-year-old brain thinking, ‘Yeah but do you? Do you show your wife love? Als, does your wife feel the same way because you sound like an idiot.’ I’d go on to hear this idea about Valentine’s Day repeated over and over again. Admittedly, I didn’t grow up with Valentines. It wasn’t that my family was too Orthodox for it, I think my parents just felt there were enough holidays without adding another to the mix. But even still, I always rejected this idea of forced commercial love. Don‘t get me wrong, it is one hundred percent completely commercialized. But the question that always rang in my mind in response to the anti-capitalist rants was, ‘ok you don’t want to be told to show someone love and you believe it should be organic but is it? Do you regularly tell or show your partner love in a mindful and conscious way?’.

I have told the fiance, well before he was the fiance, that relationships are a lot of work and we both have to be willing to put it in. He always grimaced at the word work, maybe because of its corporate connotations or the idea that love shouldn’t take so much work. Like great love does, he challenged me on this and in doing so, forced me to reevaluate my thoughts on the topic. Replace the word work with mindful effort and you have what I had been trying to express. 

One of the greatest fallacies of life is believing happiness is as much a right to human existence as our next breath. Happiness is not a right owed, it is a muscle flexed and grown over time. Happiness is not the absence of bad or sadness. Shawn Achor, author of the Happiness Advantage uses science to challenge our thoughts on happiness, “Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world.” 

Just like happiness, love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love isn’t the natural by-product of ‘I do’ and a lifetime of sippy cups. Love, like happiness, needs to be flexed. It needs to be mindfully grown and consciously cared for. There is this idea that if we plan something, it loses its value. If we plan a date as opposed to letting it ‘just’ happen, it seems contrived and coerced. But do you know what happens when you don’t plan a date? Nothing. Nothing happens. Love is not the absence of apathy, rather the presence of effort and great care.

22.5 years later I have the vocabulary and developed thought to articulate those feelings I so vividly recall sitting in that classroom. This was the crux of my frustration, the idea that love just happens when we are busy living our lives as opposed to busying our lives with the project of love. Mindfully showing love to partners, to our children, and mostly to ourselves. While Valentines may be commercialized and a product of a Western capitalist economy, none of that absolves us from the effort of love. 


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