When I was a kid, the night before Valentine’s Day meant sitting at the dining room table and writing out the names of all of my classmates on tiny envelopes stuffed with generic valentines. My hand quickly cramped, but it was all worth it because I knew the next day at school I would collect a box stuffed with valentines written out just for me. I rated Valentine’s Day right up there with Christmas and Halloween (and this was way back when the only Valentine’s Day candy was those little candy hearts with the fun sayings).
But it wasn’t about the candy or any gifts. It was about those cards. It was the idea that my classmates took the time to write my name on one of their own valentine-stuffed envelopes before dropping it in my box at school. Sure, I knew that everyone was supposed to give valentines to everyone in the class, but I still appreciated the few seconds of effort that someone had put into giving me a valentine. And yes, full disclosure, I admit that I did pick out the “coolest” cards from my package of new valentines for the cutest boys each year, hoping that just maybe they would recognize my silent “I like you” message. (So Jay, Raymond, Paul, Eric, and the others, I hope you appreciated the little extra effort I put into your valentines.)
Then junior high hit. Suddenly we went from giving everyone valentines to giving no one valentines because somehow sharing these innocuous little pieces of red paper became a declaration of undying love (or, in the words of young teenagers, a reason for merciless and unending teasing). In high school, Valentine’s Day was all about the romance, although let’s be honest, most 16- and 17-year-old boys seem to share a singular definition of romance. The school office was inundated with flower arrangements and scrambled to keep up with the deliveries to female students. Such declarations spawned teasing as well — not for the ones demonstrating their love, but rather for the ones who received no demonstrations. Suddenly it was cool and manly to show your feelings for a girl, but if a girl was not the recipient of any such shows, she was teased, pitied, and even shunned.
What happened? In just a few years my beautiful holiday had gone from recognizing that every single one of my peers and classmates were deserving human beings for whom I could take a few moments to appreciate and recognize as good people to a holiday rife with teasing and — in its worst form — shaming. Once we graduated, it continued to spiral out of control, with people expecting and even demanding that their significant others somehow prove their feelings at least once a year. I even knew people who, toward the end of January, would pick a fight in order to intentionally break up with people whom they clearly loved, only to get back together in the weeks after Valentine’s Day. I saw them do this time and again in an effort to avoid all the stress of Valentine’s Day: What if their gift wasn’t good enough? What if they declared their feelings but they weren’t reciprocated to the same degree? What if they weren’t romantic enough? What if they were too romantic?
Ack! What have we done? A day to celebrate love in all its forms has become a day that spawns more therapy-inducing feelings than genuine connections with other human beings. Add a bit of chocolate and red wine to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Valentine’s Day isn’t about the cards or the chocolate, the flowers or the jewelry, the public demonstrations or the mass hysteria. It’s about connecting with people who are important to us. It’s about taking a few moments in the crazy hubbub of our everyday lives to tell someone that they are important to us. In the decades that have passed since those elementary school valentines, I have received my fair share of Valentine’s Day gifts from admirers, but the one I remember the most was when someone pulled me aside in the middle of a party, held my hand, and said, “I just want you to know that you matter to me.” It was the most touching valentine I ever received (and he wasn’t even my boyfriend!).
So this Valentine’s Day, take a moment to let the people in your life know that they are important to you. You don’t need a big show or an expensive gift, just a whisper in their ear: You matter to me.