By Lennie Echterling
JMU Counseling Faculty
Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a reporter from the local television station called me. She wanted to film an interview with a counselor about the psychology of love for a news feature that evening. Even though I was busy, I agreed to do it because I had a particular agenda that I wanted to promote. I have long been concerned that the media have placed entirely too much emphasis on one particular form of love – romantic. This interview would be a nice opportunity to draw attention to the other kinds of love we have for our fellow human beings. In a time in which there is so much conflict and strife in the world, I wanted to promote Valentine’s Day as a time to commemorate, cherish, and reflect on how others enrich our lives with their countless acts of love, generosity, kindness, and compassion.
Before the interview, I quickly jotted down several talking points. The first fact that I wanted to highlight was that every year teachers receive more Valentine cards than any other demographic group. Another important piece of information I wanted to note was that Valentine cards for nonromantic relationships, such as relatives and friends, dominate the greeting card racks. In fact, millions of people use this holiday to express their feelings of affection and devotion to those with whom they are not romantically involved, but nevertheless deeply love.
As the camera began to record the interview in my office, I used every chance I could to point out that love for others is not limited to only courtship. In fact, a sense of attachment is a fundamental need not only in the early years of our personal development, but also throughout our lives. Our deep bonds of loving relationships include those with our parents, caregivers, friends, relatives, mentors, teachers, spiritual leaders, and healers. I even came up with what I thought was a great sound bite. I said to the interviewer, “We celebrate our independence on the Fourth of July, but we should rejoice in our interdependence on Valentine’s Day.” I went on to talk about how we could use this day to thank those whose loving devotion had made such a big difference in our lives. Valentine’s Day was our chance to express our love and gratitude to all humanity, not just our romantic partners.
In spite of my best efforts to convince her, the interviewer wasn’t buying any of it. She kept coming back with questions about courtship and I stubbornly stayed on message. At one point, she asked, “Is there such a thing as love at first sight?”
I answered, “Of course! For example, in my work with disasters, I’ve witnessed countless acts of love that strangers offered to survivors. It’s so inspiring to see these people immediately show their love by reaching out to those in need and sharing their time, sweat, money, and hearts.”
That evening, I watched the local news and discovered that the reporter had cut nearly all of my comments. Instead, she had found another counselor who focused entirely on romantic relationships and passionate love. I was disappointed, but not surprised that this resourceful reporter had found another spokesperson in agreement with her perspective on Valentine’s Day.
A few minutes after the broadcast, I received a telephone call. I thought that it was someone who had seen the news feature, but the caller was my brother Dennis, who lived across the country from me. He had recently returned from a business trip to Thailand and telephoned to share his adventures with me. I immediately forgot about my disappointment as I heard the wonderful details about his travels, discoveries and experiences. He described the beautiful temples that he had visited, the warm people he had met, and the fun he had parasailing for the first time. Of course, I made a stupid pun about the great ties that he must have found there in Thailand. Dennis always brought the kid out in me. We also exchanged updates on our children, spouses, and day-to-day lives. After nearly an hour, we ended our conversation. We wished each other a happy Valentine’s Day and, as we had done in closing our telephone calls over the past several years, told one another, “I love you.”
Five days later, Dennis was killed in a mountain-climbing accident. The sudden and tragic loss of my brother was a painful shock. He left behind a young widow, two teenage children, and many grief-stricken relatives and friends. In my heartache and anguish, I found that I took some small comfort in the fact that our final words were affirmations of our love to one another.
As the second anniversary of my brother’s death approaches, I feel even more strongly that Valentine’s Day is a reminder to cherish and celebrate all forms of love. The fundamental challenge we face in life is not so much in finding true love with one special person as it is in recognizing the true love that is all around us. The deep and heart-felt emotional bond tying us together takes on many wonderful forms – a parent’s rapt gaze into an infant’s eyes, a mentor’s patient presence in a child’s life, a stranger’s random act of kindness, or a life-long friend’s playful bantering. Whatever the form, love is the core of our humanity, the fabric of our shared sense of community, and the measure of our meaning in life.
My intention in sharing my Valentine’s Day story is not to uplift you. Instead, my hope is to goad you into feeling a sense of urgency to make every day – not just Valentine’s Day – a labor of love. The most important lesson of that experience for me has been to treat every encounter as possibly the last I will ever have with someone. In that never-to-be-repeated moment, I have the existential choice to listen with empathy, speak from the heart, act with compassion, and show unconditional acceptance.
I was lucky that my last conversation with my brother ended with us affirming how we felt for one another. But you and I cannot leave such a vitally important message to chance. If we are truly dedicated to personal growth and thriving relationships, then we must treat every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. Once a year is hopelessly inadequate to address our fundamental needs. We need to exercise our hearts with daily workouts of compassion for all our fellow human beings.
So, this is my Valentine to you. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and I wish you the best in being an agent of compassion throughout the year!