In spite of an emotional hangover from which I can’t reasonably expect relief anytime soon, complicated by the utter agony of being in an impossible situation—and the utter agony of not being able to brush my teeth until 5pm—Thursday was perhaps the best Valentine’s Day on record for me. To be fair, Valentine’s Day has never really bothered me. I stand by my claim that New Year’s Eve is consistently the worst holiday of the year, not just for me, but for most people.
About a week ago, I realized that I have only been with one person romantically who has told me that they love me. I was struck not by a lack of love in my life, quite the opposite in fact. Rather, I was struck by the abundance of love in my life, so great that I didn’t even notice until the other day that I hadn’t heard those three sacred words, those eight sacred letters, from lips that wanted to kiss mine in almost four years.
For what I want to insist are psychologically uninteresting reasons but can’t because I don’t really know what the reasons are, I am suspect of big romantic gestures, saying “I love you” being the biggest and most romantic of big romantic gestures. I’m a firm believer in “the little things”, as I like to put it. Like everyone, demonstrations of love and affection mean a great deal to me. Big romantic gestures can and do put big smiles on my face, but I fall deeply in love with the little things in between.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and what follows is by no means an argument against big romantic gestures. It’s a plea to consideration and mindfulness. If the person you are with is a firm believer in big romantic gestures, if big romantic gestures mean a lot to them, more power to you!
A relationship—any relationship, not just a romantic relationship—should not be penetrated by convention. By this I mean that the behaviors and gestures and ways of speaking between two people should be informed first and foremost by those two people, their likes and dislikes, their interests and tastes and fears. Of course, it is more than possible that a person’s likes and dislikes, et al, might coincide with a few, several, or many conventional likes and dislikes. But regardless of how conventional or unconventional they may seem, or why, each one is a stitch in the larger fabric of that person, and it is the stitch, not the convention, that matters.
Thinking, especially creativity and imagination, rely very much on our ability to use what we already know to make informed judgments about things we don’t yet know. The richness of our mental lives consists in our ability to stitch our disparate bits of knowledge together in such a way that, as we continue to discover, we find that what we discover coheres with what we already know. To succeed in this is indicative of a kind of mind and a way of thinking that I find irresistible, and no more so than when it is applied to interpersonal relationships.
I can imagine no better way to show a person that you see them, really see them, than to consider them in everything that being with that person entails, to consider what they have told you and what you have noticed about them. It is important not to forget that we each really do have to learn people, and in turn have to teach people who we are. I have to remind myself that, as much as it feels like it, those hands that reached into me, that felt so much like mine, didn’t just turn the key. I learned them, and they learned me, and the key fit.
This reveals itself very clearly in gift giving. A friend bought me flowers after having not seen me for a few months. I don’t like receiving flowers—the only exception being pussy willow branches—and he likes giving flowers, and I called him out on it, like a brat. I laughed and said: “these are about you, not about me, you should take them!” To his credit, he’d also brought me Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, a DVD of mesmerizing and delightful science films that are as much the stuff of dreams as they are the stuff of science. And so he missed the target and hit the bull’s eye all at once, and I tried to explain the best I could. We laughed, and I do think he understood.
Consideration, and inconsiderateness, also reveals itself in less obvious ways, and these are just as, if not more, important. I once made a dinner reservation at a restaurant with no more than three vegetarian options on the menu, two of which were desserts, failing to consider that one of my two dinner dates was a vegetarian. It was among the most embarrassing false steps I have ever made. It was not only a forgetful thing for me to do, but a downright offensive thing for me to do. I had effectively said: I am not considering you as you, I am considering you as 1 of my +2.
Now being a vegetarian myself, the simple act of a friend inviting me to a restaurant that is “vegetarian friendly” means a great deal to me. It is a small but very meaningful gesture. For a while I was a gluten-free, sugar-free vegetarian, and one friend of mine (neither vegetarian, gluten-free, nor sugar-free) never failed to make sure that she made something that I could eat whenever we cooked together. This gesture is not so small; that was quite a diet to accommodate!
It is very important to me that the people in my life don’t feel like they need to apologize for or explain each little stitch of themselves. I’ve felt compelled to apologize for my diet (especially when I wasn’t eating gluten or sugar), to justify my decision, and the compulsion gets worse each time I have to remind someone of it. I can’t and don’t expect everyone to remember every little thing about me, any more than I expect myself to remember every little thing about everyone. But I do think that consideration can relieve this guilt, and that it is much easier to be actively considerate than it’s made out to be. The “vegetarian unfriendly” restaurant that I chose was my favorite restaurant at the time, which is why I chose it, but how hard would it have been for me to choose a different restaurant? Not at all. And how much would this simple display of consideration have meant? A lot.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should bend over backwards or over-extend ourselves, perhaps going so far as to change ourselves for others. That, in a way, would be to misunderstand what others want from us! As much as you want to consider others, others want to consider you.
When each partner is mindful of the other, a balance is easily and naturally struck. In maintaining that balance, the relationship is free to deepen in very meaningful ways, and the balance and the relationship both become stable in this depth. In this stable depth persists calm, trust, security, un-self-consciousness, freedom, love. It is difficult to conceive of reaching such depths without profound mindfulness and consideration of each person for the other.
I wonder, if someone had said “I love you” to me on Valentine’s Day, if I would have been suspicious. Today, the answer is yes, and think it will continue to be yes. I think one day what I will find is a deep and resounding “I see you” in the depths of the very little, very loving things that we learn and do for each other.