T.S. Eliot had it wrong. The cruellest month isn't April, but two months earlier, when advertisers and the media go off on a Valentine's Day bender. The overkill is okay for couples renewing their commitment to the greeting card industry, but it's not so great for the sorry ranks of the unattached, who get to slum around with the scarlet letter of singlehood.
Most of us want to believe that romantic love works, assuming we haven't yet aged into a fine whine of bitterness. There are plenty of good reasons to believe in love, if only to keep the species going. Without the ideal of eros, our great works of art, music and literature would probably be whittled down to gangsta rap, Tom Clancy novels and installation art.
Not that relationships were ever easy. Love's theme park tests both the brave and the foolhardy. You and a companion prepare for a ride through the tunnel of love, and suddenly you're in the dark, arguing about where you're going. Next thing you're pulling Gs on the counselling tilt-o-whirl, or losing it on the in-law scream machine. But fate willing, there will be enough good times to make the stress worthwhile. That's assuming you have a steady companion. The most common complaint I hear among Vancouverites, besides the weather, is the difficulty of meeting the right person.
Perhaps our world-class city, with its big population of singles, has become too classy, too inward, for its own good. In response, some local media has taken to spinning solo as celebratory. Last February, one newsweekly ran a lead Valentine article on the slippery joys of self-love. A year earlier, a local entertainment weekly provided some sybaritic advice for the solitary, offering restaurant choices for a romantic dinner alone. You know the times they are a-changin' when the expression "go screw yourself" has transformed from a personal insult to a marketing opportunity.
From the anecdotal evidence of the media and the talk of friends, we may suspect that relationships are becoming more problematic as our lives become more complex. Many of us have friends who have given up the search completely. They find pyrrhic victory in singlehood; their banner is a calendar full of free weekends and their throne a pre-warmed seat in a coffee shop. In today's fast-paced urban environment, singlehood has become Shakespearean. Romeo sits morosely in a Starbucks sipping coffee while fitness-freak Juliet jogs past the window with her iPod. He catches a glimpse of her and returns to his paper. She catches a bus and heads home to dress up for a romantic dinner by herself. The two will never meet in this near-myth, because he's on LavaLife and she's not.
At this time of year, the media focuses on finding love, as opposed to the less interesting, but more pressing, question of keeping it. The usual themes are sexual chemistry, astrological compatibility and pop-psychology's Mars/Venus gender differences. But something else deeper is going on with the difficulty moderns have in connecting and staying connected, reflected in the relative absence of any credible, heartfelt love songs in recent popular music. (Easy-listening schmaltz doesn't cut it.)
When the latest research findings about female ejaculation, or a newly discovered erogenous zone, are trumpeted in the press like the unearthing of a Mayan temple, we can't claim to live in sexually repressed times. We can, however, state with some assurance that we live in a culture that is growing more and more messed up about love and straightforward connection. Love, romantic or otherwise, is defined, and experienced, as a deep sense of connection to another being. But the temper of the times is in the opposite direction. This involves more than just a disconnect between couples.
In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam examined social statistics from the past century in the US and found a surprising decline in the number of civic organizations, guilds, sports leagues, neighbourhood clubs and volunteer groups. Americans, among the most gregarious people on earth, have retreated in huge numbers from service to the community to tending the self. This trend has been accompanied by several decades worth of ego-massaging messages from conservative foundations, think tanks, public relations firms, and advertising companies, with the self-esteem industry and personal growth movement joining the chorus.
The messages -- just do it, be all you can be, find yourself and look out for number one -- all dovetail into something that may seem relatively benign at first glance. Yet the notion that you owe it to yourself to be happy easily shades into a much more toxic message: that you owe nothing to anyone but yourself. That kind of attitude would be absurd enough among so-called primitive people, let alone people living in the most advanced part of the world. Yet the message is becoming normative, and social programmers are turning up the gain on the signal. As the disparities grow between rich and poor, we are led to believe that a rain-soaked person in the street with an outstretched hand is not a thou, but an it, a civic stain on par with sidewalk litter or potholes in the street. This isn't a climate conducive to connection, in any sense.
The Bowling Alone trend has multiple causes, but the economic factor is paramount. We are working longer and harder for less, often taking jobs hundreds of miles away from family. We find we have less time and energy to cultivate new connections with others, and when we do, they are often mediated by electronic commerce, just like our work lives. When the pressures of day-to-day life have some wage slaves fearing they themselves might plunge through the social safety net and land flat on the streets, the reflexive response is defensive and inward. In this Darwinian cultural climate, love becomes more of a commodity than a living reality, skeletonized into the recipes of self-help books, sentimentalized in Hollywood schlock and counterfeited by the quick fix of porn.
In a survey cited by the New York Times, Americans rated Boston and New York as the loneliest cities in the US to live in. In another poll, New Yorkers put "having lots of friends" near the bottom of the list of desired personal traits. "Taking responsibility for your actions" was number one. For denizens of the Big Apple, pride in stand-alone autonomy far outweighs connection with non-family members -- in other words, community. It's impossible for this kind of urban attitude not to affect the possibilities for romantic love, if only because the old ways, including introduction through friends, have become more a thing of the past.
Urbanites rush around in all directions, meeting schedules, making brief contact and parting ways. That's less tragedy than trajectory, but it's harder to create lasting chemical bonds in this hot, high-pressure environment. For people living in subsistence societies, relaxed face-to-face contact is not a luxury, but a necessity. With urban life's dense overlay of restrictions and regulations, along with electronic communications and professional Balkanization, we no longer depend on the verbal "pay me back next time" agreement. Mutuality and reciprocity, the glue for both friendship and the barter system, are not essential to a post-industrial economy. Long-term connections increasingly seem a relic from an age of small towns and staying put.
Of course, there have been plenty of gains for personal autonomy in this exchange, making for important, progressive change. We've traded the arranged marriage for the coffee date with a stranger (among my married friends, I can number two couples who met online). Yet the meaning of "to connect" now has connotations that are less social than techno, referring to the hum of a fax machine, a visit from the cable guy or a line up your serial port.
Some years back, I read a travel account in a local paper that stuck with me. A woman travelling through Iran discovered a society of tightly drawn restrictions and observances, yet below the clerically demarcated lines of a theocratic society, she discovered neighbourhoods where deep friendships lasted through time. She described the warm welcome she received, with a level of hospitality she had never experienced back home. In contrast, mid-'90s Vancouver had the infrastructure the poorer parts of Iran lacked -- phone lines, faxes, Internet access, cable TV -- all this, she noted, in a city where you can still "die from loneliness." That may sound a bit extreme, but anyone who spent some time travelling will understand her point. I can't endorse Iran's current governance, which has revealed its lethal side to at least one female journalist from the West. But I have doubts about any plan to liberate Persians from their oil (sorry, I meant oppressors) and bless them with free market capitalism, which, for many, means the freedom to sleep under bridges. The great virtues of modern life connect, like a Mobius strip, to its tremendous vices, not the least of which is the dependency of the First World on the natural resources and labour of the Third World.
The irony is that compared to most places in the world, we live in great comfort and plenty. No one can deny that, in relative terms, we're blessed with an abundance of opportunities. With our baseline needs met, we have the opportunity to obsess all we want about any loving we feel we're missing out on. When we do find a relationship, it's common to expect the other party to be therapist, sexual partner, mother/father and friend. No culture other than our own would be mad enough to expect one person to fulfill all of these roles. But such an attitude is almost a given in a time of diminished community, with proper mentors and extended families a thing of the past. The absence has created a social vacuum, which the media infosphere now occupies. We swim in a sea of information, exposed to thousands of messages a day. These memes are precisely tailored by clever professionals to get under our skin and work into our psyches like spirochetes. Advertising, television, film and the mainstreaming of pornography present us with impossible standards for beauty, style and wealth, which younger people unconsciously use as templates for potential partners.
Market psychology relies, and has always relied, on dissatisfaction -- with ones body, hair, features, education and personality -- to move products and services. The surface becomes the real, the form the essence. An alienated self, manipulated by the market into subliminal self-loathing, is in a tricky position when it comes to love.
When relationships are commodified like every other service and product, people are coached into incompleteness. "When we're incomplete, we're always searching for somebody to complete us," writes author Tom Robbins. "When, after a few years, or a few months, of a relationship, we find that we're still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more promising. This can go on and on -- series polygamy -- until we admit that while a partner can add sweet dimensions to our lives, we, each of us, are responsible for our own fulfillment. Nobody else can provide it for us, and to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves dangerously and to program for eventual failure every relationship we enter."
The word "person" is drawn from persona, an ancient Greek word for mask, in the theatrical sense. The root meaning of the word betrays the illusory, playful nature of our surface personalities. In Greek tragedies and comedies, the masks had carved openings through which actors spoke. Who, or what, speaks through us? Do we read from the script supplied to us by the interests of disconnection, or do we actively listen to what's going on within and without?
A culture that thrives on weapons of mass delusion, whether they're the seductive lies of cosmetic alteration, brand identity or national security, is heading for sci-fi hybridization: one part Brave New World, two parts 1984. Love cannot flourish where lies, whether economic or spiritual, reign supreme. Addicted to fossil fuels and the two-car garage, with lifestyles financed by unsustainable personal debt, our society stumbles along a path every bit as false, and dangerous, as the one taken by a junkie on East Hastings. Westerners live massively out of equilibrium with the environment, treating the planet as a combination of crack house and garbage dump. And we can't even get a cheap thrill from the ride. Too many of us travel to jobs we don't like in vehicles we can't afford to buy stuff we don't really need, while the resources required to fuel this mad whirl dry up. Why would we expect relationships in this cultural and ecological milieu to be any better than in the past? Why wouldn't we expect some scary stirrings in the collective unconscious, some indications that the ground of being is shifting under this psychic weight? At the very least, why wouldn't we expect more stressful lives as a result of our hypervigilant, pharmaceutically tweaked, megahertz mentalities, with love morphing into the deformed forms of neurotic possessiveness and sexual perversion?
In our part of the world, over half of all marriages end in divorce within 10 years. Recently, I flipped through my mother's high school yearbook from 1947. The graduating students' pompadours and beehive hairdos had a certain retro charm about them. The kids look like adults in miniature, with the role they have rehearsed for all their lives, adulthood, now within their grasp. My mother and father married a half-century ago. They, and friends they knew at the time, have lasted as couples to this day, mostly happily, with the exception of one couple. When times got tough, my parents didn't bail out. But then again, they met in a time before the online upgrade, the instant rebate and the "no questions asked" return policy. Few people then thought in terms of the first-quarter business cycle. They lived more by the phases of the moon than the cycles of the motherboard.
Of course, plenty of couples in the past suffered under years of mutual loathing, chained in unholy acrimony out of social or religious pressure. Few mourn the passing of the postwar era, with its repressive innocence and narrow worldview. That being said, I can appreciate that there is such a thing as trade-offs. For all the advances of the past 40 years with gender issues and multicultural understanding, we have probably given away a few precious things in the bargain, not the least of which is our time.
Serendipity and lazy afternoons are like sunlight to romantic connection. Family and community are its soil. It's subterranean spring, its aquifer, is a tacit sense of the soul's reality. In a world growing more fractured under data-mining, personal surveillance, corporate drug-pushing and a war on terror that the current US vice president says "will not end in our lifetime," love of any kind has its work cut out for it.
Shortly after I met my angelic partner, she passed on to me a quote from author Michael Crichton, on separating love from its counterfeits. "There ARE ways to know real love. It feels calm. It's steady, and it can easily last a lifetime. It's nourishing. People grow under its influence, they become who they really are, not what someone expects them to be. Real love isn't blind; on the contrary, people feel understood and accepted for whom they really are. It's healing."
In other words, true love connects us to "the real thing." Not a soft drink, but the ultimate Act or Actor behind all masks. And on that note, I wish you all victory on V-day.