It’s Valentine’s Day. Many things to many people, it nevertheless finds a certain commonality in that romance can be as universal as it is secluded and intimate. I’m taking Jane to our favourite restaurant for lunch and then we’re going for a walk through the neighbourhood we love – just the two of us. I feel a certain thrill about it, even hours before our special date.
I hope it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that people can possess such feelings about their community, their neighbours, their place in the land. Some are just wired this way. They can’t build a life around themselves for the simple reason that they desire a world greater than themselves. Put simply: they love the place wherein they live. For all its flaws and drawbacks, such things can’t seem to still the desire to make it a better place.
In a very real and motivated sense they have a romantic relationship with their community, so much so that it forms a part of their identity. Just like in all romance, attraction is not an option. Just as our eyes fall on that special someone we desire to spend time with, others view their community through a hue of desire and promise.
The essence of romance isn’t about getting something for yourself, but that of abandon – the giving of oneself because it simply can’t be helped. It’s very much as Jane Austen wrote in Love and Friendship: “The very first moment I beheld him, my heart was irrevocably gone.” Some view their community in just this way. They grow comfortable in its familiarity and disturbed at its shortcomings. They “ask not” what their community can possibly do for them, but how they might dedicate themselves to better where they live – just as John Kennedy said. Their heart belongs in their community.
In remains true that every community, every city, town, grouping of small farms, possesses an identity greater than the sum total of its parts. It is from this that intention, action, and social development flow. Identity isn’t just about who we are, but what is it within us that can make us even better. Far too much of our individual existences are about what we eat, where we go, whom we date, care for family, love of institutions. Such things compel us to turn aside and take notice. But when all these have had their influence on us there is yet a broader calling that tugs at our minds and reminds us of our place in the larger context.
As with any relationship, being romantic is arduous work. We have to be willing to fight if a love story is to last. Many citizens pour their hearts into things that matter to them only to lose the impulse over time due to distraction, lack of response, or just the fatigue of living. Many marriages end up this way. The relationship between a community and its members can too. Citizenship is about toil, not just celebration. Collective self-discipline is about dedication, not just delight. Ultimately our communities must be about passion and not just patterns or habits of living.
In the end, our professions of love for our respective communities will be proved by our actions of compassion, of justice, cooperation and sacrifice. Should we seek success for ourselves but in the process forget about the progress of our community then our passionate ardour is suspect. If our goals for ourselves don’t include the aspirations and needs of others in the regions where we live then romance cannot survive. “The citizen at his or her essence can’t really progress until there is a rising above the narrow confines if individuality to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Know who said that? Martin Luther King Jr., and he knew something about fighting for the Dream.
So on this, Valentine’s Day, let’s see if our hearts are big enough to look beyond our romantic inclinations, beyond those closest to us. C. S. Lewis used to say that romantic love is about looking in at one another whereas friendship is about looking out in the same direction, together. Do we possess that capacity? For if we do, love and romance for community will find their proper place in our personal lives. Must we always give precedence to financial gain and an odd sense of market determinism over the welfare of our neighbours and our broad public values? This is a political question as much as it is a personal one.
In so many senses we are what we are passionate about. Romance should ultimately expand our reach – people deeply in love often draw others into their joy. So here’s to our communities on Valentine’s Day and their ability to enamour us, challenge us, and in the end pull us out of our limited surroundings to a public place of broader passion. Happy Valentine’s Day.