Flowers, cards, chocolate, dinner … Valentine’s Day. Do you have a sweetheart? Do you know someone with a sweet heart? How many couples out to dinner on Feb. 14 are genuinely in love? How many are quietly hoping for more? How many are comfortably complacent? How many are just going through the motions? How many resent this artificial exercise almost as much as they dislike each other?

Shouldn’t Valentine’s Day be more than an opportunity to live a little with a significant other, a good excuse for a harried couple to have a night out together, or a dreary obligation to be discharged?

Is it a celebration of love or specifically of romance? If the former, then everyone is eligible. Everyone, presumably, loves someone, even if it’s not romantic. A phone call or card or e-mail to a loved one may be Valentine’s Day’s best and highest use. Someone who perhaps hasn’t heard those three magic words, beginning in “I” and ending in “you,” for far too long — from you or from anyone.

I think of the skirt-chasing, drug-addled rock ‘n’ roll has-been played by Bill Nighy in the film, Love Actually, whose career has suddenly rebounded and who leaves a party thrown by Elton John to spend Christmas Eve at the flat of his longtime, long-suffering (male) manager because “I had an epiphany. I realized that Christmas is the time to be with the people you love. I realized that, as dire chance would have it, here I am, mid-50s, and without knowing it, I’ve gone and spent most of my adult life with a chubby employee. And much as it grieves me to say it, it might be that the ‘people I love’ is, in fact, you. It’s a terrible, terrible mistake, Chub, but you turn out to be the (expletive) love of my life.”

Feb. 14 is a good day to remember the loves of our lives.

If Valentine’s Day is about romance, on the other hand, the pool of participants shrinks considerably. But even then there are numerous variations on a theme. There are unrequited crushes; mutual crushes, long held but finally confessed; recently consummated crushes, growing into love; first love; love on the verge of eruption; love brightly burning; love steadily burning; love quietly burning; love glowing but fading; love coming to an end; love lost; love mourned; love vicariously experienced in a movie theater; unequal love; love looking elsewhere; love unspoken; love recited from memory; love betrayed; love wounded; love forgiven; love adjusting to life’s changes; love accepting; love embittered; love soured; love rediscovered; love revived; love resurgent.

As the main character observes in the film, The Tao of Steve, romantic love is our state religion. Everyone craves a connection. We grow up desiring it because media promotes it — or media promotes it because we desire it.

What we seek most is true love, which might be called our national myth. It is rare, the myth says, to find two people profoundly right for each other, who accept one another and everything they’ve been through, who desire one another down to the molecular level, whom nature seems to decree must be together, who are willing to do the work necessary to know the other at his or her deepest level, who respect and listen to one another, who never grow tired of the other’s face and voice, who want to become better people in order to be worthy of it.

Does true love exist? Valentine’s is the day we give voice to our shared longing for such a passionate connection.

Maybe Valentine’s Day doesn’t celebrate what is so much as the dream we wish for but never quite reach. Maybe it celebrates how imperfectly we love. And why not? We are limited lovers all. We love as best we can in spite of our shortcomings.

Does love conquer all? Maybe not, but it overcomes much, survives much, endures much. It may not always be patient or always kind, but we love anyway. We can’t help ourselves. It is what we came into this life to do — to love and love better, and then to love better still.

As the poet Mary Oliver put it: “There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny.” Love who you can, as much as you can, for as long as you can. And may you be loved deeply and well in return.

Bon appetit.

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