February 14 is the day we designate for romance — in the same month we honor two presidents and African American history. At other times of the year, we designate a day to be thankful, days to honor mothers and fathers, and days to remember those who served and/or died in the military.
On each occasion, someone always says we should do all this thanking and remembering and honoring all-year-round. Which is true, but what about romance? Should we be romantic year-round?
Does everyone have a Romantic hidden within? If so, what kind of shape is it in? Disillusioned, depressed, in despair? Merely deflated or dozing?
Do you keep your Romantic under house arrest, monitor firmly attached, alarm bells set off every time it starts getting restless and making a ruckus?
Some of us are Romantics by proxy. We follow mercurial, roller-coaster, celebrity relationships or watch virtual romance on our screens, making us voyeurs to romance — or something resembling romance — gently stirring the faded embers of our own deeply buried Romantic.
Much of the activity this Valentine’s Day falls into the “romance lite” category. We may dress up, go to a restaurant, send cards or flowers, even an old-fashioned love letter — all good, but not necessarily satisfying to the Romantic soul.
A day designated for romance, in fact, can be a bothersome reminder of how far short we fall. Marriage isn’t especially conducive to romance. Not that there aren’t exceptions, flaming Romantics in conjugal blissdom who rise to every available occasion. Incurable Romantics, we call them. Some are sophisticated, some are graceless, some goofy, but it’s not the technique so much as the effort and the intent that charm. If your Romantic stages a jail break just once a year, it may be out of shape, rusty, or even malnourished. Romance takes practice.
We usually associate romance with sex, but there is more to being a Romantic than physical intimacy, just as there is more to being a person than being a Romantic. My midlife awakening began when I started hearing my starved Romantic down deep in the dungeon of my self, rattling the bars of the cage and demanding to be set free. The Realist and the Idealist — two other significant voices from my inner self — tried to muffle it but to no avail. Once you hear that voice, there is no containing the energy, what Walt Whitman described as “pent-up aching rivers.”
From the hungry gnaw that eats me night and day;
From native moments — from bashful pains — singing them;
Singing something yet unfound, though I have diligently sought it,
many a long year;
Singing the true song of the Soul, fitful, at random …
It is the song of Romantic longing.
Each of us is a confederacy of internal voices, roughly corresponding to Freud’s model of a triad psyche: What Freud called the Ego, I call the Realist. His Superego is my Idealist. And the Romantic is more or less the Id. More, I think. More elevated. The Realist rules, or tries to. The Idealist pipes up from time to time, hoping to serve as the Realist’s conscience. And the Romantic is generally under arrest, considered untrustworthy, though I’m not so sure. The Romantic is irrational, but not entirely. Its mission, as the poet Rilke wrote, is to “go to the limits of your longing.”
An unequal triangle is not, my Idealist contends, ideal for mental and spiritual health.
Everyone is different. When the Realist, the Idealist and the Romantic are at war with one another you end up with Elon Musk. When each is strong and relatively in balance, the result is Michelle Obama.
There’s a place for all three voices, and when harmonious balance is achieved, human beings are magnificent creatures indeed. But when we smother the romantic, we suffocate joy and misplace passion. That diminishes us. Valentine’s Day is a good excuse to let the romantic out on parole to get some exercise.
And it’s healthy all-year-round to let the romantic out of the cage on occasion. You wouldn’t want it taking over the wheel of the ship permanently, but it will definitely remind you why you’re taking the voyage.
Setting free the Romantic means “waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here” as one songwriter wrote.
Dancing in the dark
Till the tune ends
We’re dancing in the dark
And it soon ends …
Or, as a friend said long ago at college graduation, before I never saw him again:
“If you can’t romance your own life, how are you going to romance anyone else?”
The thing is you can’t fake romance. You have to feel it. But if it’s real, the Romantic deserves equal footing in the governing council of the psyche.
For that to happen, you have to set it free once in a while.
If you do, the central person in your life will benefit.