Vonnegut and Valentines Day

Recently I’ve been gently provonnegut-7211f4570402cc1c33e2a75ae08e44fef7dab5b5-s6-c10bing my friends (who might soon be doing some gentle probing of their own) about their Valentine’s Day plans. Many of them, who are steadily involved with somebody but are hesitant to “put a label on it,” expressed the same sentiment: “I don’t want it to seem like I care too much.” By saying this, one means that he doesn’t want the person he’s involved with to feel overly pressured, constricted or emotionally invested. Every time I hear this, I sadly shake my head at them: since when is it a bad thing to demonstrate to somebody that you genuinely appreciate a number of their qualities, and you value the time you spend with them? Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) a gaudy, extravagant display intended to prove earth-shattering affection. A romantic gesture does not have to be an extravagant one.

In a collection of his short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut said, “There are too many of us and we are all too far apart.” To anyone who has been in Sharples at 12:30 on a Monday, the claim about distance between us might seem highly inapplicable. But use what art critics call “real seeing” when you read the quote – think about it abstractly. The reason I bring up Kurt Vonnegut is not only because he is unfailingly insightful and witty, and not only did his first wife attend Swarthmore, and his son as well, but because of his humanism. Despite his cynicism toward and skepticism of politicians, government, and human nature, his strongest messages begged us to care. Care about as many people as you can, as much as you can, and show them – because the value of apathy is greatly overestimated.

To my friends who have a somewhat significant other, and are dreading the expression of feelings associated with the 14th, don’t become disheartened! It’s just another opportunity nudging you to show someone that you care about them. It’s not about proving that you care; “meaningful” and “elaborate” should not be equated. You don’t have to rent out a movie theatre so you and your amour can watch Titanic together and weep all night long (à la Justin Bieber, who actually did this for then-girlfriend Selena Gomez). You don’t have to say “I love you” for the first time — save that for later. A genuine and thoughtful note is enough. A thoughtful mixtape is enough – all people like to be told, “This song reminded me of you” (but take care to avoid the generic and overplayed).

Caring about somebody is nothing to be ashamed of, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Don’t let yourself or others convince you that it is. In Slaughterhouse-Five, one of Vonnegut’s characters says, “Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is.” So, to my friends (and others) who worry over what to do on Valentine’s Day, my message is simple: show whomever you have that you value them for who they are and what they bring to your life. Stop fretting. Do something simple and thoughtful and let the moment simply be.

In his 1961 novel Mother Night, Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” If you are involved with someone you care about, the worst thing to pretend to be is apathetic: interactions that feel meaningless because neither party wants to demonstrate emotion are at great risk of becoming just that.

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