Sunday, February 03, 2008

Products of Rampant Individualism

Lifted from the site which sells them. Candy for those who hate Valentines Day.

Lately, I've been seeing various ads and articles leading up to the commercialism storm that is Valentine's Day. Some of the articles I see are aimed not at people who are romantically inclined and considering what to do to celebrate the holiday, but toward people who hate Valentine's Day. There are a lot of people who see it as a sadistic attempt to make single and lonely people feel bad about themselves or put them in a position to defend their solitary state.

Though I am married, and probably am one of the most deliriously happy married people on the planet (and yes, I know you are tired of reading it and I'm so incredibly obnoxious for saying it again, in my defense, this time I actually have a point in tossing this bit of information out there again), I don't celebrate Valentine's Day. The main reason for this is that my husband tells me he loves me everyday, several times a day and brings me little gifts all the time. In a good relationship, you don't need an artificial reason to show your affection for one another. So, I don't think that even happily coupled people necessarily feel Valentine's Day is a day for them. It seems to me that the holiday is really for shy people to find a framework through which to express the feelings they have trouble saying. Mind you, I'm not saying that's how it's dealt with commercially, but just rather perhaps the purist intent of it all. Every holiday has been and always will be commercially exploited and you can choose to be put off by it or do things your own way and enjoy any given holiday for the opportunities it offers you (or not).

However, I'm digressing to some extent in explaining that I think Valentine's Day has nothing to do with making single people feel bad, and that's the point to which I want to get back. A lot of the focus of the vitriol single folks have is aimed squarely at couples and deriding partnered life as a festival of petty and bitterly accepted compromises. Among the many benefits of single life that I've read are things like being able to rent the movie you want, being able to eat the last cookie in the box, and not having to ask for "permission" to go somewhere, do something, or buy something.

I mentioned these types of articles to one of my students and had a very hard time getting her to comprehend the objections being mentioned. The notion that anyone would worry about who drank the last beer in the refrigerator or what was being watched on T.V. as a drawback to being in a committed relationship was completely off the radar for her. She just couldn't fathom why anyone would care so much about such small things that they'd prefer being alone to companionship. She sees family on one side and last piece of pie on the other and thinks there's no question which is more important. In the end, she concluded that these things were of value to Western folks because they grew up in a culture which focuses on individualism.

While I believe that my student definitely is hitting at the core of why people come to value having every little thing their way, I think that for many people there's also an element of dissatisfaction in general with a relationship (or all relationships) which starts to get attached to any sort of compromise. Even though I grew up in a culture centered on individualism, I could care less who eats the last treat and my husband and I use headphones when we want to listen or watch something that the other person isn't interested in. There's no problem for us with these little issues because we've worked out the larger issues and aren't looking to power play on a micro level. One of the things I realized early on in our relationship was that there are two ways to deal with problems. One way is to hold onto the conflict and insist on standing your ground and the other is to focus your energy on the shortest path to a solution. You'd be surprised how many people will take the path of most resistance rather than a straightforward solution which requires minimal sacrifice and compromise. This way of dealing with relationships isn't one that I learned from the Japanese, but I think it's one they perhaps come by more naturally than many Western folks because theirs is not a culture which endorses willfulness as an indication of personal strength. Of course, often in Japan, this sort of compromising results in one person caving in to the other based on whoever is perceived to have the higher status so it's not exactly a healthy compromise.

Getting back to Valentines Day, one of the interesting things about opposition to this holiday is how personally people take it. Rather than get angry about it, one wonders why people don't just ignore it or any other holiday which annoys them. Most of the backlash seems to be in response to the overall trend in society toward pressuring people to couple. Apparently, busybodies who keep asking folks when they'll marry or if they've found a significant other grate on the nerves of single folks such that they are pretty much ready to explode by the time February 14 rolls around. It's ironic that Western culture supposedly embraces a variety of roles and lifestyles as having relatively equal value (within limits - they still don't exactly think househusbands are acceptable) yet some single people still feel so oppressed that they turn into snarling, defensive beasts around this time of year.


Emsk said...

What a great piece! It says things that I've thought, but not consciousness, for some time. Personally, I've always enjoyed Valentine's Day and ignore the blatant, tackier commercialism. I have taken the opportunity to tell a guy I like him then - usually by sending a card - and have appreciated the chance the day "gave" me (although I could do it any other day, I suppose).

It's also been useful for me when selling goods. I made some glass mobiles with red lovehearts which always sold well in London. If people are going to make money on this day, why not provide a classy gift, I say.

Unfortunately, there's long been a glut of badly-written chick lit, often including "heroines" who are single, loving it yet get pissed with the "smug marrieds". And to a certain extent I recognise some of these smug marrieds, although I have to say they're usually single people who are having a hard time of it being that way rather than people who are happily with the love of their lives. As a happily single person right now, I do confess that for a long time it irritated me when other people had a snipe at me for being so. I would get incredibly defensive - after all, these kinds of comments are rude and invasive - until I looked at the kind of folk who were saying these things. None of these people knew me, or were in happy relationships themselves, but were with a guy for the sake of being someone's girlfriend, or were having a hard time being single where I wasn't. Whereas every happily coupled person has had nothing to say either way - it's either my choice or else I haven't met anyone I want to be with, which is more to the point. It's a bit like having children. Most people I know who have them attest that being a parent isn't for everyone and understand that I've not chosen motherhood myself.

Lord, even a man working at Heathrow airport berated me for not being married, so it does get to you at some point.

However, I am not one of those types who list all the little things that I can do with my wonderful freedom. I'm with your student here; I can't understand why it would come down to who has the last cookie or whether we watch 24 or Lost. That just seems daft when weighed against being with someone who you genuinely want to be with.

mike said...

I'm not a big fan of Valentine's Day. Not because of anything "love" or "relationship" based, but due to the rampant commercialization that is invariably present with all holidays.

Stores ready themselves for Thanksgiving in September...Christmas before Thanksgiving is over...Valentines before Christmas is over...Easter before Valentines is get the point. It is aggravating to me, to say the least. I don't get why we cannot concentrate on one holiday at a time.

I do enjoy the little treats that I get from people at work, friends and my parents.

Dad often goes nuts and gets my mother huge amounts of roses. Of course, he does this like once every couple of months or more often if he feels like it. Mother says that she hates it and that it embarrasses her at work, but we don't believe it. All her co-workers are jealous that she has such a loving husband. Some of the stories she comes home with from her co-workers about their family life makes me see that they would, indeed, be jealous of my parent's relationship. Much like your's, Shari, with your husband.

If you have a truly good relationship with your significant other, there is no need to ask permission to do something or fuss at who had the last coke or piece of cake. Go buy more or make more. These things remind me of the crap you see in sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond which I blogged of recently.

Thankfully, I don't get hassled a lot by people that I am still single at 32. I just have no interest in a relationship right now. I haven't dated in quite a while (years, actually) and just wanted to concentrate on my education and career, and I am perfectly happy. I think I can get away with using that excuse for a while longer...

Shari said...

Emsk: I think Valentine's Day does help let you say something because the holiday introduces just enough ambiguity to allow for a softer landing if a rejection is at hand. I rather like that, actually.

The glass mobiles you mention sound wonderful. I'm actually a big advocate of well-made, hand-made items and think the world would be a better place now if there was less mass produced junk consumption and more reliance on craftsmanship. When people had hand-made furniture that lasted a lifetime (and was given to the next generation), it was better than an Ikea sofa that broke after a year or two, even if it cost 10x more. High quality individual works of beauty are where our focus should be.

You make an excellent point about people who are married or who have kids who want to pressure you to join the club almost certainly not being entirely happy. I hadn't thought of that before, but I had noticed it in regards to people with kids. It's almost like misery loves company so they want you to join them (though that may be too harsh).

I was shocked that an airport worker said anything about your marital status. Good heavens, why on earth would he care!

Mike: Perhaps I've been too far removed from U.S. commercialism for too long, but I've learned to not care about such things. I figure that not buying into it is enough. The stores only do it because it works and it works because the U.S. is a consumerist culture where people feel the void(s) in their lives in other areas with junk.

Your parents situation is very sweet. :-) Considerate and emotionally available husbands are rare jewels and not to be embarrassed about. I'm guessing your mother knows that even if she says she's embarrassed.

I don't think you need an "excuse" to be single. There are benefits to being single beyond tiny, petty things, though people rarely talk about them because their focus is more of a defensive response than an appreciation of their lifestyle. I would not trade my husband for anything, but I was more creative before I got married and had better focus for projects. I also had more time and energy for taking care of myself (exercising, traveling) and spent more time with friends because I had no other priorities.

Hands down, I'd choose my husband over anything else I could spend time and energy on and I do so with zero regret, but that's only because he's so perfect for me. If I had to choose between a so-so relationship with someone and being single, I'd be single. I'm just lucky that that wasn't the choice I had to make. I think most people would be better off single than unhappily coupled, because you have to do what is most fulfilling, peaceful, and provides you with the best personal growth. A good partner is like having your personality growth hyper-accelerated in the best ways. A bad one is going to be a centrifuge for separating out your best impulses and leaving only the worst ones.

Thanks to both of you for the excellent comments!

Chris said...

Personally I love it!!
All my cute students give me chocolate or something at it makes them happy to see me smile.

I return the favor on white day.

Very Cool.

Shari said...

Ah, there's the difference between Valentines Day in Western countries and Japan. In Japan, the who giri choco business removes the romantic element entirely. Single folks in Japan don't have to feel left out. ;-)

Thanks for commenting.

gaijinalways said...

I have to say that Valentine's day is just another day, and I personally don't feel much of anyhting when it comes around. My wife on the other hand, has a lot of expectations and that always makes it a bit trying. My wife is Japanese, and believe it or not she does get competitive about who eats the last anything at times. but generally I will say that regardless, the good times outnumber the bad.

I would think that your relationship situation is unusual, or it may be the way you view it.

That being said, keep enjoying life as it's the best thing we all know about!

Emsk said...

Ha ha!I'll quickly explain why an airport official commented on my marital status.

When I was on my way here from London I had a spot of bother. They wouldn't let me board the plane without having a return ticket, even though I had a working visa and wasn't required to have one. It was stressful because I hadn't expected it, didn't have enough to cover it, so had to get my mom to pay. Which resulted in finding out when she could be reimbursed etc. Just a lot of unnecessary bother that I didn't need when I was leaving for a year.

One of the ground staff offered to walk me through to the terminal as we were running late, so en route we chatted. That's when he asked if I had a boyfriend, not unkindly, but in a hey, you really need a man to sort your life out. My response was "I've got my dad!"

He was a 40-something British Muslim man and in his culture a single woman should have a man to look after her when things go awry, and he certainly meant it kindly. But still... grrrr!