The following is a sermon originally delivered by me to Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Houghton, Michigan on February 5, 2017.
The quintessential western myth about relationships has to be Cinderella. It’s such a popular story that it’s appeared in multiple societies at different times throughout history, the earliest being an Egyptian version that was penned around 7 BCE. Its story has become so synonymous with the way love is supposed to be that it is difficult even for liberated feminist and queer thinkers to escape the clutches of its siren call. As a Disney film, it’s one of the most beloved classic achievements of animated filmmaking. And its message, taken literally, is dangerous to the self-esteem of young people.
The story is so familiar that it barely needs repeating. The titular character is living a pretty drab and abusive life and, by chance, encounters supernatural forces known as a fairy godmother, who transforms her from the appearance of a pauper into a beautifully dressed woman fit to attend the Royal Ball her evil stepsisters are attending without her. There, she meets Prince Charming, an attractive monarch who is instantly smitten with her. Before he can find out who she is, though, the fairy godmother’s magic wears off, but not before Cinderella loses one of her glass slippers, leaving a clue as to who she is.
The prince searches all over his kingdom for the maiden that lost the shoe and, lucky for him, in all the land, there is only one woman who has the same shoe size as Cinderella. Prince Charming eventually finds his love and rescues her from her pained existence into royalty. We’re told that Cinderella lived happily ever after which means they lived a long, happy life into old age and died the perfect romantic pair, probably surrounded by adoring children and grandchildren who wanted nothing more than to follow in the couple’s shoes as they sought their own fulfillment.
I know I bought into this cultural story completely, as do most people in our society. I remember I started to date not because I necessarily wanted to date (I was quite happy as a sort of eccentric kid with a few close friends who wanted nothing more out of life than to read their books, watch TV, and enjoy life); I did it rather because I thought I was supposed to. Everyone else at school seemed to be getting into romances that they claimed were making them so happy and complete, so I jumped in the fray and looked for one of my own
Over the years, my search has been less than successful. I’ve never really been very good at being a Prince Charming, and I didn’t particularly want to play the Cinderella role either. I’ve lived a good life so far, experienced so many things that some people never do, and achieved so many dreams. Yet, there’s a part of me, the part that bought into the whole Cinderella mythos that believes something is wrong with me because I haven’t found someone to settle down with. This feeling has been especially potent as I watch more and more friends and former classmates get married and start families.
It can be a lonely feeling to believe that there’s something so wrong with you fundamentally that you’re single well into your thirties and have been for most of your life. That’s the problem with this cultural myth: being single is equated with being alone. I’ve heard about so many people who said they got into relationships out of fear of dying alone, and so this is the basis for their committed coupling: fear that there’s a drab, lifeless existence out there waiting for all single people.
This is an interesting phenomenon to me, especially considering that being single is an identity we are all guaranteed to have at some time in our lives. We are all born into the world single, and many of us will find ourselves without a partner at some point in our lives, whether due to divorce or death, choice or circumstance. I should briefly say what I mean by single, and that is anyone who, for whatever reason, finds themselves without a committed romantic partner. Legally, this means the person is not married. There are millions of happy, single people in the world right now, many of them very accomplished, such as Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, actress Diane Keaton, and media personality Oprah Winfrey. If all these people are happy and successful singles, why does not being in relationship?
Even television shows showing defiantly single people such as One Day at a Time showed their protagonists eventually getting married, as if being single was a temporary roadblock to the way things are supposed to be. The Cinderella myth is even supported by a whole host of societal privileges available to married people but not single people, such as tax breaks, family medical leave, and a generally more understanding view towards free time. Single people are pitied and assumed to be horribly unhappy in the life that has been thrust upon them. Even perpetually single Mary Tyler Moore, otherwise a role model for women and single people, was always thinking about dating people.
Social psychologist Bella Depaulo calls the cultural prejudice and discrimination against single people “singlism,” and she would know. She’s been purposely single all sixty years of her life, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But she’s seen the ugly side of singlism and chronicled the many ways singles are discriminated against in her books. To put it mildly, single people in our society are believed to be lonely, miserable, immature, promiscuous, and lonely. Yet, Depaulo herself is proof that this need not be so, and she has helped create community and hope for people who are single.
There are, in reality, very few people in this world who are truly alone, so it’s a mystery why being single is automatically equated with being alone. I am blessed with so many friends, colleagues, and family members who care about me. I am not alone by any measure of the word. I refuse to accept for a minute that I should feel like that, despite having these loving relationships in my life, I’m somehow lacking because I am single. I am single and I am happy, living a fulfilling life that inspires me to greater purpose.
This was a huge revelation for me. What was even more of a shock was to find out I’m kind of happy with this state of affairs. I like living alone and having some autonomy over my life I would have to give up in a committed relationship. I like being able to drop everything and take a road trip or have a drink with friends. I like knowing I could move hundreds of miles from my home to become a minister in the UP without upsetting my family life too much. When I stopped listening to the societal judgement that being single means I’m defective, I actually started enjoying a lot of things about my life.
Now none of this is to disparage people who are coupled or want to be. As with other prejudices, creating understanding for single people does not take away from those who are coupled, and having a partner can be a very rewarding and life-enriching experience. But that does not mean that being single can’t be an equally amazing. It’s also not to put you down if you are single and lonely. I completely get it. There are days I wish I had someone to hold. But whether being single is short- or long-term, by choice or by circumstance, I believe we can learn to cultivate the love we already have in our lives.
Being single can be especially difficult this time of year, and my own experience with realizing how surrounded by love I am has encouraged me to rethink the whole enterprise. I was broken up with on the one Valentine’s Day I had a relationship, and I know it’s a sore point for many single people. Whenever Valentine’s Day comes around, we’re bombarded with messages reaffirming how important it is to be in a relationship. Everyone seems to want a piece of the financial action that the holiday brings, encouraging us to get plenty of gifts to show the One (with a big “O”) we love how much we really care. In fact, once we’re out of school and passed the stage where we pass out Valentines to all our classmates, I never hear any acknowledgement at all of gifts for those in our lives outside the romantic.
It would be easy to advocate scrapping the holiday all together, but when I look at other holidays I celebrate, from Christmas to Easter to Thanksgiving, I know that’s a counter-productive move. No, what I want to propose we do with Valentine’s Day what we’ve done with these other holidays: shape them into expressions of our deepest values as Unitarian Universalists, and I think the answer to how to do this can be found in the origin of the holiday itself.
Traditionally, it has been asserted that, like many of our contemporary holidays, Valentine’s Day was appropriated from a previous Pagan holiday. Lupercalia was an ancient fertility celebration commemorated annually on February 15. The legend says that, around 496 CE, Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day, declaring February 14 to be St. Valentine’s Day, turning a common cultural holiday into a Christian one. There’s some doubt, though, as to whether this was the actual origin of Valentine’s Day, and I think we have to dig deeper to discover its actual beginning.
There were actually three early Christians named Valentine, each of whom was martyred. J.C. Cooper, in The Dictionary of Christianity, believes the namesake of Valentine’s Day was a priest from Rome named Valentine who was imprisoned, and later killed, for succoring persecuted Christians. Valentine’s act was one of mercy, assisting those who were being unjustly persecuted at great risk than himself. If this legend is true, then it would be a fair induction to believe Valentine’s kindness probably brought him to the attention of the emperor faster than if he had merely held back and minded his own business.
So Valentine’s love was not just that of romantic love, but love for his fellow human beings in general. Other legends around the saint assert that he restored the sight and hearing of the daughter of his jailer. His mercy extended even to those who were persecuting him, and it would appear that he was able to see the humanity in everyone whose path he crossed. He was a friend of the oppressed, wherever that oppression may be found, and his example is one we can learn a lot from in this day of political strife and turmoil.
How powerful would it be if Valentine’s Day were a holiday reminding us to remember all types of love! What if we could recapture those Valentine’s Days of old when we gave cards not just to those we were romantically attracted to, but to everyone we care about, as a reminder just how surrounded we are constantly by the loving arms of those in our lives? What if, just like Valentine was a loving friend to those who are oppressed, Valentine’s Day reminded us to live a more compassionate, loving life, one that recognizes the humanity of all those around us?
More than this, I’m celebrating Valentine’s Day this year as a reminder to love myself. So often, we direct so much love outward that the one person we forget to love is the person we’re with every moment of our lives from birth to death. Why shouldn’t you indulge yourself just a bit? I do believe love starts with the care we show towards ourselves. So, as you’re reminding yourself to be a more loving, caring, and compassionate person, don’t forget to show some of that love to yourself.
None of this excludes using Valentine’s Day to remind ourselves how thankful we are for the romantic love in our lives; by all means, celebrate those in your lives who are such an important part of your celebrations. My modest proposal this morning means a Valentine’s Day that’s inclusive to the millions of people who are single this Valentine’s Day, one that reminds us how much love we have in our lives rather than makes us yearn for what we feel is lacking. We see that our lives are abundantly blessed with people who care so much.
In this sermon I’ve said a lot about my own stance on being single. I realize there are plenty of people who see their lack of a romantic relationship as a curse. For those people, I want you to know that I and so many people around you are there for you, not because we want to convince you not to feel the way you do, but because we love you. A church can be a place of Beloved Community where those who feel broken and weary can find home. So, for those who are brokenhearted this Valentine’s Day, let us hold you as long as you need it, for isn’t that the meaning of the revised holiday I’m proposing: to be a place of refuge for those who need it?
May it be so.