Hallmark Dates
February 2014
illustration

As most New Year resolutions have long been forgotten by now, our society pushes us onto its next hallmark date: Valentine's. It comes with all sorts of advice on relationships, gifts, restaurants and romantic short breaks…

Hallmark dates are not necessarily commercial, although many are made so. Valentine's Day is quite obviously a major fabrication, and one should reflect on how wasting money to celebrate one's relationship on a particular date, when flowers and passion-red cards are expensive, restaurants fully booked, etc. proves appreciation of one's partner. Appreciation is manifested in small things, support, care, kindness, patience; it is manifested in ‘ordinary’ daily life (rather than only once every 365 days). How is offering flowers the next day any less a mark of appreciation, except for the rather obvious confusion that high prices equate love? Waste is not an act of love. Love would be in listening to your partner's wishes and saving money/energy to help create the conditions for their realisations (investing money/energy rather than wasting it). There's nothing wrong with flowers, or a dinner out, but how does this impose not to be smart, on commercial demand?

On top of dulling the minds of consumers, hallmark dates invariably promote some unhelpful ideas: by inviting us to acknowledge and appreciate a particular aspect of our lives (romantic relationship or lack thereof, age… but also mothers, fathers, administrative professionals, religious affiliations, nationalistic differentiations, etc.), they invite us to see one aspect of our situation as “what is,” i.e. as fixed. And the combination of dates invites us to see our whole situation as fixed.

Valentine's Day might thus become the one day in the year when relationships are ostensibly valued only for the sense of security, born from “I am in a relationship” to then hasten our fall into complacency: “if I inherently am in a relationship, then there's no need to pay attention to stay in it” is quickly appropriated by our subconscious. Or, Valentine's Day might become a reminder of frustration and of lust for Mr/Mrs Right, only for the sense of doomed certainty born from “I am single” (or “I am with the wrong person”) to hasten our fall into despair and lack of engagement with the real people in our lives (rather than fantasised ideals).

All in all, by following hallmark dates, we tend to confuse punctual and narrow observations with a permanent ‘self,’ with “who we are,” with “life as a whole, a stable and complete narrative” (instead of “life as here&now, an experience and an evolution”).

National days become jokes when a constitution is celebrated only to be ignored the rest of the year, when “free speech” is celebrated but not respected (those who disagree are ‘mean’ or ‘ignorant,’ or they even are ‘traitors’), when ‘brotherliness’ is celebrated and also disregarded… There is a trend in the corporate world to use ‘principles’ as a marketing tool: the principles are reduced to how one wants to be perceived by consumers. This results in claims usually describing well what the corporations lack, where it fails (which should send everyone running in the opposite direction when a financial institution claims its principles to be something akin to “Client Focus, Respect for the Individual, Teamwork, Responsible Citizenship and Integrity”). It is striking how national pride is similarly flawed; a constitution is only worth its practical embodiment by citizens, otherwise it's only a piece of paper. And this embodiment has value only if it is upheld when this is hard or costly to do so.

Birthdays are other classical examples, with narratives from “I cannot wait to finally become independent and leave my parents,” to “I'm 28 and not married yet,” to “I'm at my peak age, why is life not better?” to “the clock is ticking,” to “I'm too old now to change” and “it's only downhill from now on.” These are common but fixating narratives: they project a sense of who we are, without proposing much of a pathway to change! They also rely on expectations, which remain mostly unchanged when the world changes.

Hallmark dates thus assume a status quo —the representation of which potentially being remote from the reality of it,— and somehow participate in perpetuating it (by making us less engaged, less willing to challenge the said status quo, less willing to change… thanks to complacency, postponement or depression… i.e. essentially thanks to projecting the notion that the current situation is what is, what has to be, what is unescapable).

There is nothing wrong with celebrating on a given day what we celebrate every day anyway. Any problem lies not with appreciation, nor even with having a date common with other people. The potential difficulty is in how one relates to hallmark dates (dull mind), and how one relates to mental fabrications on these dates (fixated views, projections of permanency and inherence, resulting in lack of engagement).

There's nothing wrong with celebrating graduation, but one needs to relate to the studies and the diploma as a beginning rather than an end. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with celebrating other aspects of one's life, but one needs to relate to these other aspects as beginnings rather than certainties, i.e. opportunities for application and cultivation rather than opportunities to rest on one's laurels!

No one-day celebration may compensate for a whole indolent year —in particular when it is not a celebration but merely a feeble attempt to embody what is ‘celebrated’ at least once a year: ‘celebration’ is not even the accurate word in such a context. It may, though, be a valuable start of a better year!

Instead of ‘celebrating’ by sending our mind to sleep, these dates can be used to reflect on how we behaved over the last year, on how we manifested generosity, patience, perseverance, loving-kindness, cultivation and wisdom in concrete, practical situations. Did we value our relationship? Did we embody our political principles? Did we adapt our goals as time passed, and opportunities waxed and waned? Did we respond, or did we simply wait, stuck with our ideas of how the world ‘should’ be? Did we live and engage, rather than daydream and withdraw? And if not, is it maybe time to start doing so, rather than postpone for another year? How should we proceed? Which clues and hints on what needs to be done are given to us by the context?

Then, yes, we can indeed celebrate our efforts and our progress (without positing unachievable goals nor comparing), then return to further cultivation and application: Valentine's becomes a celebration of mutual efforts to constructively be together, rather than the mere acknowledgement of ‘being’ in a relationship on a particular date of the calendar. A birthday becomes a celebration of efforts to adapt and respond to life's changes, rather than the mere acknowledgement of still ‘being’ here. Celebrations, not just quickly-forgotten reminders…