Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


In My Own words

Hearts and Flowers or Food and Water?

Katherine Au
MSM English Major - 1998

(2/10) It's February. Many of the calendar months have a special holiday (January, May, July, September, November, December come immediately to mind). February belongs in that list as well since February gives us the "hearts and flowers" of Valentine's Day on the 14th. From the courtly love tradition expressed by Chaucer in the Middle Ages to second-graders printing cut out "Will You Be Mine?" cards for all their classmates, many people throughout the world have the long-standing tradition of taking special note of February 14 with cards, candy, flowers, special dinners--special recognition of people they love in their lives.

On January 12, 2010, a seven-point earthquake that has been called "the worst natural disaster to ever hit the Western Hemisphere" decimated the island of Haiti. The need for immediate relief for those wounded and displaced is staggering and the long-term rebuilding of the nation is beyond calculation. Relief efforts from across the world have been pouring in to the island, but the need is so great and the infrastructure is so weakened that all the best efforts seem paltry in the face of the nation's need.

At this point, if you are reading this article, you are probably thinking, "What is this article about? Is the writer just confused? Can't make up her mind about what she wants as a subject?" Keep reading. I believe there is a connection between the two subjects, and the connection asks us to think about both events in a different way. The connection is the human dependence on caring and on loving, and the "message" inherent in looking at both topics is the need for more than either a one-day observation of a holiday or a one-time response to a natural disaster.

Why do we celebrate Valentine's Day? Why do we think it is important to set aside a day to call attention to those we love, to "mark" that day with cards, with chocolate candy sent in heart-shaped boxes, with red roses, with little heart-shaped sugar candies that say "Be Mine" or "Love You"? Like many traditions, the continuation of the tradition tends to obscure its meaning. We mark the tradition and assume that everyone involved knows and understands what it means. But what does it mean--really? Obviously, it can mean many things, but central to all of them, I suspect, these marks of the holiday mean "I care about you; I hope you care about me." That is the human connection, without which we would die. Many Native American tribes practiced "shunning" toward those people who had offended the laws of the tribe. Once the offenders were denied human contact, numerous accounts exist of the eventual death of those ostracized. We often take for granted the role that human contact and human caring means to us. But one day out of the year we celebrate that love that we feel toward one another.

"Ay, there's the rub," as Shakespeare says in Hamlet. We focus for a day on "hearts and flowers," and then we return to life as normal. The little second-grade boy who sends his classmate a cut out Valentine on the 14th which says "Will You Be Mine?" pushes her down on the playground the next day. Certainly more serious is the man (or woman, for that matter) who gives special attention to the occasion of Valentine's Day but then returns the next day, the next week, the next month to a relationship of "same old/same old." We all need love in our lives, but how often we take it for granted!

Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if Valentine's Day could be a true celebration of our need for love and caring and a true appreciation of those people in our lives who give us joy? We could make the holiday a reminder to us of who those people are, what they mean to us, why we value them. If we use the specific holiday as a reminder of that future response, our lives will be richer and our loves deeper.

Is there a connection here to the tragedy in Haiti? I think there is. When disasters happen, as they often do in a great variety of ways (earthquakes or plane crashes or forest fires or . . . ), we look for accounts of the event, we watch the evening news channels for details of the tragedy. What is our connection to the event? Why do we care? I'm not talking about people who, for example, have family members in Haiti or who know people who live on the island. I'm talking about the vast majority of us who don't know anyone there, who have no direct connection to the people who are affected. Why do we send money to the Red Cross? Why do we take bottles of water and canned food to neighborhood collection centers? Is it "there but for the grace of God. . ."? Perhaps we are reminded, at least in part, of the fragility of human life, of the thin line between life and death, of the numerous events in the world, either natural or man-made, which happen in an instant and over which we have no control. We are reminded of all these things, I suspect, but we also feel a human "connection." It is the human condition to have the capacity to care about those whom we have never met but who share with us in the human condition. It is why we have a holiday called Valentine's Day. It says, "I care about you; I hope you care about me."

Another connection exists as well, however. Just as we should wish that the emotion that fills Valentine's Day would extend beyond the celebration of the day, so we should wish that our care and concern for victims of disasters would extend beyond the initial shock and awe that propels us in the early days of our disaster response. Don't misunderstand me: that early response and the aid it provides is essential and important. People who are left without water and without food don't need it next week--they need it immediately. The response from us all needs to be as immediate and as coordinated as we can make it.

An immediate response alone, however, important as it is, doesn't mean that a response next week, next month, next year is not also important. In the case of Haiti, in particular, the need will not go away next week, next month, next year. People will still be hungry, fresh water will still be needed, housing will barely have begun to be rebuilt. Will we, though, in that time have turned to other, more current problems? Will we have forgotten our first concerns? One of the more powerful of Robert Frost's poems is entitled, "Out, Out." It recounts the event of a young man who has an accident while cutting wood and ends up bleeding to death. The poem concludes with the stark and shocking lines, "And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

Shocking though the line is, in one sense it is the nature of life. Just as Valentine's Day does not exist every day of the year, neither can our awareness and response to tragedy maintain its initial response. However, the connection we hope for with Valentine celebrations can also be the connection we strive to achieve with our response to tragedy. We can remember rather than forget. We can connect rather than turn away. We can continue to remind ourselves that we are a part of the human story, that we are touched by all of that story, both near and far away. John Donne got it right: "No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . Every man's death diminishes me because I am involved in all mankind. Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

A connection does exist between "hearts and flowers" and "food and water." Both point to our place in the human story, to our need for connection to other human beings, both near and far away, and to our involvement in the larger human community.

Read other articles by Katherine R. Au