My great-grandfather was born on February 14.  His parents named him Valentine and his friends called him Val.  The card in the photo is one of his combo Valentine’s Day/Birthday cards.  I vaguely remember seeing it in an old album when I was a kid and recognizing that the message was that people were thinking of him.  He mattered to them.

Giving and receiving cards was a large part of my elementary school Valentine’s Day celebration.  The little paper cards, bearing the words “Be mine,” that we slipped into the slots of each other’s decorated shoeboxes carried the message that we belonged in the group.  It’s impossible to overstate how important it is to a child to feel a sense of belonging.

By the time I reached adolescence Valentine’s cards had become romantic expressions. Or at least that was always the hope – the card that would be the longed-for expression of true love finally arrived with the message of being cherished by someone.

But for all its optimism and promise, I can remember Valentine’s Days when there were no cards at all – a painful reminder of the lack of love.  Of love that never materialized.  Of love lost.  Of the love that held promise but ultimately disappointed.  Maybe that’s true for you, too.

It’s easy to put way too much pressure on this Hallmark holiday.

For some reason we get the message that if we can just find the one and only love of our life we will live happily ever after.  What a set-up for relationship disaster! It’s impossible for one person to fill all of the needs of another.  That’s not love.  That’s codependence.

One of the best descriptions of love I know comes from the Christian scriptures – from a “card” of a different sort – a letter from a cantankerous community organizer written not to just one person, but to a whole community.   He describes love as patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. Love doesn’t insist on its own way; and it’s not irritable; there’s no keeping score of wrongs. It rejoice in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends, this author says.

This author describes love as almost an entity on its own, not just something we feel. Not just something we hold within ourselves.  True love is more action than feeling.

And it’s durable and tough.  We can rely on it to see us through when it seems we have nothing more to give.  We find it in the most unlikely places.

It’s in the devotion of the man who faithfully visits his wife in the nursing home long after she’s forgotten who he was.

It’s in the financial gift given discretely so as to preserve the dignity of the recipient who is desperate straits.

It’s taking the time to listen to the one who has a great deal of difficulty speaking.

It’s lingering with a lonely neighbor.

It’s in forgiveness and second chances.

And, yes, it’s also in the commitment a couple makes to navigate life together.

We talk about being “in love.”  “Falling in love,” even.  Whether we realize it or not, we talk about love as if it is larger than we are.  And we’re right. True love is so large we can’t hold internally.  Instead, love holds us. All of us.

This love holds our hopes and dreams, our disappointments and sorrows, our fears, our courage.  Its message is that we matter, we belong, we are cherished.  Even without a card.