This week brings St. Valentine’s Day which has been so-named for a historically murky Catholic saint who was supposedly murdered (and not by Love) on this self-same day. In my opinion, this was not a very good way to start a holiday that celebrates romantic love. Being the skeptic I am, I also have to arch a brow in the direction of “romantic love” since that is a term strongly suggesting an unrealistic view involving desire, possession, and general human frivolity. (Imagine how fun I am at weddings!)
I feel the same eye-rolling bemusement over the notion of the heart being the repository for our romantic emotions. To me, this is a strange denial of our most species-unique organ, the brain. We all know deep-down that the heart has nothing to do with emotions – it pumps blood. But I have gotten into arguments with people who are absolutely convinced that the heart has some control over our ability to “experience emotion”. These people get upset when you intimate that the brain is the actual seat of those “finer” feelings. The brain is a trouble-maker, I’ll readily admit, but it is also the three pounds of neurons that puts our world in some kind of order and allows us to fall in love, depending on mood, hormones, and financial status.
But here we are in a culture that expresses love by liberally posting heart-shaped emoticons via the Internet. Where is the brain emoticon? Are we so alienated by the very thing that enables us to build cities, launch rockets, cure disease, invent Snuggies, and deny reality in favor of “moonshine and magnolias”, that we can’t even honor it with an emoticon? When did thinking become something shameful?
Historically, the heart-shaped symbol that we learned to draw at a very early age – and that we now see plastered ad nauseam on anything we want to sell as sincere – had nothing to do with the organ that beats in your chest. Originally, the heart-shape was used to denote the botanical world, namely leaves. And because trees and vines were ubiquitous in most of the places that humans roamed, the heart-shaped leaf symbolized the natural bounty that nurtured all living things. It wasn’t until the 12th Century, when the leaf symbol was transmogrified into a heart symbol (something inward and personal instead of outward and shared) by a religious European culture. (A great website to go to for this history: www.heartsymbol.com).
Interestingly, it was during the 12th Century that the European folk tale Tristan and Isolde captured people’s imaginations. Undoubtedly you recall this story in detail, but allow me to share a brief sketch:
Isolde was a beautiful woman who was about to marry the uncle (who was rich and a king, naturally!) of Tristan. But a love potion (#9?) caused Tristan to fall in love with Isolde and, even though she got married to the kingly uncle, Tris and Iso had a torrid affair that, like all such things in life, was gloriously happy until ending in utter tragedy and the gnashing of teeth. The lovers died and were buried side by side. From out of the graves grew two trees that, over the years, twisted together to form one united tree. Here was a story that conflated “eternal love” with enjoined trees. Alas, it wasn’t long though before botanic love was replaced by blood red hearts love. The heart, in turn, has been culturally fortified by hundreds of years of commerce. Tsk! With a plant, at least, there is a direct connection to all life on earth that is plain to understand and demonstrate.
So, by all means, celebrate your love ones this day. Buy them some chocolate and flowers (both items which might still suggest the early idea that connects our emotional needs with botany). And tell them you love them oh so much. One day, however, it would be nice if we could turn our red hearts back into green leaves while also giving a little more credit to the unsexy gray mass that resides in our heads for the emotions we feel.
All I am saying, is give leaves a chance.