The Different Ways We Love

By Audrey Pettit

Indulge me for a moment: you’re in second grade again.

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It’s February 14th. Everyone’s desk has its own brown paper sack with their name scrawled in red Sharpie, surrounded by heart stickers. Your classmates snake down the aisles, plopping Valentine’s-edition Sweet Tarts and Dum Dums and M&Ms with tiny notes into your sack. They are small tokens of your friendship. Your parents gift you a heart bursting with flavored chocolates; you eat them immediately. You feel loved. All is well.

But this year, Valentine’s Day looms on the horizon, and there will be no paper sacks. There will be candlelit dinners and lingerie and gushy romantic gestures. After elementary school, a disappointing shift occurs. The holiday of love becomes reserved for the romantics. The multitudes the word contains is dismissed in favor of what the media terms “true” love. Now you are in college, and buying your friends a box of chocolates isn’t common practice. Your mother reminds you again that she met your father her first semester of college — when will you have a Valentine?

This unspoken social pressure makes you feel like something’s missing. Jack and Rose, Elio and Oliver — they all hover in your subconscious. Perhaps the next stranger you make eye contact with will be the object of your affection. You romanticize the strangers you meet — the browser at the bookshop, the barista who hands you your daily coffee, the peer who sits across from you in lecture.

And, consequently, you neglect the pleasure found in that daily cup of coffee the barista hands you, the friend who sends you cat pictures to brighten your day, the parent who wants so desperately to hear about that Anthropology class you’re taking. You’re led to assume that if you don’t want or can’t find that gushy, “true” romantic love, you don’t have love at all.

But, as confirmed by the performances of Colin Firth and Keira Knightly, “Love Actually” is all around. Like the film claims, it is at the baggage claim when you return for break — parents, siblings, or friends waiting to take you into your arms.

Indulge me again as I write this cliché: transitioning to college caused me to fall in love all over again.

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Following the week of endless stimulation and socialization that is orientation, I sought a moment of stillness. Walking aimlessly, I stumbled upon the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. While I’m a Catholic school attendee converted to agnosticism, I sat in on the service. The choir’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” made me cry, the kind of silent cry where the tears leak out of your eyes like drips from a broken faucet. It was the song I spent my childhood belting, happening here, now, in New York City, in this hollowed, magnificent Cathedral, unshakable and lasting. I call it my “Lady Bird” moment.

I fell in love with that moment and held it in my memory. It felt stable and communal, as though there were, in fact, things larger and more powerful than the ruminations of a misplaced first-year.

During my first weeks, I gathered apparently mundane moments like this and held them tight like coins in my pocket: sitting on the lawn reading for pleasure, the sweaty, satisfied feeling after my first college ballet class, walking Brooklyn Bridge with new friends at midnight.

These subtle manifestations of love allowed me to see and experience love in bigger, more lasting ways. I witnessed my friend garner an appreciation for the structure, nuances, and rhythm of speaking Hindi. I watched my roommate fall in love with the expression of self through the body after taking ballet for the first time. I don’t dread going to class anymore — I can finally take classes like Modernism and Intro to Poetry without the threat of college applications looming over me.

A tidbit I learned during that Modernism class: “platonic” love originates from Plato’s Symposium, an-almost comedic rendering of our evolution in which humans initially possessed eight arms and legs, two heads, double everything. Then we were split in two, condemned to spend our entire lives in search of our soulmate. This suggests that perhaps the most sincere manifestation of love is not that of candlelit dinners and gushy romantic gestures, but rather of stomach-aching laughter, tight hugs, and soul connecting-authenticity that comes with a good friend. I think this is the best thing I found at Barnard — friends from far-away places, a patchwork quilt of identities — of future doctors, English nerds, track stars, and JJ’s aficionados — who are shaping me into a more sincere version of myself.

I’m not arguing that platonic and romantic love can’t coexist in the same relationship or that either is objectively better, but rather that the latter is a smidge glamorized and largely overrated.

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In essence, we are all lovers, independent of relationship status. We love bookshops and the ocean; we love internet memes and modern art museums; we love the classes that end too quickly and the support system that surrounds us. We love like Elio and Oliver, but we also love like Ron and Leslie, Dumbledore and Harry, or Grace and Frankie. As Barnard students, we have fallen in love with learning and growing and becoming, and doing so with the help of the moments and places and people we encounter every day. Thus, I advocate we redefine Valentine’s Day, making it accessible to all the lovers.

Indulge me one last time: it’s February 14th, 2019.

You don’t have a Valentine this year, but you don’t feel like an outsider — instead, you dedicate this day to the people, passions, and pleasures that sustain you. Your mom asks anyway; you tell her that you are your own Valentine. You gift your close friends Valentine’s edition candies with tiny notes attached. Everything feels laced with gratitude. You buy yourself a small box of chocolates and eat them immediately.

You feel loved. All is well.