Perhaps the major lesson of my peripatetic life has been learning to let go of desire –desire for sex, for romance, for a normative family, for economic security, for consistent housing, for what was once called a “job” in the United States, or for any particular outcome in life. Like most of us, I have been taught to long for many things I likely will never have and may not even really want (which can alienate me from the many blessings of my life).
Valentine’s Day is a good occasion to reflect not just on how holidays set us up for disappointment by manufacturing desires for particular outcomes, but also to consider two of the worst effects of desire itself: entitlement and sadness.
“It seems to me that desire often carries with it a kind of permission: that if I want something, I should be able to grab it,” the novelist Garth Greenwell told me long before Donald Trump’s “grab” tape emerged.
Valentine’s Day reinforces this entitlement of desire, reifying the ideology that if someone (especially a man) desires someone enough to buy them chocolate and flowers, they should expect certain things in return. The #MeToo movement has reminded us that love or sex are never owed to anyone, even if a man has bought someone a fancy Valentine’s dinner before taking them home.
Valentine’s Day reinforces the joyless, sad side of desire and capitalism. This holiday brings an American paradox into a sharp, piercing relief: that society tells many of us we should expect to be desired, even as the same society tells us we don’t deserve any such thing.
In her 2017 book Hunger, Roxane Gay wrote about what it is like to deny oneself desire when the world tells us we are not worthy of it, when one tries “to love or at least tolerate this body in a world that displays nothing but contempt for it”.
I can only wonder if I am allowed to feel sexual desire when I am fat, black and queer – on Valentine’s or any other day? Hardly, given that much of the world often hates these things.
Is it OK for me to desire feeling physically safe? It certainly isn’t practical. In a country where most white people voted for Trump, a desire to feel safe when you inhabit a body that is female, nonwhite, queer, migratory, disabled, and/or gender nonconforming must come secondary to learning how to defend yourself.
Is it OK for me to desire economic safety? This is a desire I have given up on entirely, and while it would be nice if it happened, I have no expectation it ever will. For most of us, there is no point in desiring something as unobtainable in the US as a “job” that isn’t temporary, a safe living situation, or regular access to food, given how union membership has declined, wages have stagnated, and racial disparities in wealth have persisted across generations.
Stories about love are political, and like the myth of the American dream, the political stories Valentine’s Day peddles can limit expression, set up false expectations, and trigger dangerous and unfulfilling forms of desire.
The holiday comes when we are vulnerable: just after we have survived the winter Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday season. Right after being pummeled into submission by incessant music that is piped into stores to manipulate feelings of unobtainable desire, we are subjected to Valentine’s Day chocolates replacing Christmas items on store shelves.
The effect is to make us feel longing – longing for people or situations that may not be right for us or may be impossible. And we should be aware of how that desire is manufactured.