By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
Have you given a thought to Valentine’s Day yet? I suspect for most people it’s a last minute scramble for dinner reservations or roses. The Valentine cards and candy in stores have been staring us in the face since Christmas Eve. But most of us have had a few other things on our minds, things like floods, flu, holiday bills, and taxes. Hearts and flowers aren’t top priorities for most folks unless they work for Hallmark or Russell Stover.
This year there’s a bit of a twist. February 14th is Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. It’s most unusual. As soon as I noticed this anomaly on the calendar, I realized several things would happen. Some people would turn it into a theological controversy over which observance should take precedence. I’ve always been perplexed by the propensity of some people to promote “either-or” thinking. Sure enough, several prominent clerics have issued stern statements about the obligation of their members to fast and forego any Valentine treats. That’s their call.
Some people will slog through the day unaware of either observance. They don’t worry about philosophical or theological dilemmas, and, for the most part, they’re not terribly romantic or thoughtful to begin with. No big deal.
I have a different take on this. As a 63-year-old woman, I’ve had my share of lovely Valentine surprises and a few bitter disappointments. That’s life. As a geriatrician, I know how many sick, lonely, elderly people are ignored on Valentine’s Day. That’s sad. As a lifelong Catholic, I understand that Ash Wednesday is all about spiritual priorities and discipline. We’re not supposed to be self-indulgent morning, noon, and night. That’s prudent.
Here’s the good part: Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday don’t have to be at odds with each another. There is no need for “either-or” thinking. St. Valentine was a real man, a priest who brought great kindness and love to persecuted people in third century Rome. He was martyred for his devotion in 270 A.D. Ash Wednesday is a major reminder that life is short. The only thing we’ll take with us at the end is the love and compassion we have shown to others.
We all have patients, colleagues, neighbors, and even passing strangers in our lives who will be neglected on February 14th unless we remember them. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. Curious. There’s never a need to “fast” from being thoughtful.