Romance Should Be Better Than Life, But Only a Little Better

How does a college town understand Valentine’s Day? It’s difficult to tease apart what’s so from what we wish could be, but let’s try. Love and romance are tightly entwined. Taken together, they present an ideal that is not of this world. But we’ve got dishes to clean and tires to rotate. How can we celebrate a love that fits into our defiantly unromantic world?

People say they want unconditional love. It’s an honest approximation, but not what they really want.

The customary riposte to be inserted here, especially on Valentine’s Day, is what we really want is chocolate. But let’s try a different tack.

Bumper-sticker idealism notwithstanding, unconditional love would only make a mess of things. A world without conditions would be a world without consequences. Order is born of limits, and order benefits all. A libertine society soon would cease to be a society at all.

Some want Willamette Street to be three lanes. Others prefer four. It won’t work for each of us to choose how many lanes we imagine and drive accordingly. However the street is striped, those conditions will apply to all, and we’re glad for that.

So the absence of limits or conditions can’t work globally, but how about locally? Can we give love without conditions to another? Yes, but.

The trouble appears when they stop deserving it. Womenspace could fill this page a thousand times over with sad tales of women trying to love an abusing partner, without regard for boundaries or consequences. Next week a trial begins in Eugene considering patricide. A young man is charged with killing his father.

So there are limits. There must be. It cannot be a one-way street. (But if it could, Willamette could have eight lanes!)

What we really want is assurance that our good work will someday be enough, that we’ll be rewarded for what we’ve done and be invited to keep doing it, without fear of rejection or dismissal. We’d like any poor choices we make in the future to be weighed against the competence we demonstrated in the past.

We want tenure.

The freedom tenure offers is not limitless. A tenured scholar in Medieval literature is not free to dabble in a medical practice, unless it involves bloodletting. Showing up every day is still required. Some consequences remain.

The grand bargain beneath academic tenure is that brilliant minds, if given security and freedom, will become more brilliant. Unshackled, the research and hypotheses will become more daring. Many endeavors will lead nowhere, but not all. Enough will pay off to make it a good gamble, not only for the chooser, but for all those around them.

It’s at once both settled and growing. It’s an earned benefit, but the earning — and learning — continues. This is true, whether you’re a tenured history professor working on her sixth book, or a recently retired husband learning to cook for your still-working wife.

Work has become less secure for most Americans over the last generation. Unions have lost much of their power. Globalization and technology have emerged as new threats. Gold watch retirement parties have all but disappeared.

Today’s rough-and-tumble world has spun our homes and romances so much, we should all be resembling shiny gemstones. Marriages typically start later in life. They end more quickly with each passing decade. More of us now are divorced than married. The joy of marriage — at least for heterosexuals — has lost its sheen of certitude.

So yes, we long for reassurance. Not a world or relationship without conditions, but one with fewer.

If you have plans for tonight or this weekend with a special someone that includes candlelight and soft music, put aside “Abelard and Heloise,” at least for a moment.

Think also about the emotional endowment your partner wants from you. If they can know they’ve earned your trust, so that mistakes can be made without causing harm to themselves or to you, the future brightens before you both.

They’ll know they’ve been given tenure, but even a better sort than academia provides — one with fewer committee meetings. And more chocolate.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs