A few weeks ago, we celebrated Valentine’s Day. Am I late? No. What I have to say is about the timeless expression of love and about Valentine’s Day rituals for one…because February 14, 2020 will be here before you know it.
My local gift shop, grocery store, pharmacy, and post office all sell greeting cards. Annual holidays transform the rotating racks according to the seasonal emblems – witches, turkeys, evergreen trees, hearts, and shamrocks. For Valentine’s Day there were offerings for a person’s husband, wife, son, son-in-law, grandson, daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, brother, sister, mother, father, and the list goes on. Why the variety? Because the greeting card industry knows that people feel good when they give an expression of love.
Back in the 1950s when I was in grade-school, my mom would bring me and my two younger sisters to the local drug store where she’d let each of us pick out a box of Valentine’s Day cards. The cards were small—about two inches high, a single layer of paper. Each came with a little envelope. Each box might contain 10 or 15 or 20 cards, so depending on how many classmates we had, we might need to buy two boxes. My mother taught us that if we didn’t have enough cards to give one to every classmate, we weren’t to give any cards.
Fast forward to today. I have a lot of friends who are single. Some are divorced, some widowed, some single by choice, some living “in the wait.” Even though I read and write romance novels, I don’t believe a person has to be in a loving, committed relationship to have a good life. That said, I do believe every single one of us needs to give love and be open to receiving love from others. How long the loving energy flows back-and-forth in any relationship will vary. To keep the energy flowing, I’ve designed a few safe and simple rituals.
But first, I want to tell you about something I learned on a recent episode of NPRs “On Being” podcast. The host, Krista Tippett, was interviewing Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They were talking about love and kindness, about how important it is for young children to see those qualities in the classroom, especially when children see love and kindness used to honor their differences.
Davidson said humans are born with an innate propensity for kindness but that kindness must be nurtured in order to be expressed. He talked about empathy as a prerequisite for kindness, and about the emotional and physical responses children have to acts of kindness, compassion, and generosity. I immediately thought of the vital role played by teachers in kindergarten and preschool.
Tippett and Davidson talked about the quality of resilience – how fast we recover from adversity – and how resilience is a key factor in predicting mortality. They talked about love as the next frontier for science. Now that’s fertile ground!
I was thinking about all this in connection with Valentine’s Day because Davidson also talked about how important emotions are in helping adults make some very important decisions, like partnering with someone, like getting married. I can see links with empathy and kindness and generosity …and ritual. I wondered, how we, as adults, work with those links to create rituals based on acts of kindness? And, will doing so open the heart to give and receive love?
For me, ritual is a visible act performed with invisible intent. Simply put, can a ritual designed around an act of kindness bring love into our lives? While I can’t make guarantees –because people are different and have their own definitions of love – I do see the potential.
Think of it this way. Each of us has a gift we can give: Time, money, things, energy. How much we have of each will vary. What’s important is to recognize that these gifts have an endless return on investment.
Hallmark cards and Lifetime movies are made around the ideas of the passing of time, of contributing money to a worthy cause, of donating items to charity, of adding sweat equity to a community project. We hear stories of the driver at the fast-food window who pays the tab for the stranger behind her. We see the television commercials about the lottery winner who leaves a mega tip for the server in the roadside diner. These acts of kindness demonstrate the truth that it feels good to give. What might an act of kindness look like when combined with ritual?
Suppose you volunteer at a nursing home. Once a week, you spend a few hours polishing one woman’s fingernails, reading to another, looking at family photos with another. These are visible acts. Now imagine that as you meet with each resident, you use your finger to trace a heart on the other person’s hand. As you do, you say, “May you feel loved.” Repeat the words and trace another heart when you leave. In that brief moment, focus your thoughts on the person whose hand you’re touching. You’ve turned an act of kindness, beautiful in itself, into a ritual, a ritual to bring love. Before you leave, draw a heart on your own hand and say, “I am loved.”
Suppose you’re making breakfast for your child who is getting ready for school. He has a big test that day. You know he’s feeling some anxiety. You want him to help him. A safe and simple way is to draw on the magical properties of basil. The herb is thought to bring courage to both the cook and to all who eat the food.
The mechanics are simple. Add fresh basil to scrambled eggs. Tuck a leaf of basil into a cheese sandwich. Spread some pesto on a cracker. Sprinkle dried basil on a cup of hot bone broth. However you give your son the basil, do so with a hearty “Carpe Diem!” the famous seize-the-day message from the movie, Dead Poets Society. Sure, you could use your best Robin Williams’ imitation and simple recite the quote. And that would be an act of kindness. Add the basil and the invisible intent to give your child courage and you have a ritual, a ritual of love. Be sure to have a bite of basil for yourself. As you eat it, say, “I have the courage to pursue my goals.”
Now let’s imagine you’re weeding out your closet or rummaging through a drawer of old jewelry. You make a pile of items and donate them to the local hospital thrift shop. That’s an act of kindness and generosity. Now suppose that before you bring those items to the thrift shop, you place each piece of jewelry in a little box tied with a ribbon, or in a pretty drawstring bag, along with a note. “I wore these earrings the day I got my dream job (or met my future husband) (or sold my first book) (or sang in public for the first time). May these earrings help make your dreams come true, too.”
Yes, depending on how many items you plan to donate, it will take some time to write all those notes and find suitable containers. Imagine how the recipient will feel. Grateful? Encouraged? Inspired? Chances are, you’ll never know the new owner of each treasure. So I’ll just remind you that destiny is a wide road. Your ritual of generosity could change a stranger’s life for the better. That’s a pretty powerful idea. So, when you drop off your donations, say to yourself, “I enjoy sharing what I have with others.”
Finally, anyone who has ever had a pet knows the feeling of unconditional love. But not everyone can open his or her home to a pet. What you can do is volunteer at your local animal shelter. They’re always looking for people to help comfort and socialize the animals who wind up there. To volunteer is an act of kindness.
Now imagine you’re sitting with an older cat whose owner died. You’ve been told that the cat is listless, has no appetite, and appears lonely and depressed. As you stroke the cat’s fur, envision the cat’s new home. Softly describe it, everything from the quiet cottage that smells like cookies, to the soft cushion on the sun-drenched window seat, to the widow who still cooks for two.
Or, imagine you’re playing with an eager mutt rescued from a devastating storm hundreds of miles away. Each time you toss a stick and the dog races to retrieve it, you say, “Go fetch the young family that’s looking for a dog just like you!”
You see, if your heart longs for quiet companionship, or for the joyful energy of a new family, envision it for someone else first. Sometimes that’s easier than creating a clear vision of what you want. As you repeat the ritual for other dogs and cats and they show their gratitude in ways that only they can, say to yourself, “I want companionship, too. I want a cozy home, too. I want love, too.”
These are simple examples of ways acts of kindness and generosity can inspire rituals that open your heart to love. I hope these ideas inspire rituals of your own. And I hope you tell me about them. Email email@example.com. I’m going to assume that if you do tell me about your rituals, that’s it’s okay for me to talk about them on the Ritual Recipes podcast.
Of course, you can live your life without ritual. You can flip the pages on a calendar or watch the date change on your cell phone. You can feel like a hamster running inside a wheel, and when Valentine’s Day comes around next year, you’ll wonder where the time went and why nothing has changed. Or you can perform safe and simple rituals of kindness and generosity and know that you made a difference in someone else’s world. You can lead a relevant life, and share it with others.