Love, Duty, and Habits of the (Valentine’s) Heart

Listen to "Love, Duty, and Habits of the (Valentine’s) Heart"


"Antique Valentine 1909 01" by Chordboard - Self, from material in my possession.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - the drought, spring has sprung in San Francisco. The birds outside my bedroom window proposed to each other as we celebrated the Great Anglo-Saxon Romance Ritual known as Valentine’s Day, named after Saint Valentine of Rome. Soloists who prefer playing solitaire commemorated their very own Happy Independence Day. For those whose hearts were delighted, hearty congratulations!  For those who are disappointed, you can always convert the next Friendship Day to your purpose. And to the saffron clad spoilsports intent on intercepting cupid’s capers, shame on you!

The Hindutva forces,  and the Islamists, have been getting their undies in a bunch about Valentine’s Day since the beginning of the 21st century. (Um, that’s not that long, actually.) This year men all across Asia and the Middle East offered pushback for the smitten. But the love police in India, comprised of members of the hardline Hindu groups, the Hindu Mahasabha, Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, and Hindu Yuva Vahini, actually went around to parks, malls, metro stations, and theaters disrupting the holding of hands and demonstration of affection between non-married people. Not only were they interfering, they threatened to marry off cooing couples under threat of physical  violence. One journalist joked they could arrange his honeymoon too. (Now that’s called making lemonade out of love.) What has the world com to when affection is a crime?! What’s next? Kissing protestors! Start practicing now for International Kissing Day on July 6.

Kamasutra_106The Hindu hardoners, I mean hardliners, oughta get some of their own history on. According to Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist from Texas A&M University who specializes in the history of the kiss, the first known references to kissing are in the Sanstrict, I mean Sanskrit, Vedic texts written around 1500 BC. (That’s a long time ago.) (Leave it to a white guy to tell Indians about India.) In any case, he does a good job of reminding us the much revered epic Mahabharata also refers to lip kissing between lovers. And of course, let us also remember, and read, the celebrated erotic instructional manual Kama Sutra. While we are at it, how about studying the Hindu Tantric yoga practice of maithuna developed in the 5th century AD.  It turns out even the Latin word for kiss originates in India. (My mom will feel affirmed as she asserts all great things come from India.)

The apparent objection of the prudish Hindus is to public displays of affection between sweethearts. They forget the Khajuraho Temple, one of the jewels of India, is a public display of eroticism that would make even the Folsom Street Fair folks blush. They dismiss from their minds that the Krishna Leela is a felicitation of the antics of Hindu mythology’s greatest playboy. They obliterate the sine qua non of Hinduism, tolerance for all ways of life, including the ways of ardor and passion.

I suggest the moral police dig a bit deeper to discover why this holiday gives them a wedgie. Valentine’s Day is an expression of a person’s desire to choose whom to love. It is the individualism inherent in this assertion that disturbs the Love Nazi’s sense of social security. It poses a threat to the ideals of duty and respect for elders which Indians hold dear. It is the adoption of the independent heart fundamental to professing one’s attraction that threatens the stability of a society they want to maintain as static. It is the potential unquestioning appropriation by Indians of the extremes of self-absorption found in America they find abhorrent.

Some of their concerns may include: sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies in a culture that offers very little comprehensive sex education; young parents without the means and commitment to raise children responsibly; single mothers without gender equity in wages; and in such a scenario, no appropriate child care system and nobody left with any time or energy to take care of the elderly. For anyone familiar with life in America, these concerns are valid and serious. It could be that after the roses wilt, the balloons burst, and all that’s left of the chocolates is the box, a Valentine’s day romp might just leave one cradled with much more than one bargained for. And possibly more lonely to boot. It’s a fear. With a basis. Perhaps these moralists just don’t have the skills to articulate what it is that puts a cramp in their pants. They also don’t have the sophistication to generate a public commitment to create a social, political, and economic climate that allows for the free expression of love.

habits of the heartLeave it to a sociologist from Italy, the land of romance, to explicate theories of love, commitment, duty, sincerity, and communal citizenship in this short podcast. Dr. Matteo Bortolini, a sociologist from the University of Padova in Italy, was in Berkeley last year conducting archival research for a biography he’s writing about Professor Robert Bellah, author of the Habits of the Heart, a book which sparked debates all across America when it was first published in 1985. The thesis remains relevant thirty years later as we’ve deepened our practice of  individualism and increased the severity of our solitude.

Despite Valentine’s Day, the United States and the United Kingdom are steeped in an epidemic of loneliness. Perhaps we aren’t as united as we call ourselves. We may, however, be generating a worldwide pandemic. The U.S. is founded on exalting the value of autonomy. In a globalized world, the American culture of independence is being exported, along with MTV, KFC, Micky D’s, and Valentine’s Day, even if it comes with the price tag of isolation. People aspire to re-create the financial comfort Americans and Brits enjoy, despite consistently insisting they value human relationships over wealth, and even health. This very same economic independence and freedom seems to come as a package deal with the “cult of the individual“.

garrincha120The British Department of Health reports that:

  • more than half of those over the age of 75 live alone – 10% suffer ‘intense’ loneliness;

  • half of older people – more than five million – say that the television is their main company; (These days many children are also raised by the screen.)

  • 17 per cent of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week, and 11% are in contact less than once a month.

The Brits plan to map this isolation, as one would Ebola, so resources can be targeted to alleviating this risk factor for depression, dementia, heart disease, and other illnesses. Good idea.

It’s not just a problem for the feeble or disabled elderly whose compatriots have passed away.  According to a survey by the AARP, the loneliest are in their 40s and 50s. In the U.S., the majority of people living alone are women between the ages of 34 and 64.  Yet, living or being alone should not be conflated with lonesomeness. Nor should communication be confused with connection. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, email, text, or emails do not count towards creating a community. Social media and the digital format may not be the cause, but rather the symptom of our physical, emotional, and spiritual alienation from each other. Cultural developments should not always be considered progress. And choice, love, and duty are not all mutually exclusive.

Life is constantly changing, we are inevitably evolving, by choice or natural selection. How we determine a proper balance between personal authenticity and commitment to our community is an urgent global question, the answer to which may determine our fate as a species. Listen to this very special interview  with Dr. Matteo Bortolini in the aftermath of Valentine’s Day and share your thoughts on the matter. Remember, Love Rocks and Rules.


“The highest task of lovers is that each stands guard over the solitude of the other.”– Rainer Maria Rilke

 “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”– Anton Chekhov

“The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.”-Anthony Storr,  Solitude A Return of the Self

And as a prelude to International Kissing Day:

Episode: Guest Bios & Individual Clips

Matteo Bortolini, PhD
is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Padova, Italy. He is currently writing a sociological biography of Robert N. Bellah from the standpoint of the sociology of the intellectuals. His English-language articles include: “The Trap of Intellectual Success. Robert N. Bellah, the American Civil Religion Debate, and the Sociology of Knowledge,” (Theory & Society, 2012); “The ‘Bellah Affair’ at Princeton. Scholarly Excellence and Academic Freedom in America in the 1970s” (The American Sociologist, 2011); “Before Civil Religion. On Robert N. Bellah’s Forgotten Encounters with America, 1955-1965” (Sociologica, 2010).

Listen to "Love, Duty, and Habits of the (American) Heart"