Valentine’s Day is coming up in less than a week. Mostly, I’ve been trying to ignore it (it’s not my favorite holiday), but my five-year-old won’t let me. For weeks now (literally) he has trailed me around the house, asking me to help him make valentines. In turn, I haul out the red, white, and pink construction paper, the markers, scissors—and, reluctantly—the glue. For ten or fifteen minutes he works happily, cutting out misshapen red paper hearts and gluing them onto white paper cards, before losing interest and moving on to other tasks, leaving a detritus trail of paper clippings in his wake.
Because I have also had this post on my mind, my son’s incessant reminders have forced me to think about Valentine’s Day and social conceptions of love. I don’t want to rehash familiar arguments about the loneliness of a “couple’s holiday” for single people; I don’t even want to criticize the glorification of romantic love (although I have more than enough to say on that topic). But I do want to talk about a kind of love that too often gets overlooked in the glamor of romantic love—the strong, affirming love that can exist between good friends, particularly between women. I’m not sure it was coincidence that Sunny posted about Relief Society yesterday (after I had written this post)—for me, it is this very connection between women that characterizes Relief Society at its best.
First, let me tell a story. In high school and college I had a good friend with whom I also had a strong (if unacknowledged) competition. Both of us were good students, but she was prettier and more out-going than I was. However, I consoled myself that I was, if anything, the better student. Eventually we drifted apart; she got married, and I left on a mission. While I was gone, mom faithfully fed me tidbits of news about my friend—about the essay contest she’d won, about the prestigious scholarship she’d just been awarded. Instead of feeling pleased for her (as I knew I should), I felt sick, as if somehow her gifts made mine less.
Unfortunately, this kind of invidious comparison isn’t an isolated experience (not for me; nor, I imagine, for most women). And I think it’s this kind of conflict that Patricia Holland addresses so beautifully in a 1984 address, “The Fruits of the Spirit”:
It seems tragic to me that women are often their own worst enemies when they ought to be allies, nurturing and building each other. We all know how much a man’s opinion of us can mean, but I believe our self-worth as women is often reflected to us in the eyes of other women. When other women respect us, we respect ourselves. It is often only when other women find us pleasant and worthy that we find ourselves pleasant and worthy. If we have this effect on each other, why aren’t we more generous and loving with one another?
I’ve thought long and often about this. I have finally come to suspect that part of the problem is the heart! We are afraid—afraid to reach out, afraid to reach up, afraid to trust and be trusted, especially with and by other women. In short, we don’t love enough. We don’t exercise to full capacity the greatest gift and power God gave to women.
Luckily for me, my own story has a happy ending. After my mission, I sought my friend out, catching her one afternoon after class in the dimly lit basement of the Jesse Knight Building on BYU’s campus. I told her how jealous I had been, and asked her to forgive me. She stared at me in shock for a minute, then said, “But I was always so jealous of you!” We both laughed—and cried—and have, in the years since, become better about not judging each other, or ourselves, quite so severely. This friend has been my confidante (although she probably doesn’t realize it) in more than one moment of spiritual or emotional crisis. I wish now that I had had the courage to approach her much earlier.
Patricia Holland goes on in her talk to offer three exercises for increasing our capacity to love for each other: to forgive one another, to love unconditionally, and to give love without expecting a full return on our investment. In the interest of time, I’m going to focus on the second, but I encourage you to read her powerful essay in full. Sister Holland suggests that a key step to loving unconditionally is to become aware of, and curtail, our tendencies to critically evaluate others (and, I would add, ourselves):
What we want most of all is the approval, praise, and unconditional love of others. Can we give less than what we desire for ourselves? . . . One day my feelings had been deeply hurt by a close neighbor. Feeling what I was sure at the time was deserved self-pity, I went to my room and poured out my broken heart in prayer. I remember specifically saying, “Dear Father in Heaven, please help me to find a friend whom I can trust, one with whom I know I’ll be safe, one who deserves my confidence and my love.” He did bless me—he gave me, for a moment, the uncluttered insight that can come only by the Spirit. He helped me to see that I was praying for a “perfect” friend, while he had generously surrounded me with friends whose weaknesses were like my own.
A good relationship is not one in which perfection reigns; rather, it is one in which a healthy perspective simply overlooks the faults of others.
I imagine all of us know women like this—strong, flawed women who are doing their best. These kind of women are the lifeblood of the church; they are mainstays in my own life. While this kind of love—accepting, forgiving, self-less—often gets overlooked or ignored in the mainstream press (after all, it’s hard to capitalize on it commercially), it is a kind of love for which I am profoundly grateful. It’s also a kind of love that I want to be able to offer more fully.
Today, I’d like to invite you to reflect on your own friendships, particularly with other women. How have these friendships blessed you? How do you exercise this kind of love in your own life? What can we, as women, do better to cultivate a more accepting environment in the circles we inhabit (at home, at church, in our communities)?