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updated: 2/10/2012 2:49 PM

Celebrate love — real love — this Valentines Day

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Valentine's Day was not originally intended to be a celebration of the exploits of Cupid or to add the profits of Hallmark. And contrary to local lore, it also does not commemorate a local gangland massacre.

Saint Valentine's Day began as an early Christian holiday honoring two 5th century church martyrs -- both named Valentinus -- who are supposed to have died on Feb. 14. According to legend, one was a Roman priest, the other a bishop; both were men of exceptional Christian love, compassion and courage. The original celebration recognized the saintly qualities of the lives of these two men. Its point was to remind us of the special love that is meant to characterize our relationship with all those around us (and, which I am afraid, can sometimes cost a person his or her life as it did for both of the Valentinuses)

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To be perfectly honest -- and with apologies to the candy, flower and greeting card industries -- I've got some problems with our contemporary Valentine's Day celebration. For those of us in fulfilling, romantic relationships, it can be a timely reminder of our good fortune. Valentine's Day serves to motivate us to do something special for the man or woman we love as a sign of our thoughts and feelings. More often than not, however, a good many of us find ourselves a little short in the romance department. The type of emotional intensity celebrated in grocery store romance novels and myriad mushy valentine cards is infrequent in most of our lives and may not be all that good for us, anyway.

What do we do with Valentine's Day when we are without the sort of relationship our cultural celebration seems to imply we ought to have? Perhaps we can return it to its rightful place as a celebration of a different sort of love. It is a hard love to describe, but it is a love we have all experienced -- or constantly seek to experience. It is an intimate, caring, giving, selfless friendship, but more than friendship. It brings out the best in us in both giving and receiving. In fact, it is at the foundation of all our best relationships. It is a love within the power of all of us to express. Yes, this sort of love may be coupled with romance or sex. But it also stands by itself. It is the love the early Christian church held up as it honored the two Valentinuses and their love for those around them.

I remember how in grade school we celebrated that sort of love on Valentine's Day. Each of us made a large specially decorated Valentine's Day envelope and taped it to the front of our desk. Then we went around to all our classmates' desks, giving each a special "friendship" Valentine. We were too young to see any romance or sex in what we were doing. In fact, at that age, if we had sensed any we wouldn't have done it. We were expressing that special love for each other that the first Valentine's Day was all about. And it seemed to make a difference. We really did treat each other a bit nicer, with a bit more caring in class or on the playground or as we walked home from school.

Out of my work as a marriage counselor, I can say without hesitation that such love is at the heart of all healthy marriages. It is at the center of our strongest friendships and our closest family ties. It is the foundation of our best public and private charities and helping organizations.

That is a love to celebrate. That is a love to pass on. That is a love worth setting aside a day to honor. So this Valentine's Day, celebrate the romance in your life. Rejoice if you have found a fulfilling and affirming sexual relationship. But also remember that special love in your marriage, friendships and family that is so much more important.

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