Do a simple google search for “love across cultures” and you will enounter articles about a very specific study done over the last number of years that has been interested in answering the simple question, is the idea of the “love story” a modern Western construct, or is it a universal idea? Dig into the results of this study and you will find that the answer to this question is a decisive no, followed by an even more decisive “but”. The “but” centers around love as a matter of cultural perspective. Which is to say, what one culture means by love can differ greatly in definition, expectation and usage around the world, “but” also with this one caveat. The kind of love this study was interested in is of the personal and romantic kind.
As one study put it, “Falling in love is arguably about pleasing yourself, and some cultures put more emphasis than westerners do on serving your family or your community.” As with most things in this historical East/West divide, these differing focuses on individualism and collectivism play a central role in distinguishing the kind of stories we tell and the way in which we tell them.
And here then is the same “but” at play in the reverse direction… these differing definitions and expectations should not or does not translate necessarily into the absence of the personal love story.
Long story short, falling in love is a universal endeavor. Which is also to say, as I look at my own love story it emerges as much from my own Western cultural context as it does from a universal longing, one that comes with risk and reward and both personal and shared outcomes.
This is an interesting article based on this study, a short but interesting read if you are interested:
One interesting point of conclusion in this article comes near the end when it outlines precisely how this universal understanding of love translates across cultures:”In considering what we know about love across cultures, it is likely that the propensity for romantic love is cross-cultural and may well be part of our genetic heritage. But love is also construed and constructed within contexts of culture and country. As William R. Jankowiak (1995) observed, “Romantic passion is a complex, multifaceted emotional phenomenon that is a byproduct of an interplay between biology, self, and society”
Which brings me to a point of personal reflection on my own love story that surfaced in an unexpected way this holiday season.
This happened as my wife and I were watching It’s a Wonderful Life. What’s interesting about our annual viewing of this film is that it usually happens the same way every year. We put it on after the both of us have gone to bed on Christmas Eve, and usually, following a long evening of food and celebration, we inevitably fall asleep with it playing in the background. It’s a quaint way for the story drift us off towards the great anticipation of Christmas morning, with the added outcome that it is also difficult to remember the last time we actually watched the film beyond the half way point.
This year my wife decided to put it on and finish it after we got up on Christmas morning, prompting her to tell me that this is her favorite Christmas film, a fact I actually wasn’t aware of even after almost 16 years of being married. This sparked a question on my part: why is it your favorite? Her response surprised me. She said it was the love story.
For me, I always saw this classic holiday film as centering around George Bailey as an individual and the lessons he learns about what really matters- family, friends and togetherness. Forgetting these things leads him towards death and despair, something I can relate to personally speaking, and being awakened to these things brings life and joy.
For my wife Jen, she saw the love story between George and Mary as its most hopeful aspect. Further, she explained that she saw in me the same qualities she appreciated in George Bailey, a man she described as “sacrificial” and wholly “committed” to doing good for others, giving of himself for the sake of their well being.
I’ll be honest, this is not the way I see myself, even on my best days. And yet this is what she sees in me. A part of the challenge of hearing these words is to be able to accept this matter of perspective in the same way that George Bailey must learn to hear that his own life has made a difference in the life of others. Again, if anything, the part about George that I resonate with the most is the despair, the feelings of lostness and insignficance and failure. I have been at the side of that bridge looking over and wondering about that water.
Even looking back over our 16 years of marriage, which has not been without its struggle, what I can see most clearly is all the ways decisions I have made led to failure, be it financial distress, shifts in career, or the outcome of my regular old bumbling nature. For me, Mary, or Jen, is my best quality.
And yet, from her vantage point she sees me as the one who bears these qualities I feel I could only ever aspire towards. Love is a wonderous thing indeed.
It’s A Wonderful Life and Tom Sawyer: Gaining Perspective
One aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life that often gets overlooked are the present parallels between this story and the story of Tom Sawyer, a book that factors into most of the 2 hour run time. The part of the story where Tom is witnessing his own funeral plays into Bailey’s own self revelatory experience with a world in which he had never existed. In fact, it’s likely that Clarence, who is reading Tom Sawyer, gets the idea for presenting George with this reality directly from his reading of these chapters. As well, the pressure and responsibility placed on Tom that lead to his seeming failure also mirror Bailey’s own story. And then there are the obvious parallels between Muff Potter and Mr. Potter, and even in the idea that Tom Sawyer is cherished by Clarence for a reason, somehow fitting into his concealed backstory of untold failures that have led him to not getting his wings (and those less than nice angels with wings who keep teasing him for failing to measure up).
Ultimately though there is one aspect of Tom Sawyer’s story that stood out for me when considering these parallels in a more indirect way- lovers leap.
When you visit the town of Hannibal, Missouri, a place now immortalized by Mark Twain fame and a place Jen and I had the pleasure of seeing on our trip down the River Road, one of the places you can visit is Lovers Leap. When you get to the top of Lover’s Leap you can read a sign that informs you about the legend from which it gets its name. At the heart of this legend is the story of two young lovers from two different indigenous tribes (and therefore cultural experiences) bound together against their differences and forced to jump off the cliff and into the river because of the tribes refusal to accept that these differences were reconcilable (like Tom and Becky in a way). It’s kind of a tragic story actually, but one that is entrenched in this universal language of love. Two people drawn together from opposite sides of the river and afforded their own story over and against the one imposed on them by the world around them. Where the world lays divided, the love story holds the power to heal the divide.
Miracle on 34th Street: Faith as a Matter of Perspective on Love
If someone were to ask me what my favorite Christmas film is, one answer I could point to is my annual tradition of watching Miracle on 34th Street (either version) every Christmas morning since I was young. Since I am always up before everyone else, even as a grown almost 45 year man, this became the film that I would watch by myself as I awaited the sunrise and the eventual awakened presence of the rest of the family. Back when gifts still filled the base of the Christmas tree (a tradition sadly lost to time and age), I would even take the time to separate and organize these gifts while the movie played in the background.
If someone was to ask me why I always watch this film every Christmas morning I would point to one simple aspect of the story- it’s allusions to faith. In truth, the older I get the more important this becomes. For me, this story about a child’s ability to believe set against the mother’s inability to believe always struck me as a curious but fascinating tension, one that Christmas was always able to reconcile, at least in my own mind. Christmas was where that sense of childlike wonder for the world and for life was able to sneak its way back into the mix, often against our own will, and this became an inevitable part of my own life’s liturgy if you will.
The beginning of the love story between God and humankind, a story ready to be told anew, and likewise the beginning of the love story between humankind of the world ready to be told anew.
Which brings me back to my own love story, one that infact formed itself around the Christmas season, the season in which we both met and got married coming from two different perspectives of the world and, ironically, even of Christmas (Jen has always presented herself as disliking Christmas while I am known as Mr. Christmas). Two different experiences merging into a single cohesive.
As I mentioned in this blogspace already, one of the forming narratives of our life together, the beginning of our story together, was actually seeing the film Elf. It came out the year that we met, it was the first film we saw together and our first real date outside of meeting in her apartment. In it’s story we found a mutual love for this seemingly unlikely pairing of individuals, an idea that only grew in awareness when we ended up in New York City for our honeymoon. For me, meeting Jen came at a dark time in my life and offered me a chance to gain a new perspective on God, the world, and love itself.
What strikes me though in considering this new found awareness of Jen’s fondness for It’s a Wonderful Life is the ways in which two differing perspectives on the same narrative can illuminate the other when seen in the confines of a relationship. For me, when I watch Elf I see this bumbling fool trying to find his way in a foreign land, lost in the isolation of his own story and failures only to suddenly have this beautiful woman see something in him that he is unable to see in himself. Not unlike connecting more readily with the failures of George Bailey rather than his immediate worth and his value, this is the story I know and feel when I consider my own love story. I am married to a woman who I see as way out of my league and who continues to baffle me with her undying love towards me. Where I adore all the qualities that I see in her, she sees in me all the qualities of George Bailey the same way Jovie sees all the qualities of Buddy in Elf.
What this sheds light on is how often Jen also fails to see the best parts of herself as well. What she sees in Mary is the hoped for desire of the ideals she sees in George. Which reminds me of a story actually of when Jen and I first met.
We met at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She knew this friend from Selkirk, a town a mere 50 kilometers from the city we now reside in (Winnipeg) and where I grew up, but which couldn’t be further apart geographically and culturally speaking. Selkirk was as foreign to me as continents thousands of miles away. I knew this mutual friend from his moving to Winnipeg. Ironically enough, he actually had planned two different parties, one for his Selkirk friends the other for his Winnipeg friends. Jen couldn’t make it to the Selkirk one and so she ended up at the Winnipeg one, which is where we met for the first time (sort of anyways, but that’s a story for another time).
At this party she immediately caught my eye, and I haven’t stopped looking her way ever since, even when she doesn’t realize it. But one of the things that I remember striking me about this beautiful but still unfamiliar woman was her willingness to befriend another wayward sole who ended up at this party but without any connection to either of these crowds. Noticing her struggle to fit in, she went outside with this person when she retreated for a smoke break just to keep her company. This self serving mentality, this ability to simply see the story of someones mental and social struggle and bind herself to it became the thing I continue to uphold in Jen and the thing she has the hardest time believing about herself. She is more like the best parts of George Bailey then she realizes, and far more like Jovie than she would readily accept.
Funny enough, one of the running jokes that we have in our marriage comes from early on in our relationship when I made the unquestionably dumb move of expressing my undying love and commitment to love Jen until the day I die. Keep in mind that this was essentially on our first real date somewhere other than her apartment, and on the same day that we went to see Elf. I told you I was a bumbling fool.
She has never let me live this down, and yet here in this film I never knew was her favorite Christmas film until this year is a young girl named Mary who leans over to whisper into a deaf ear (ironically I am also completely deaf from childhood in my right ear) the promise to love George Bailey until the day she dies. Is this what we might call poetic irony?
Which I suppose is all to say, if it is true that love, despite its differing definitions and cultural applications, is a universal language, this is equally as true across cultures as it is within our own cultures. Two people living in the same proximity can see the world from a very different perspective, and the power of the love story on a universal level is that it brings these differing perspectives together to create a single, shared narrative revolving around all those things that we often cannot or fail to see in ourselves. It reshapes the way we see our narrative and the narrative of the world at large. A love story is that journey through the 7 levels of the Candy Cane Forest, past the sea of swirly twirly gumdrops, throught the Lincoln Tunnel and into that new adventure.
Where, as the story goes, “Buddy quickly learned that New York City truly was a magical place.”