Why I am uninspired by the love cartoon

heartI’m sure by now everyone has seen this cartoon. It’s been all over Facebook, and according to its host site it’s been shared a remarkable 635,000 times. People are obviously getting something out of it that I’m not. Perhaps they feel inspired or get a small sense of well being from it. This is lovely sentiment. But I cannot endorse this cartoon, at very least, not in the way it is probably understood by most people. Hear me out and I’ll tell you why.

 In a spontaneous act of disagreement, I left the following comment in the cartoon’s comments section: 

“Geez, that guy had to drag her damaged-ass heart out of a locked box, fix it for her, inflate it, and wait patiently while she struggled to float. Who’s got time for that? This cartoon disservices women by creating the expectation that a regular guy will have this kind of patience. There aren’t enough heroes in the world to drag every damaged girl’s heart out of a box. The man’s balloon is damaged too, but not only is he out there trying again, he has the confidence, patience and energy to fix other people! I guess the lesson here is to be like the man and overcome your insecurities. Don’t sit around guarding your damaged heart hoping that someone else will have the patience to pry you out of your hole and fix you. Unless you have A LOT to offer otherwise. I’m not being antagonistic, just honest. Hey, there can be compassion in just saying it like it is. :)”

Currently, my comment has over 1,700 likes and more than 150 responses. Obviously my remarks resonated with some people. The responses I received range from agreement to anger. Since this comment drew so much (heated) attention , I decided to write a more thorough account of here. 

Here are the main points I would like to reiterate or clarify:

  1. There is rarely an objective “point” to a piece like this. You can argue convincingly for many interpretations. In my comment, I was not arguing that my interpretation is the only, best, or correct one. Likewise, my critics should not privilege their own interpretation of the cartoon as the “true point” that I am missing.  I offer one interpretation among many possible that, to me, paints a dangerous depiction of love. Please argue for your interpretation as I have rather than appeal to the “obviousness” of the “real point.” 
  2. I was not making a gender claim. This comic could contain any combination of races, genders, social classes, etc., and my point would stay the same: this cartoon portrays an unequal emotional relationship between two people and it conditions us to expect a one-sided version of love. It teaches us that a future suitor will recognize our petulance as suffering and put forth the effort to re-inflate our heart. I would argue that this cartoon creates a dubious expectation that love will seek you out and fix you. This is a message that injured people want to hear, which is why it is so specious. 
  3. This cartoon downplays our own responsibility for breaking the cycle of abuse. In the cartoon, the woman is injured in a previous relationship. In return, she becomes jaded and cynical. She displaces her hurt onto her next suitor by rejecting him. As Marc-Andre Lacombe commented “women expect a guy to make up for the previous people who treated her poorly… usually treating that guy poorly in the process.” In more gender-neutral terms, people expect others to compensate them for previous bad experiences, often treating them unfairly in the process. The woman depicted in this cartoon is responsible for breaking the cycle of abuse, but the story portrays the man as the savior. This is a questionable message.
  4. Most people do not have the patience or motivation of the man in the cartoon. I did not say no one has the patience, nor did I say I don’t have the patience, nor did I say we shouldn’t have patience, nor did I say that you’ve never met a patient person. I cannot be more clear about this. To quote myself: “There aren’t enough heroes in the world to drag every damaged girl’s heart out of a box.” I used “girl,” but again my claim is gender neutral. It’s justifiable to assume there are more injured people in the world than patient heroes. Since it’s a statistical unlikelihood we will encounter a hero, we should temper our expectations by realizing that not everyone will get a hero. In fact, most won’t. Ouch. That’s an unpopular and uninspiring message. The reality of the situation pops the bubble of hope blown by this cartoon. Hence I say that the better lesson is to act like the man – to become patient and understanding with others, not to hope for others to do this for us. 
  5. This cartoon suggests that people are fixable. The man patches and inflates the woman’s heart and now she is able to join him in love. This is not always possible. Often, people hold onto past injuries like treasure; they identify with them and use them to justify their behavior and beliefs about themselves and others. Chances are, if you’ve been harboring pain waiting for the perfect person to fix you, by the time he or she arrives you will have settled into mental, emotional, and physical habits that will prevent you from joining your suitor in love. People must choose to let go of pain; a hero can’t pry it out of you and fix it. If you expect a hero to do the emotional heavy lifting for you, then you have displaced your duty to fix yourself. 
  6. The cartoon gives the man unclear motives. When I posed the question, why would the man fix the girl, several people responded “because he loves her.” But this begs the question. I’m asking WHY does he love her? He doesn’t even know her. Again, this cartoon creates an expectation that a hero will see through your petulance, recognize it as suffering, and love you instantly for all your other qualities. What percentage of the population has this degree of insight and patience? If it is less than the number of hurt people in the world, then we may want more realistic expectations. A true message of hope is that the injured can heal themselves through forgiveness and choose their character anew each day, not that another will come give you a reason to live again. 
  7. This cartoon conflates romantic love with  unconditional love. Is it a story of a young couple learning to love? Or is it a story of an unconditionally-loving Christ figure who saves the injured? Apparently either. Or both. The cartoon equates the two concepts and conditions people to expect suitors to be saviors. Should we draw people out of suffering, try to heal their hearts and love them unconditionally? Yes. Should we expect our romantic suitor and dates to do this for us? Probably not. 

The bottom line, I would argue that this cartoon teaches us to hope to win the lottery instead of getting a job. Your job is to forgive, forget, to love others, and to re-connect with the perfection of your inner nature, not to wait for someone to do it for you.

Some will rebut me and say that the moral of the story is hope: we should be inspired by the hope of meeting the one who will heal us. But this hope should be reserved for our religious Saviors, not our romantic suitors. When conflated as in the cartoon, hope can become delusional and pervert the incentives that compel us to personal growth. This mere hope replaces our duty to choose to be our best, which is really what we should be inspired to do. 

The author of this comic did not intend for it to become the subject of serious critical analysis. He or she did a great job inspiring people. I have never written anything that got half a million shares. I congratulate them. I enjoy reading literature critically, “pouring over the minutiae,” and arguing for various interpretations. I chide because I care, and I offer my critique as a sign of my engagement with the material. To the author I say thank you for the opportunity to think more deeply about a serious topic like love.

This is not about me. My heart is not “locked in a box” simply because I think the message of this cartoon corrodes personal responsibility. I have received many comments challenging my character and painting me as an injured person who is now projecting his hurt into an inspirational story. I assure you this is not the case. I am a loving boyfriend, father, son, and brother, and friend with plenty of references. But even if this were not true, it would not invalidate my critique. My arguments do not disappear or become invalid simply because you believe you’ve unmasked my motives for writing them. Please address my arguments with the same sense of seriousness and sobriety that I used to compose them and reserve your ad hominem, relativistic fallacies and attacks for Buzz Feed.

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3 thoughts on “Why I am uninspired by the love cartoon

  1. I agree with everything you said, but I don’t necessarily agree that is what the cartoon was portraying. I don’t think the intention was to show a HERO of sorts coming to rescue someone. It was simply showing a woman who was letting another person into her heart despite what she had been through. By letting him in, it “healed” her broken heart. He didn’t absolutely pull her on her feet and do everything in his power to “fix” her. He just simply was. And she simply let him. End of. It’s drawn in a way that looks like he is literally fixing her, but sometimes all we need to do to be “fixed” is just let someone in our lives. The artist was metaphorically showing this through bandages and air pumped balloons.

    Also, you don’t know that this girl was broken in any other way but having her heart stomped on. Maybe everything else in her life is together, so all she needed to do was get to the point where she was ready to love again.

    And I think the reason people were so quick to agree or judge your comment was because of the harshness of it. It seemed gender specific, which I now know wasn’t your intention, but that’s certainly how it came across.

  2. My praise for this article is without reservation, but you’re analysis lingers only on the second half of the strip; but if we apply what we’ve learnt about the psychology that the cartoon appeals to to the first few panels we ask some other questions. So we have two people in love, and they both have balloons full of helium that represents both their love and the fragility of it (which is fair enough – he is not wrong to say “love anything and your heart will become wrung and may become broken” that is an accurate statement – it’s C.S. Lewis in fact and not the artist that has come up with that, and despite (weirdly) converting to Catholicism despite his academic awareness of the curious similarity to earlier myths (he explained this in a particularly unconvincing way) C.S. Lewis was a very intelligent and compassionate man. A sentence which, if offensive to those of faith, does at least demonstrate that I can respect someone despite them having views very different to mine. In fact this comic strip perverts C.S Lewis’ meaning entirely. His quote reads “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – there’s no villains or heroes in this quote; you take responsibility – you risk getting hurt because the alternative is to become cold and soulless. Or more to the point “irredeemable” – C.S. Lewis says the opposite of the comic strip – there is no redeemer for someone who has their heart in a box!

    What happens then in the first few panels of this comic strip is her boyfriend, for no apparent reason whips out a sword, and with no particular reason, and with a face filled with sadistic glee slashes her balloon. “That guy’s a douche” says one comment in the comments field. Well, yes, so it appears, but hold on, what just happened there? Bear in mind, this is a story in which the protagonist bears no culpability or responsibility for or actively engages in anything that happens to herself (or himself – like yourself my views of this strip would not be altered if the genders were reversed). The heart represents her ability to love, so what does his sword represent? The cold naked brutality of the imagery surrounding the breaking of the heart makes it clear that she played no role in whatever happened. It also suggests that the breaking of her heart was something done with gleeful malice. Does this correspond with any real world relationship break up? Do people really break the hearts of people they love (and we assume in the first panel that he does love her because he has a helium filled balloon too) just because they like to hurt people? Do they not have motivations and conflicts just like anyone else? And if for some reason he fell out of love with her, or felt unhappy in the relationship, would it have been a more noble course to conceal that from her in order to protect her feelings? To make a villain the heartbreaker is just as immature as to expect there to be a heroic heartmender.

    I can completely endorse the message in the original C.S. Lewis quote. One writer who exceeds Lewis in clarity regarding the same matter is Antoine Sainte Expury. In the Little Prince the Prince encounters a fox who begs to be tamed by him – symbolizing his wish to forge an emotional bond, even though he knows that will make him vulnerable. When asked to explain why the fox replies

    “My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”

    “I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

    “One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . .”

    Right away there see how the fox tells us that love is something we have to invest in; it isn’t delivered to us on a platter. But the really important bit to me is when the fox and prince part..

    So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

    “Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

    “It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

    “Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

    “But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

    “Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

    “Then it has done you no good at all!”

    “It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

    Not only does the fox not hold any bitterness towards the Prince, he acknowledges that despite the fact that to love has bought him pain, as he knew full well it would, it’s gift was to lend additional meaning to the world, to make another human being unique, and to give significance to things that would otherwise have no significance. There’s no heroes or villains in the fox’s philosophy – he takes responsibility for his own emotions.

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