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Business & Society

February 22, 2010

Post-Valentine Reflections

I can no longer deny that I belong to a generation of grandparents. When I mentioned a popular song entitled "Love Story", the university students where I teach immediately identified Taylor Swift as the singer. When I told them that I was referring to a song that won the Academy Award and was composed by Francis Lai, I was met with blank faces. They were even more surprised to hear of singers like Andy Williams or Shirley Basey who popularized the song "Love Story" in the 1970s. So much for a huge generation gap. Actually two generations. In 1971, millions of movie goers shed copious tears for the fictional Jennifer Cavilleri (portrayed by Ali Macgraw) who died of cancer after having married college sweetheart and Harvard law student Oliver Barret IV (played by Ryan O'Neal) in a novel-turned-film entitled Love Story. I brought up the movie to my students because Eric Segal, author of the best-selling novel, died recently of a heart attack, after suffering for 30 years from Parkinson's disease. Anyone who is over 60 today and was in high school or college in the early seventies must have heard a hundred times the opening lines of the song by Francis Lai that won the Academy Award in 1971: "Where do I begin to tell the story..."

Although I must confess I am a sucker for romantic tear jerkers (like Casablanca and An Affair to Remember), my interest then in the 1971 film Love Story (I never read the novel) was due to my nostalgia for my alma mater Harvard, where I spent some of the happiest four years of my life. The movie was filmed entirely in the Harvard campus and even used as extras Harvard students and professors. I could identify completely with the ambience because I lived in front of the Harvard Law School, where Oliver was supposed to be a student from a very wealthy family. I frequently visited the library, where Jennifer was working and where she met Oliver. Because of my interest in music, I would listen to the recitals of the music students as Oliver did when Jennifer, a music major, gave her recital. Like Oliver and Jennifer in a winter scene, I would roll on the snow and even ate the stuff the first time I witnessed a snow storm.

Like many critics, however, I was very uncomfortable with the phrase uttered by Oliver to his father and which became the tag line for the film: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." This became a national catchphrase, but also provoked many criticisms. John Lennon begged to disagree by famously remarking: "Love means having to say you're sorry every 15 minutes." Even O'Neal parodied his earlier role by responding to this famous line in the comedy "What's Up Doc?": "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard."

I am sure that any married person who is reading this will agree with John Lennon and with the repentant O'Neal. No matter how great is the love we may have for a person, our human weaknesses lead us to offend the person we love many times in our lives. It is precisely our love that should motivate us to say we're sorry. In fact, the greatest love a human being is capable of has to be for his Creator whom he offends several times in a day. He, therefore, has to say "I'm sorry" also several times a day. Acts of atonement are actually acts of love.

Fortunately for the generation of today, there is another film that is equally a tear jerker (with a plot more like that of Casablanca). It is the one now showing in the movie theaters entitled "Dear John." It is about a soft-spoken soldier (Channing Tatum) who meets a beautiful and vivacious college girl (Amanda Seyfried) in South Carolina while on leave from his Special Forces Unit. Two weeks after a whirlwind romance, the soldier returns to the battlefront where he extends his military service for too long that he gets the usual "Dear John" letter from his girl friend announcing to him that she is marrying another man. Years pass before he learns the whole story and when he does he finds acceptance and commits a completely selfless act. The catchphrase of the film is a more accurate definition of love: "Love is caring for another person's happiness more than your own, no matter how painful the choices you make might be."

As a final post-Valentine reflection, let me quote from St. Josemaria Escriva another more accurate definition of love. He wrote in The Way (463): "Love consists not so much in giving as in understanding. That's why you should seek an excuse for your neighbor--there are always excuses--if yours is the duty to judge." This is the advice I would have given Oliver Barret IV when his father asked for forgiveness for the way he behaved towards Jennifer. If Oliver truly loved his father, he would have readily forgiven him. He would have shown him understanding. For comments, my email address is

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