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Illustration by Isabel Chun

February is by far the best month. It features long, frigid nights, tissues that pile your room as your weary immune system makes its last stand, and, of course, the most important day of the year: Valentine's Day. When else do you get to drown in empty chocolate wrappers, torn heart decorations, and failed romantic dreams?

But this year, I almost forgot about the holiday until the elaborate Ferris display of candy hearts reminded me. And so another Valentine's has come and passed, along with its annual arc of expectations and probable disappointments.

Ideally, college should be the perfect ecosystem for finding love. At college, singles with shared interests and equal levels of sexual energy are ripe for the plucking. And yet, romantic relationships seem few and far between in college. Who are we kidding, did anyone at Columbia really enjoy being bombarded by armed baby Cupids at every corner last weekend?

For those of you who didn't feel the love this year, maybe there's a reason why.

As Columbia students, we know how to work hard. And yet, though we know how to pull all-nighters in Butler or crank out a problem set, the commitment we put into our academic work isn't reflected in our relationships with others. Somehow, the courtship rituals and social dances that permeated the dating culture of generations past have been replaced by a more lax culture of Tinder dates and casual hookups. We are more willing to discuss love and its forms from an intellectual standpoint, ranging from Plato's Symposium to Pride and Prejudice. For some reason, we Columbians hesitate to work hard for love when it comes to the real thing.

Perhaps we want something easier, and hookups seem to be the way to go—a mutual agreement to use each other and part as unlikely friends, with a flurry of serotonin molecules as the only souvenirs of our fleeting affair. Maybe, for now, satisfying sexual urges is enough.

But I would assume that what we are looking for is something more special, meaningful, and real. But being real is difficult. Realness involves honesty, and honesty takes courage. Instead, we resort to a transaction, to using and being used for pleasure. This certainly has its place and benefits, and isn't always simple or easy. Nevertheless, by lacking commitment, hookups are a way to be in the game without risking everything.

Love is different. Love isn't a transaction between two bodies, though when disguised as lust, carnal pleasure can confuse us. Love, though, takes you to another place: It is a sacred meeting of minds and merging of hearts, where two individuals come together in an endeavor too grand to pursue alone. Love calls us to something higher.

But what is the love we are looking for?

Perhaps it's the solace that another person exists in the space next to you, not just to know your experiences but to experience life with you. But in order to find someone who knows you, you have to take the risk of trusting them. It is a leap of faith, and by definition, that is difficult. Love involves caring about another person just as much as, if not more than, yourself. Having faith in someone, and allowing them to have faith in you—to be there through every joy and every hurt—takes courage.

The label of "casual" deters this courage, for it brings with it an easy exit: the freedom to quit when the boat rocks, without needing to take responsibility. That might be desired now, for the daily stress of academics and clubs is enough without the extra stress of caring for another person. But this is a misconception because love has the power to reciprocate the energy you put in, to rejuvenate you when you are weary, and to provide the comfort of a friend through life's tribulations.

Naturally, we can fall into the trap of fearing that love, though infinitely more rewarding and beautiful than casual sex, might not be worth the risk. In order to find love, you have to risk getting hurt. Understandably, we protect ourselves, for it is easier to live unaffected and guarded, cool and collected. Abandoning that, and allowing yourself to care and be cared for is the real challenge.

When you take that risk, it might not work out in the end, no matter how much you want it to. But even when it doesn't, love can still change you for the better. Love transforms: It creates spaces within you that you thought didn't exist. And in those spaces, be them filled by a person or a memory, we grow strength and benevolence formerly unknown to us, inklings of greater sentiments secretly waiting to shape our true character. And that opportunity to allow ourselves to blossom is worth every risk of loss.

So for all you Lonely Hearts Club members cynically mourning another wasted Valentine's Day, reconsider your next Netflix and chill session. Perhaps the feeling you've been chasing isn't the high of a hookup, but the possibility of the real thing. Know that the real thing is always worth it as long as you have the courage to seize it. Even when it goes against the grain of college life, love is achievable if you just take a risk.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore. This piece is part of an ongoing series, Love, Actualized.

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