Molly CahillFebruary 14, 2021
Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

During my first year of college, I got extra credit by going on a date.

My professor, Dr. Kerry Cronin, infamously gives the assignment to her class every year around Valentine’s Day. Professor Cronin keeps quite a grip on the assignment; the date itself is shaped by a long list of rules: Don’t ask somebody else in the class. You have to ask in person. You ask, you pay. (And there’s a limit to how much it can cost—this is a casual first date, so think coffee or ice cream.) From beginning to end, the date should last 60 to 90 minutes. (“You’re not interesting after the 90-minute mark. You think you are, but you’re not,” Professor Cronin always teases.)

Perhaps most unsettling of all, the person you ask must be a legitimate romantic interest. This isn’t something you ask your best friend to do with you just to get the extra points.

The assignment started years ago when Professor Cronin realized that the students she taught were not only not dating before graduation but also feeling like they wouldn’t know where to start if they wanted to. She also ties their reflection upon the experience into the theology and philosophy texts the students are reading at the time.

As soon as it was announced, my 18-year-old brain was propelled into a state of constant worry, whirring with thoughts and questions much more quickly than I could vocalize or process. I was a distracted, sweaty, heart-pounding wreck for weeks.

The person you ask must be a legitimate romantic interest. This isn’t something you ask your best friend to do with you just to get the extra points.

Was I going to invite my “legitimate romantic interest” to meet at a designated location at a designated time just to ask him on a date he might turn down? Or was I going to arrive at his dorm room door and knock, hoping he would be there?

Worst of all, would I wait until I ran into him somewhere on campus and then jump at the opportunity to ask him in a public place where other people could watch and listen as I fumbled my way through the ask? As the due date loomed (no pun intended), these questions kept me up at night.

In the end, that dreaded scenario in a public place came to pass. My stomach flipped over when I saw him coming up the library stairs, but I knew I might not get such an opportunity again. I had to go for it. In his high school sweatshirt and long basketball shorts, he gave a smile and a greeting, clearly having no idea what was about to happen. I quickly scanned our surroundings, breathing a sigh of relief that the very few people in the vicinity looked unfamiliar to me. I have no idea what those bystanders heard or saw, though, because my nerves wiped my brain as soon as the encounter was over.

To this day, I don’t know what combination of words I strung together to communicate to him that I’d like to take him on a date, but he accepted.

As the reflection I wrote for class put it, “I now know that I can tell someone I’d like to go on a date with them without the ground below me opening up and swallowing me whole.”

Our date was perfectly nice. We had 90 minutes of conversation about classes, family and our adjustment to college life. I had no complaints. And yet…something wasn’t there. On paper, this young man had the qualities I was looking for in someone to date. But I knew that while we could continue to be friends and have conversations like this, a second date just wasn’t in the cards.

As the reflection I wrote for class put it, “I now know that I can tell someone I’d like to go on a date with them without the ground below me opening up and swallowing me whole.”

This has been one of the long-lasting lessons of the dating assignment. When I think about other times I’ve felt the sting of rejection and wondered what made me not good enough, I’ve tried to remember how I felt about this “objectively good person” who just wasn’t meant to be my love interest.

In the end, I was glad I gathered the courage to do the assignment. It gave me some newfound confidence and knowledge about myself.

It wasn’t until my senior year of college, though, that I really got the point. Three years after my own dating assignment, I was the teaching assistant for Professor Cronin’s class. I had come to really love and care about its first-year students. I couldn’t wait for February and their own dating assignment to roll around.

As soon as they got the assignment, class-wide panic ensued. I spent hours in the weeks leading up to the assignment’s due date talking through the students’ fears with them. I made suggestions, tried to provide encouragement and promised them that with time things like this wouldn’t feel like such momentous occasions with such life-or-death consequences.

Most of the time, I got back earnest protestations. I heard everything from “I just have too much school work to do this right now” to “I don’t have anyone I’m even remotely interested in.” Usually, as the conversations went on, a truth deeper than homework came out. Eventually, they started to say things like, “If I ask someone and they say no, I don’t know how I’m going to come back from that.”

We want to try for love. There is something in us that knows it’s what we are made for.

When our conversations reached a certain impasse, I said to a few students, “You know, you don’t have to do the assignment. It’s not required, it’s just for extra credit. If it’s causing you this much stress, maybe that’s not worth a few more points on the next exam. If you’re not ready, that’s okay.”

And in every case, I heard some form of this response: “No way. I’m terrified, but I have to try this.”

In some way their responses were about not wanting to be quitters or even seen as quitters by their peers. But I recognized enough of my freshman self in those students to also know this: We want to try for love. There is something in us that knows it’s what we are made for.

Because of the ways we hurt each other and don’t love each other well, though, there is also a very deep and very painful fear that maybe that all-important thing we’re made for isn’t out there for us. Those students were worried that they’d reach out for love and connection and instead they’d be rejected, made fun of, looked at differently. We all know what that feels like.

In Dr. Cronin’s class, “the date” folded naturally into reflections that referenced insights from the Greek philosophers on human nature and St. Augustine on restlessness and belonging. Students explored the Bible (which this class of varied religious backgrounds was insatiably curious about), considering what it says about how love of God flows into love of neighbor. They looked at these foundational texts to make some meaning of their own experiences.

When we agonize over whether our beauty and our personality and our charm make us worthy of being loved by someone else, perhaps we are wasting our energy on a question that misses the point.

As I read and discussed along with them, I kept being drawn to ideas, in both the Old and New Testaments, about worthiness. I saw it in myself and in the students: We want love so badly, but we worry that our imperfections and insecurities make us unworthy of it. But over and over, the passages we read described love as a strong, everlasting, free gift. Someone already made us ready to receive it. When we agonize over whether our beauty and our personality and our charm make us worthy of being loved by someone else, perhaps we are wasting our energy on a question that misses the point.

When I look over my time in college since the dreaded assignment, I recognize the many times the experience taught me that love really was out there for me. Eventually, that love came in the form of a great romantic relationship, one that grew from friendship and has lasted to this day. But it also came from friends and roommates and mentors who were invested in me. And it wasn’t because I deserved it. I continued to worry and make mistakes and have a lot to learn. And yet, I was loving others and they were loving me.

This Valentine’s Day, I will be thinking of my 18-year-old self and those students I worked with, as well as all those who share the same worries, at any stage of life. I’m grateful for the chance I got to be brave and for those all-important two or three extra points the date earned me on an exam I can’t remember now.

But I am more grateful for the chance I got later—and that each of us can find in our daily lives—to watch other people try to be brave and to recognize the mutuality of our experiences, to remember that all of us, in one way or another, were made for love.

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