By Ron Lapitan
“This is a good one. I read it before I started dating the girlfriend I’m seeing now,” said the cashier at the comic store as he rang me up for the romance graphic novel, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her by Jamie Rich and Joëlle Jones.
People often think of things as a series of visible events rather than as a process. In action movies a bad guy appears and the conflict is solved by doing something physical to that bad guy. In romances relationships become a series of quick events as well. A man sees an attractive girl across a room and knows instantly that she’s the one; then they go on a series of romantic dates and get put in romantic situations. They have a dramatic, surprise proposal (it’s OK that there wasn’t a long conversation beforehand if this permanent decision meets both of their needs, because it’s only romantic if the woman doesn’t see it coming). And when the exciting events are over, the relationship becomes a burden, which is why the movie usually ends at the final kiss (which is why we call marriage “the ball and chain”).
12 Reasons doesn’t follow that template. Instead, it offers a relatable reflection on what happens when two strangers, Evan and Gwen, meet in a Hollywood-worthy situation and try to live out that storyline, only to face the complexities of real, messy life.
As a young person in the Bahá’í Faith, a religion whose main teaching is the oneness of humanity—that regardless of race, class, nationality or religion, we are all one people living in one world and should strive to build a world that operates that way (idealistic, I know; I’ll say now that a lot of Bahá’í things sound like beliefs out of a science-fiction level vision of utopia)—it makes me think about my own dating culture. The Bahá’í culture for courtship works a bit differently because our writings encourage us to do relationships differently than what we see others defaulting to. Other than that, what we’re actually supposed to do isn’t explicitly defined; it’s largely inferred from the values underpinning our beliefs about how the world we’re trying to build should be. Bahá’ís dub the culture of courtship that emerges out of this ambiguous directive to be an “investigation of character.”
The First Difference
From what I know, investigation of character has three key differences from regular dating. Firstly, one’s objective is to answer the question: “Could I see myself serving humanity for a lifetime with this person (If I married them, would we be compatible)?” In theory, one would never be in a situation like the one on this page, when Evan, after they have been in the relationship for a long time, brings up the topic of marriage, and Gwen gets freaked out about it because she thought the relationship was just something they were enjoying now without being tied to a long-term commitment.
Ironically, having a long-term goal from the beginning requires being unattached to a person before one is really sure about them. Since one’s objective is to learn something they’re not sure about, like a scientist during an experiment, one wouldn’t take actions to influence an outcome they’re already attached to, such as asking a person out on a date with the goal of getting them to be in a relationship and then trying to maintain that relationship to the point where it becomes an obstacle to being able to scrutinize that person (One principle of the Bahá’í Faith is the unity of science and religion. This is one area where at least having a more scientific mindset comes into play). For example, when one sees red flags in the other person’s character, one wouldn’t be able to ask themselves with full frankness, “Are these deal breakers in terms of seeing this person working in a long-term commitment?” There would be an added layer of, “I see this problematic thing, but I don’t want to break up now. It would hurt.” Experiments aren’t supposed to hurt when one’s hypothesis is proven wrong unless one is more attached to their first expectation being right than to the goal of learning what is actually true.
The Second Difference
Before marriage, one is mostly trying to avoid intimacy, as opposed to normal dating where creating intimacy is the point. We even made intimacy into goals named after sports (“first base, second base, third base”). We literally think of it as a game. One reason for avoiding intimacy is the Bahá’í Faith’s high standards of chastity (basically, nothing sexual before marriage). A second reason is that intimacy creates those rose-colored glasses that exaggerate the things one is attracted to in a person and diminish one’s critical thinking on their flaws. It may be useful after marriage when the goal is to keep one’s passion for the other person alive, but when the goal is to learn their true character what one needs is objectivity; not infatuation (going back to having a scientific mind).
I think many people would relate to the parts of 12 Reasons that show a tension between seeing red flags and those rose-colored glasses, such as a scene where Evan finds a vase of flowers on Gwen’s dresser and a card signed by “Freddie” who wants “…to get back into you. Call me.” He asks her about it, then stops asking when she puts on a paper-thin nightgown and starts kissing him. Then he settles for telling her he loves her. After we’re already hurt, those are the things we look back on and say, “I probably should have known it would end the way it did.”
Because of these differences, “going-steady” would be discouraged in investigation of character because that would mean being attached to one person in a space that allows for intimacy before one knows they are committed to them in the long-term. Perhaps it’s odd that for a large part of the investigation of character one doesn’t even tell the person or people that they’re looking at that it’s happening. Then again, so is being attached to someone you don’t really know to the point that it hurts. 12 Reasons shows this through its creative format of 12 dates Evan and Gwen go on out of chronological order, each portraying something new he learns about Gwen and some of which caused him great pain. The very last chapter shows the first time they met by accident when Evan decided to chase the perfect movie beginning. Seeing the end before the beginning makes one wonder: If one meeting didn’t mean vying for love in one person, would learning that a person is not who you thought they were so painful?
The Third Difference
In investigation of character, one doesn’t go on many dates. (The Bahá’í version of this narrative would be completely different from 12 Reasons, where every chapter is a date.) The point of a date is to create intimacy, where two people are alone in romantic settings. And dates are fabricated environments where one tries to create the best impression, which is similar to a job interview (The two are the same in terms of getting someone to choose you after meeting you once). Similarly, people have created and pass around copious conventions for “how to do it right.” Before my own first date, I even googled an article about what questions to ask and not to ask on a first date. If one can plan how it should go that much, chances are it isn’t the best place to learn a person’s most unfiltered character.
If one can’t go steady or even go on dates, how do they learn about another person? For Bahá’ís, the answer is in the community building culture that characterizes Bahá’í life. The Bahá’í Faith does not have clergy responsible for organizing activities. The purpose of our Faith is to build a fabric wherever we live where people of all backgrounds can be united to work together for the betterment of the community, and all Bahá’ís are responsible for initiating the activities that create this fabric at the grassroots. Common Bahá’í activities include interfaith prayer gatherings called devotionals, children’s classes to teach kids about virtues such as justice and fairness, and junior youth groups that bring together middle-school aged youth (11-14) to see themselves as change agents and perform service for their community—all of which are held in households, community centers, or other public places where all people can join them.
As this service culture grows, it becomes the place where youth spend most of their time interacting with other people their age. It is the context where one sees what others look like when they are giving their best to something: how they are interacting with children, how consultative they are when they have to make decisions with others, and what they look like when they are frustrated and how they handle stress. It is also where one learns a person’s deeper values about things because all of these spaces center on having elevated conversations about the kind of world we want to create. One doesn’t have to follow the rules of dating that dance around learning the deeper parts of a person long enough to become attached through intimacy, so it is harder to let go when one does learn those things (to quote the article I googled during that nervous night, “No questions about politics or religion on the first date.”)
Perhaps in that long process of striving with others on the field of service, two people notice a synergy between them and that their values agree. Then they talk about if they noticed the same things, and then it becomes a formal marriage discussion. That is the Bahá’í imagination for how an ideal relationship forms as I understand it.
I have a friend who had to work with another person when they were asked to start a junior youth group together. Between that and running a children’s class, the two spent so much time praying and working together that after 6 months, it just seemed natural for them to marry. That’s one of the beautiful things about Bahá’í culture: everything grows out of service. Those are the kind of narratives that serve as an ideal in a culture that is still defining itself.
However, some Bahá’ís still go about dating the regular way even if they think they’re doing it the Bahá’í way (Remember me saying I asked someone out on a date once, and then basically experienced doing all the things I said not to do in this write-up.) That’s the thing about being in a religion less than 200 years old—you’re building your culture at the same time as you’re living it. And you don’t often realize what’s supposed to make your culture different until you default unknowingly to the templates you know and realize how much those templates hurt when you don’t get what you want. What hurts Evan in 12 Reasons is when he realizes he has become emotionally attached to something that he never really understood. That is investigation of character in a sentence–to understand something thoroughly before you decide to love it.
I’m not saying I judge the way other people date. After all, successful relationships do come out of doing it the mainstream way. I’m just saying it’s not the only way, nor is the Bahá’í way. There could be many ways, most of which aren’t in movies. What is important is having the imagination to invent them. Follow the mainstream model or create something completely different so long as you do it because it meets your values and not because you’re defaulting to a template someone else wrote. They may not have written it with any knowledge of what is actually healthy or equitable. They may have just written it to fit on a screen.
I hope things work out for the cashier. Personally, I’d like to try different templates.
“Because marriage is a bad idea… Nobody knows how to do it anymore. What would make us different?” –Gwen, “12 Reasons Why I Love Her”
“The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice… By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” -Bahá’í Faith
Ron Lapitan mentors with the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program on weekends, which involves working with an interfaith group of middle schoolers (in Ron’s case, Christians, Muslims, Bahá’ís, atheists, and agnostics) to see themselves as change agents and create service projects together in the community. Ron’s kids also inspire him to be a comic artist. His first graphic novel, “The Earth is One Country,” follows a Sikh, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Bahá’í who learn about their common values. Ron is part of the Bahá’í Faith.