TOADTalk: Lessons in Love

Ms. Popa shares what she’s learned about cultivating a deep, meaningful relationship.
Monday morning’s All-School Assembly launches with whatever the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) wishes to share—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, every week of the school year, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. Iona Popa CdeP 2010, whose TOADTalk is featured below, teaches English and Latin, coaches the girls’ varsity volleyball team, helps advise the Christian Fellowship Club, and advises sophomore girls. Ms. Popa, a graduate of the class of 2010, returned to work at the School in the fall of 2017.

First, congratulations to our thespians, crew members, and directors! The Music Man was an incredible show, and we’re all very proud of you!

Given the proximity of my TOADTalk to Valentine’s Day, I decided to share with you some of the things I’ve learned from falling in love with and being in love with Mr. Popa. But first off, a disclaimer: This is not meant to be proscriptive in any way, as it seems sort of silly to give anyone else too much guidance about how to love (there is, after all, a unique mystery to every relationship—Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Phil and Claire Dunphy, my dog Scout and his tennis ball, Oedipus and…his mother…), but I’ll share my story, in hopes that you might find some bit of insight in it or, at the very least, learn a little bit more about one of your newest faculty couples.
Let’s get started. The first lesson, I learned at the very beginning: Love isn’t a game, and it’s worth it to wait for someone who’s brave enough to be real with you. When I was a student at Thacher, the whole business of romantic relationships sometimes felt kind of like a game. In an unhealthy way. For instance, my best friend, for the rest of our time at Thacher, always took credit for my first “walk” with my first “boyfriend”— because he had talked to one of his friends who had talked to her, and she had checked with me to make sure I was ok with it, and then she had basically pushed us off the Pergola during one fateful 9:30-10. Like we were chess pieces in some bizarre teenage matchmaking game. Maybe you know how it goes…I think there’s a lot of Snapchat involved these days, but it might be more or less the same idea. But in a way that is clear to me now, all that middleman stuff wasn’t healthy, and it was really problematic that we couldn’t own up to our feelings. Love is not a game.

When I met Mr. Popa, on the other hand, I was dating someone else (although he didn’t know that, which led to some complications—ask me, or better yet, him, about that some other time!), but in our second summer session at Notre Dame, we were both single and he was very upfront about wanting to spend time with me, telling me that he thought I was beautiful inside and out, telling me that he wanted to continue dating, even though it meant we would be long distance for a year. At first, I was really shocked by his honesty and bravery, but eventually, it allowed me to be brave and honest in the same way—it felt mature, and healthy, and true— and I wish for everyone the same kind of clarity in your relationships. I don’t think anyone should have to be agonizing about whether someone actually cares about them, or wondering, or guarding their heart for fear that the other person has been pretending to care more than they actually do. I found out that there are people who don’t play games, and I suggest to you all that it might be worth it to wait for someone like that. And perhaps to be patient with yourself and wait until you’re ready to be that person for someone else.

The second lesson, which I learned in the long months where we were apart—he in Phoenix and I in Tampa—was a tough one, but one that my parents have been telling me for a long time. Here it is: Love is not a feeling, it’s a choice. Now, I think this is more relevant to people like my parents who have been married 35 years (although my dad always says “it’s more like 43 If you count the wind chill factor”—or his other favorite, “35 years…feels more like 3 minutes…under water!”) but there will be moments in every relationship where the feeling is just not there. Sometimes, that may be a reason to end things, but in our marriage it’s been a reminder that the basis of our relationship is not the feeling of butterflies I got during our first long conversation on the dock, or our first date picking blueberries (Mr. Popa’s idea, although I paid…and drove…) or when he was first teaching me how to ride a skateboard (right before I wiped out completely)…These feelings aren’t the basis of your relationship—the decision you make to commit to one another’s greatest good is. I’ve found that real love is making the choice to work for that greatest good, every day. The feeling of love is awesome—it really is—but it’s not the foundation of a relationship. Love is not a feeling, it’s a choice.

While we were long distance, every night, Mr. Popa would send me a picture of a post-it with a cute drawing and some words—they ranged from “I love you more than I love long-short division” which he was teaching at the time, and which I still don’t understand, to a smiling cell phone with a little drawing of Drake, saying “you still call me on your cell phone”—and while some of those post-its were probably really fun to write, some may have felt like a chore. But what made it real love is that he chose to send one, every night. Love is not a feeling, it’s a choice.

My parents have been telling me this for a long time, and I used to think it was unromantic and defeatist, but now I know that it’s really empowering—love is an active verb, not something that simply happens to us. It starts with a feeling, sure, but then it’s up to us.

The last lesson I’ll share is that love is an act of service, not an act of conquest. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems we live in a world where relationships are portrayed as conquests—where the “Great” Jay Gatsby “takes” Daisy one October night instead of giving himself to her, where even the President is reported to have treated another’s body as something he can “grab” or claim some kind of entitled ownership over. But that’s heartbreaking because it makes love, or the appearance of love, into something all about the “taker,” and turns him or her into someone selfish who wants and uses things for his or her own devices. That’s not real love. The value of love—and I really believe this—should not be measured by what you get out of it, but by how much you can enrich another person’s life.

When Mr. Popa asked me to marry him, he didn’t say “Will you marry me?” or “Will you be mine?”—instead, he said, “Will you let me serve you for the rest of my life?” It was clear that for him, love was not an act of taking, but of giving—and it’s of course not one-sided. When we got married, I vowed to serve him, too—a beautiful mutual self-sacrifice. And this is actually something we get from our religion—we believe that Christ modeled the most perfect kind of love because it was the most completely sacrificial—Jesus’ life was never, not for one moment, about Jesus, and there is something pure about that.

After the chaos of the wedding—and you should have seen the Mullys breaking it down on the dance floor, putting all the Thacher alums to shame—it’s kind of a relief to be married. To not be living in expectation and anticipation, but to be reveling in the fact that we have all we need now, even at 25 years old, to serve one another and, in so doing, serve the world. This service is the #1 lesson taught by our faith, it’s at the heart of Thacher’s mission, and it’s at the root of all we do—we are called to serve, and it’s love that enables us to do so. So as commercialized as Valentine’s Day can be, I’m more than happy to celebrate real love in a world that desperately needs more of it.

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