For the first 29 years of my life, Valentine's Day was the most imposing of holidays.
Every year, I was either single or with a girlfriend that I knew things probably weren't going to work out with. It didn't help that walking into a mall in early February was like being shot in the face with a confetti cannon, one packed with paper hearts and glitter and rose-colored candy.
By my 30th year, I was convinced I would never get married. Based on my dating life, I saw no hope that I would ever experience this sensational romantic love that seems so otherworldly to single folks but which every gift shop in the country assures us is right around the corner. I had tried to meet that person, and I had failed.
But I was cool with that. It meant I was unattached, which meant I could spend all my money on a year-long round-the-world trip. It was on that trip that I volunteered for the first time, in the Little Princes Children's Home in Nepal.
I just wasn't the marrying type, I told myself.
Lucky for me, a funny thing happens when you make the decision to volunteer: your type changes. It happens just by showing up, by giving your time over to somebody else. You find yourself forced to concentrate on something, and somebody, besides yourself.
Now, this was not something that came naturally for me. But in that small village in Nepal, surrounded by 18 children, I didn't really have a lot of choice. I had to put aside my own need for comfort for a while in order to look after them.
Without realizing it -- without even trying, really -- I was transformed. Not completely, maybe, but a little bit. Enough to decide to volunteer again a year later, back at the Little Princes Children's Home. I wasn't using volunteering as a pick-up line anymore; it was just my life.
And that's when I met the girl.
Liz Flanagan was going to India to volunteer in an orphanage over Christmas, and she e-mailed me to ask if I knew of good organizations to work with. She had seen a small article about the organization I started, Next Generation Nepal, and she was a fellow alum of the University of Virginia.
We became fast friends. We bonded over our work with kids -- she had previously volunteered in Zambia and Vietnam. We wrote frequently. I shared with her the trials of searching for seven children who had been stolen by a child trafficker. In four months of writing back and forth, we became good friends.
By the time I convinced her to make the short trip over to Nepal from India that Christmas, 2006, I was completely smitten.
There was one problem: a couple of days before she was to arrive, I was deep in the mountains on a search for the parents of trafficked children, snowed in, injured, and many days walk from the nearest road.
So I did what any guy who's fallen head over heels for a girl he's never met would do -- I walked for 27 hours straight, through the night, along cliff walls, to get back just in time for our first date in Kathmandu.
Six months later, Liz and I were engaged.
Liz was interested in the guy I was after I volunteered; she wouldn't have been interested in the guy I was before. Not because I went from a bad person to a good person -- I'm the same person -- but because I was able to look outside myself, to empathize in ways I wasn't before. I had a passion for helping kids that I'd never had before and never expected to have. Liz shared that passion.
It was that shared passion that allowed us to find each other in the first place. It allowed us to relate to each other in ways neither of us thought possible. It allowed us, in short, to fall in love.
Liz and I serve together on the board of Next Generation Nepal. We share ideas and strategies, and a great love for the kids.
We have a son now, Finn, who's two years old. We're trying to instill in him those same values of getting out in the world to help those less fortunate. Not because he'll change the world, but because he'll change himself. And that, in my experience, makes all the difference.