On Labor Day weekend I got to have the profound joy of walking Ariana down the aisle as she married a wonderful guy. Meanwhile, 2012 has been a year of upheaval for loved ones unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – people moving great distances, major professional transitions, physical and mental health struggles (including a wave of cancers) . . . and a rash of divorces. So how do I reconcile the uplifting nature of this (or any) marriage amidst the reminder that in so many cases it is an impermanent thing?
In essence I think it comes down to two questions:
1 ) What are the fundamental responsibilities and expectations that comprise marriage? In other words, what IS marriage?
2 ) Since marriages frequently end (or, if you must use this term, “fail”), does that call the legitimacy of the very institution into question?
Number one is, of course, subjective. I’ve written about my own feelings and experiences on the subject (if you’re a glutton for reading-punishment, click here to read and click here to read some more). I don’t believe that gender has anything to do with it, nor do I believe that there is any responsibility to procreate, and if God feels otherwise and has power over such things then I suppose I’m going to hell, where I’ll at least enjoy meeting Gandhi and Charles Mingus. In fact, there are few things that I consider to be immutable parts of any marriage, regardless of my own biases about what works well.
There are a couple things, though. I do think that marriage is a contract that implies a certain commitment by the involved parties. In a well-constructed wedding ceremony, ideally a lot of thought goes into the relevant and important terms of that particular contract (which, in the form of vows, take on a more romantic quality), but those terms can also be refined and revised along the way, in the same sense that any job description can evolve to keep pace with the people and situations involved.
I also think that riding out the bad times is crucial. It’s not my place to judge how far that has to be taken, but the “in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer” stuff in the stock wedding ceremony is there for a reason. On a good day, it’s easy to get along with one’s spouse . . . or casual friend or drinking buddy or bank teller or whomever. A big thing that sets a marriage apart is that when adversity hits, the commitment remains, even intensifies.
So what about question number two? Ultimately that depends on the extent to which you feel that a good idea can be desecrated by its flawed real-life manifestations. There are plenty of contracts that are broken, so are contracts thus inherently invalid? There are corrupt teachers, principals and school board members, so are schools obsolete? People die in car accidents, so should their lives be saved by banning cars? Your answer could legitimately be “yes” to any of these, and if so then probably yes, marriage is an irreparably broken institution. In a culture where commitment is not valued the way it once was, maybe it’s folly to trust an institution that relies on it so heavily. Or maybe commitment isn’t realistic given how much people change – if I commit to eating at Ed’s House of Pancakes, am I morally obligated to uphold that commitment if I show up and it has become Eduardo’s Taco Palace? It’s a tricky bunch of questions. Kate has pointed out that most people think on their wedding that it will be forever, yet it often isn’t. It’s easy for me to sit on a high horse and hypothesize about what THOSE people might be neglecting to consider, frankly, after seeing what I’ve seen this year I would be foolish to think I have a clue much less a legitimate rebuttal to any of this.
Yet amidst all this ambivalence my mind keeps going back to Ariana. When she moved in with us at age 15, we “inherited” a boyfriend of whom we were, um, not particularly fond. We tried to be supportive, but I spent many a sleep-interrupted night hoping and praying that someday she would seek a healthy, supportive, low-drama relationship – not even that she would necessarily find “the right guy,” because that’s of little value without the desire to forge a healthy partnership. In the meantime, I would sometimes break into a cold sweat imagining having to marry her off to this guy, wondering how or if I could pretend to be happy about it, or if that would even be a good thing. Frankly if I put myself back there, I can bring back the nausea pretty easily.
But my prayers were answered and she slowly but surely turned the corner. By the time she met Tyler she was looking for someone who would be supportive, comforting her when she needed it and giving her a kick in the rump when she needed that instead, and towards whom she was compelled to hold herself to the same standard in return. I have seen them proudly celebrate one another’s strengths while observing one another’s flaws with sober compassion.
And their wedding, while lovely, was small and strikingly unpretentious. We worked in cohort with Tyler’s family and a handful of others in the small circle of inner-circlers (mad props to Brittany) to pull together flowers and prepare food and assemble the wedding arch Kate built at home and loaded in pieces on top of the Volvo. The point is that this was not an excuse to have a big or expensive party, as one might expect upon hearing news of a 21-year-old’s wedding.
The recurring themes were Ariana and Tyler’s public declaration of permanent commitment to one another and their gratitude towards the people who have helped and will help them in forging a life together. And yes, of course I cried, moved by their bond, by how far she has come, and by the idealistic yet lucid hope that love (the proactive sort, not just the goopy feelings) may indeed conquer all. There were some tears mixed in for the people I love who once had this and recently have had that taken away. This goes for unexpected divorces, long-brewing divorces and the different sort of tragedy in the heartbreak of “until death do you part” coming to fruition.
But in the end, I can’t help it, I’m an idealist. For example, I find most jazz to be boring, self-indulgent and pointless, but I’ve devoted my life’s work to it – not because I’m a glutton for punishment, but because when it’s the real deal it’s so profound, and to me the pursuit of that real deal is all that matters. That John Coltrane lived doesn’t guarantee any individual musician artistic success, but it is the manifestation of that ideal and proof that it is not purely an abstraction.
Ultimately, I feel similarly about marriage. To me the widespread struggle to make it work does not taint the ideal, and I have seen that ideal manifested enough to know that it is attainable with the right people and a heaping dose of determination and perseverance. I can’t guarantee Ariana and Tyler a smooth or even successful road moving forward, but I feel comforted knowing they have many of the tools needed to stand a fighting chance, the capacity to grow and spend their lives developing more of those tools and the commitment to see it as a privilege to climb the mountain together. To me, that is cause for optimism and celebration.