17 June 2008

Crazy Mall Stunt, Or The Secret To Lasting Happiness?

All this crazy business with California and marriage laws, and then this pops up in the news.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not ready to make any bold statements about the wisdom of this couple. Who knows what really drives this marriage. But in a country where one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, they're doing something right.

It all sounds eerily familiar. A good friend of mine tried to arrange his own marriage while we were in college. Citing (among other things) the high success of marriage in cultures where it was customary for parents to arrange their children's nuptials, my bud decided love had very little to do with picking a spouse and everything to do with being married to one. Over Christmas break, he asked a marriageable girl he knew from high school to marry him on November 11th, 2011 (11/11/11). She agreed. We were all mightily entertained by the whole thing.

Some months later, they both thought better of it and called it off. None of us really believed it would last—I’m not sure my friend ever was completely sold on the idea, so obviously this wasn't the sort of arranged marriage you and I think of when we hear the phrase. Nonetheless it all came back to me after reading the above story.

This got me thinking. Why are arranged marriages so successful? One could argue pretty convincingly that couples in unions not of their own choosing expect much less from marriage than couples who spend most of their lives waiting for that perfect person to fulfill all their dreams of happiness. Lower expectations means higher likelihood of satisfaction. Sounds like a magic recipe for America's divorce rate to me.

Okay, so maybe that falls a little flat.

However, the example of the above couple should not be lost on Catholic Christians. Most of the rhetoric in response to the gay marriage question drives at how defining marriage in any way other than between one man and one woman undermines the dignity of marriage and reduces it to a legal arrangement between entities irrespective of the common good. Marriage loses its meaning and value, like a word with a meaning so broad that it can't be said to have any meaning at all.

Now, all this is true, so far as it goes, but is it possible that we're on the wrong track? Can it be that the problem is not expecting too little of marriage, but too much?

If human beings are only happy when they achieve social, emotional, psychological, and sexual satisfaction, where can this satisfaction be found? It seems to me (and to the culture at large) that all these can only be found in a relationship of intimacy. Normal people have a healthy desire to be united to another person, to love and be loved, to share their bodies, and to lose oneself in the gaze of another. Such ideals are presented repeatedly in the popular culture through romantic films and fiction, though with inevitable trivialization in order to make them marketable commodities. With few exceptions the conclusion is foregone: find a partner, and you will be happy. When that partner no longer makes you happy, find another one.

This creates all sorts of neuroses and dysfunction in a culture. Look at our hyperemphasis on dating, body image, and self-regard (bridezillas, mid-life crises, etc.). Our fondness for disposability in consumer goods stems from and reinforces our pursuit of the perfect relationship. Marketers harness and exploit this by capitalizing on the need to invent and reinvent oneself after each subsequent alliance is formed and abandoned. Got dumped by your boyfriend? Get a new hairdo. Wife left you? Buy a new car. Can’t get a date? Work harder to make more money so you can buy yourself more stuff to quiet your self-loathing. You'll forget all that heartache soon enough. In the meanwhile, treat yourself to something nice. The capacity for intimacy is deadened with each liason—certainly the one-night stands, but so too the sex between more committed couples who eventually part (see Dawn Eden's testimony in The Thrill of the Chaste). It builds and builds in a feedback loop, and the potential for real relationships of intimacy (that’s what this is about, remember?) grows more superficial with each lap through the boudoir. Those who long for authenticity see real culture not as the backdrop of real life but as a refusal to partake in the emptiness that surrounds and antagonizes it, and this continual act of resistance saps its vitality and spawns bitter progeny.

Sound familiar?

The issue rests in the relation between marriage and fulfillment. If the “perfect partner” doesn’t exist, then is the desire for happiness and satisfaction simply a dream?

Consider, now, the life of the celibate. As Catholics, we look to men and women who have given up the good of marriage in order to teach us a very important truth: there is only one relationship of intimacy that satisfies. In answer to the question, “Who is the perfect partner?” the consecrated answer:

GOD. God is the perfect partner. Intimacy with God is the answer to every human longing. To be lost in that gaze is to find everything. All desire, all emotion, all longing for union with another, all passion to know and secret hope to be utterly known finds its origin in God and, if ultimately prolonged, has Him as its object. To be happy, God must be your spouse.

What liberation this is. Far from ripping love from our hearts and hoarding it, this invitation to find satisfaction only in the infinite frees us to be at ease in our loves rather than wrenching them to yield a precious sap that flows, not from them, but through them.

All other love is merely a reflection of the heavens in the puddles of a muddy road. You will become sullied too if you allow yourself to sink into it. But if you always remember that it’s a reflection of the light from that other home, then you will rejoice at its beauty and take good care that you do not destroy it by churning up the mire at the bottom.

These words from Kristin Lavransdatter (spoken, by the way, to a married woman by her celibate brother-in-law) have turned up in similar fashion time and time again in Catholic fiction .... Brideshead, anyone? It's no fluke.

Nor is it an accident of the ancient Palestinian world that the messiah presented himself as the Bridegroom, the spouse of every soul and of the whole world. It is a divine response to the desire of every human heart.

As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah 62:5

Don't ignore it.



mags said...

This was delightful and refreshing to read... I was especially struck by the part about expecting TOO MUCH of marriage. My goodness, what a thought. But at the same time... such a thought does really act as a safeguard against discontentment. From what I can tell, marriage is ridiculously hard, and commitment (as the couple in that article stressed) is HUGE. And I mean true commitment, true devotion and dedication.

The part about God being the perfect partner and all other love being a reflection of that... while it's beautiful, while it makes sense... I guess I'm just not clear on how that plays out in action, though it sounds strangely reminiscent of some tidbits I've been gleaning from Theology of the Body. I think the consecrated have a serious leg up on making that one a reality...

But speaking of Theology of the Body, has that been something you've read much? Or perhaps Love and Responsibility? And would you perhaps consider some amazing day in the future discussing both/either at length? Lately I've been reading both, and while I'm seriously BLOWN AWAY and moved by what I have gathered, I know a lot of it is lost on me... and I really like how you explain things. Anyways. Just something to consider. I have this lofty dream of assembling beautiful minds like your own, Danny Shields, my amazing brother, and other such people I have deep respect for in Chicago for a day of spiritual and intellectual revery and delight. Would you be interested if by some miracle we could make such a thing fit into your no doubt hectic life?

flatlander said...

This summer has been fairly thick with this stuff and so I'm elated to hear you are studying it yourself. To be honest, I find this post to lack something as well ... I've tried re-hashing it or adding supplemental remarks but none of them come out right. You put your finger on something important--marriage is really hard, and the people that do it right work at it as if their life depended on it (it does). I suspect the greatest marriages look very ordinary, but are marked by a total commitment to the weakness and unworthiness of one another, finding in real intimacy a heightened awareness of human limits. There is a culmination of this awareness in a kind of satisfied sadness, a sweet ache that does not repel but draws lovers deeper into communion with one another and with the author of their desire. The reason it's so hard to pin down is that it's as unique as the persons it unites. Each family images the Trinity in its own particular way, just as the myriad physical forms in their various perfections manifest his glory...

A book that has blown me away (in good and bad ways... he can say things he doesn't mean) is "urgent longings" by Thomas Tyrell--we read his stuff on infatuation for class and I found it to be worthy of a closer look in the near future.

As far as a little Chicago summit, I would be all for it. I can put guests up for free at our conference center, and the grounds are a good setting for the contemplative conversation you pine for.

In the meanwhile, let's keep writing. I enjoy your blogging! Who's the "we" that's moving? Are you and Matt "back together"?

mags said...

Yes indeed we are!!! I've missed my Matthead... fortunately he just keeps coming back to me. ;)

Incidentally, Noah ("Phil": boyfriend and coblogger extraordinairre) is also moving to Milwaukee in a week or so and looking to find his own place in the nearby vacinity. Life's a pretty cool place lately!

But right, I will definitely look into Thomas Tyrell! Thanks so much for the suggestion! And I'm so happy you're interested in getting together and talking these things out. Right now I'm thinking perhaps sometime in August (I know, that's a ways off) because Matt's in the throes of summer classes and that'll be before school starts, but after his current classes end. We'll be in touch once we get things together to talk about your schedule and try and set a firm date, and perhaps clarify a more distinct topic than "Love"...