I was going to complain about the fact that these days we have crazy politics, or about how people don’t listen any more but just multitask while they talk to you as they’re doing their Facebook or email or something. Yet all that changed when, earlier this week, I read an interesting article on marriage by philosopher/author Alain de Botton in the New York Times. I was suspecting that there might be a political agenda lurking beneath the innocent sounding title. In fact, I was expecting something not exactly uplifting, e.g., Matthew Johnson’s article in the Washington Post about the toll that having children takes on a marriage (“having children may make you miserable, but you’ll be miserable together”) or Sarah Wright’s piece in the newspaper which suggests that marriage is greatly overrated and will in any case end by 2042. (I’m not sure, but I think that date is coincidentally one and the same as that on which the current reinterpretation of the Mayan calendar suggests that the world is supposed to end. )
Another article, by Eleanor Stanford, of a few months earlier in that same New York newspaper, is much more practical. Stanford suggests 13 questions you should ask before you get married. Some of them are pretty legit: “How do you feel about children?” “How do you see us ten years from now?” Yet other questions raised there seem to me to make the entire love and romance bit sound rather as if merely the establishment of pre-nuptial parameters: “Is watching pornography O.K.?” “Do we like each other’s parents?” I seriously think if you are not going to marry someone just because you don’t like his or her parents then you are probably not in love with that person. And if your potential spouse is a porn user, then I should caution you to consider that he of she is highly likely to see people merely as objects. You’ll be lucky, in the case of a porn addict, if you even rank high enough to be one such valued object; more likely, you will play the role of mommy or daddy, nagging him or her to give up his vice and behave like a proper adult. (If you are in this situation now and not yet married, I would urge you to ask yourself: “Why am I even dating this person?”)
Yet to return to de Botton’s far more sensible and sensitive commentary. The article, indeed, shows no political bias, at least as far as I could tell, no anti-marriage theme or even a hey-face it-we-live-in-postmodern-times agenda. Rather, that author insightfully explains that being married is about behaving properly—and that the traits that are best to find in a prospective spouse are that of gentleness, civility, kindness and the like. Any person you marry will let you down at some point (in fact at many points) and you will let them down, likely, at least at an equal rate—in my case, I confess, at the greater rate. I heartily recommend the article, for it is a good, if brief description of how love evolves and grows. That article stimulated in me further thought on the topic. And so I have been thinking this week about love and romance. I met my wife nearly forty years ago now and I thought in closing that I might, with her permission, share a vignette about our first meeting, which occurred in Rome.
I was drunk at the time, sitting in a hallway. She was just arriving, rucksack on her back, long evenly matched thick braids of beautiful brown hair. She was wearing a white blouse and blue jeans. Along with her friend Nancy, she bounded down the hallway to check into the dormitory that was leased from a convent of nuns dedicated to Saint Mary; the chapel is still there, as is the contiguous building that provides the seat of that study abroad program. I felt that I had seen the most beautiful person in the world. I loved her from the moment I saw her. Of course, the feeling was not mutual. It was apparent to her that I was intoxicated, and as such I was prating away, intermittently, perhaps even babbling. She looked at me with great disdain, a look I recognize even better now than then because over the years I have seen it quite often. That aside, I spent the next several months—for the program of study was a full semester term—getting to know her better and hoping to show her that I was worthy of her love. (It took a while, as I had made a rather bad first impression.)
Yet then something wonderful happened. I tricked her into going to the opera (Luigi Cherubini’s La Punition); “I just happen to have an extra ticket,” I said. Then we went out for a date “as friends” to eat Italian pepper steaks. Weeks later we tried to meet up in Athens, but could not. Then goodbye on 10 January 1980. Then a reunion in New York on 24 July (sadly, the same day the great comic genius Peter Sellers died). Then some prayers, some more getting to know each other again, and eventually she said yes. No, her dad was never fond of me; in fact, I think that he did not like me at all. And it took Elaine Jakes a long time to warm up to her, as she had always liked better the girl with whom I had been naked in the back seat of a car—a story found on pages 161–164 of The Curious Autobiography. So as for the 13 questions, no we did not ask any of them, and for good reason. We were in love.
Love isn’t a contract or a matter of aligning interests or even of checking in on each other’s flaws or checking out each other’s parents. It is, rather, a matter of growing old together aright, as Robert Browning once wrote at the opening of his poem Rabbi Ben Ezra, “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be. …” For such growing old together to happen, one has to recognize that marriage is truly a matter of love, and love is a matter of choice—the choice to forgive, to smile, to sow seeds of joy, and to keep faith. And for that love to grow and deepen, one must carefully and thoughtfully permit it to change from mere passion to enduring compassion, from the flame of attraction to the glow of the family hearth.