In order to commemorate Valentines Day—a holiday I hold in only slightly higher esteem than World Turtle Day (May 23, apparently; mark your calendars)—I read a thoroughly depressing article about love and relationships. Naturally. The article was called “Unraveling Love Stories” and it reads as something like an apologia for the mid-life crisis and all the desperate and destructive flailings that it spawns.
The author, Gabriel Rockhill, describes things thus:
A crisis is a crack in the code. It can occur when everything laid out for you, and all of the things that you have half-wittingly accepted, meet a desire to be something more than the skeletal image of your own dead dreams. It can also come with the realization that life trickles away quickly, and there’s no going back. A destructively liberating drive may arise, derailing you from the course of playing out your pre-established roles.
These “destructively liberating drives” lead down predictable paths. An affair, a bit of sexual experimentation, a new motorcycle, it doesn’t really matter. The main thing is a departure from the oppressive script that society imposes upon us. But for Rockhill, these departures are not dead ends to be avoided or even the regrettably inevitable outcomes that come about when flawed human beings try to negotiate life together; they are, rather, a source of liberation and life. Here’s what he says:
Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments. Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil, or push up through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible. Instead of playing out familiar plotlines, which would otherwise escort us all the way to the tomb, we can take over the screenplays of our lives, and we can begin to spin the most quixotic yarns, set in a wilderness untamed by moralism, careerism and the strictures of conformism.
Take over the screenplay, break free of the institutions and structures and obligations that are stifling your heroic, untameable self. Live an unscripted life. You are, after all, the star of the show and you have an obligation to make it a good one.
The first thing to say about this response is that it is entirely understandable. I suspect that there are few among us who don’t have moments where we wonder how we ended up where we did, who feel like life is confining and restrictive, who long for something new and different, who know what it feels like to have dreams die, whether these are dreams for a relationship, a vocation, for our children, or whatever. Life has this irritating and persistent tendency to be disappointing, if only because we are people who are irritatingly and persistently disappointing, to ourselves and to others. And there are times when there is nothing we would like more than to break free of it all and “spin a more quixotic yarn.”
The second thing to say is that about this response is that it is dead wrong and has the potential to be incalculably destructive. I’ve witnessed it firsthand. I’ve sat with spouses who have left or are leaving each other and say things like, “Well, I’m sure our kids would just want us to be happy” And then I’ve sat with kids who spend the next few years trying to cope with the dislocation (physical and emotional) and instability that is forced upon them by this choice. I’ve listened as people tell the most elaborate tales to justify what amounts in the end to little more than trading “up” for something younger and prettier. We can be quite resourceful when it comes to telling ourselves stories about why we need a better screenplay.
And what I want to say in most of these cases is, “Just stick to the script.” Or at least try a little harder for a little longer. In many cases—not in every case, mind you, but in many cases—the script exists for good reasons. Kids thrive on stability and predictability to grow into what’s possible for them. Kids do not thrive in contexts where the adults in their lives are forever trying to take hold of the “screenplays of their lives.” And I really do believe that love becomes deeper and truer and more beautiful when it endures a few things. I fear that often people dash off into a more exciting screenplay right at the point where if they were to stick to the script for just a while longer, their love might have the chance to grow into something stronger and more durable and resistant than it had previously been.
And about that “wilderness untamed by moralism, careerism and the strictures of conformism”—it isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. As I have observed people move along this trajectory, predictable trends emerge. It’s exciting. For a while. Until it isn’t. Until new strictures and conformism descend. Until the yarn starts to seem less quixotic and more quotidian. Until the untamed wilderness seems more hopeless and barren than invitingly expansive.
Love and marriage isn’t an easy road. Not by any means. The script is demanding, not least because we have no guarantees about where the story will go. And I should hasten to add that, yes, there are times when the best thing for all involved in a marriage and its orbit is for the marriage to die. It is profoundly sad when this is the case, but there are times when it is true. This post is no plea for a return to the iron shackles of abusive patriarchy or grim, loveless marriages, or anything like that. It is, however, a plea to consider that for the sake of our children, our families, our society, our culture, our selves, sometimes the very best thing we can do is stick to a script that doesn’t have us at the centre.
Occasionally, I get a “someone needs to speak to a pastor” type call. The people who want to speak to a pastor may or may not have any connection to my church or any church for that matter. They may not even know much about what a pastor is or does beyond having a vague sense that these are the odd people who speak to/about God more than others. At any rate, I recently went to visit someone who needed to speak to a pastor. They were in their early nineties, frail and wracked with pain. I sat down expecting to hear from someone who wanted prayer for relief from pain or guidance in preparing for their funeral or something like that.
What I got was a confession. This person had committed adultery. Probably almost half a century ago. But they recalled the night with penetrating clarity and precise detail. They had carried the guilt of this departure from the script for many long years. They were convinced that their spouse had gone to the grave never knowing. And now, after all these years, they wanted someone to hear their confession. There were tears of sorrow, there were agonized prayers of repentance, there was a palpable sense of guilt at the betrayal that this act had represented. The marriage had been hard, it was true, but it was no excuse for what they had done. It was a hard conversation, but it ended with smiles, a hug and the assurance of the forgiveness of sins.
Today, on Valentine’s Day, I am thinking of that visit. On a day that is soaked with romantic and superficial kitsch, in a culture where we’re always chasing after more dramatic screenplays than the ones we’re currently enacting, more exciting and exotic people than the ones we happen to be stuck with, I need stories of hard-won, sin-stained fidelity like this one. It is stories like these that tell a truth about love and marriage that has perhaps never more urgently needed to be told.