This week I struggled to find the bigger picture moment. There was turmoil, and I tossed and turned, groping for what I was supposed to learn from it, but all I got was lost.
I have a colleague, whom I know others avoid talking to because, well…he’s extreme. Not just extreme, but also incendiary. He enjoys provocation. He’s self-aggrandizing and tries to use huge post-modernist words to sound smart, but usually ends up just obfuscating his leaps in logic. I know this about him, but I’ve always maintained a degree of tolerance, respect, even bemused affection for him, because, you know, at least he’s earnest. And usually I don’t take the bait when he’s being incendiary and provocative because I know it never ends well. He’s always too busy trying to prove he’s right to ever listen to what truth might lie on the other side, and he doesn’t care who he offends in the meantime.
But this time, when he said that America’s institution of marriage was a sham, I had to put a few words in. Except, it’s never just a few words and pretty soon we were into it. Only later, through the course of the argument it started to become clear that he didn’t think committing lifelong to someone was a sham, only having state involvement in it was. He doesn’t believe in signing a legal document about it and he rails against the state’s incentive structure privileging married couples over nonmarried couples. He wondered why the state should be involved at all.
I was willing to grant that he had a valid point in there, though I still argued there are important reasons to want state protection for marriages. (The argument really isn’t important here though and I’m not seeking validation for my side of it.) But his point did make me start looking into the history of marriage and how states ever got involved in the first place. And I thought, maybe this is my bigger picture moment. Engaging with him might make me learn something here. So I waded through material about patriarchy and the historical economic motivations for marriage and the split between church and state and Europe…and I waded…and then…I just. didn’t. care. I stopped.
And after that point, he lost what semblance of respect he had maintained in the conversation and just became flat out insulting, so I stopped responding. But it stuck with me. And I couldn’t figure out why it stuck with me. I didn’t care about proving myself right. I knew better than to be really hurt by his insults because that’s just how he is. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to learn from this exchange. Tolerance is hard maybe? I just didn’t know.
But then I realized something. He’s just a kid. His arguments may be more eloquent and better considered than those who just say legal marriage is nothing more than the signing of a document. But he has never known what it is to totally subsume himself for something greater. (Or if he has, he must have gotten burned in the process, and that explains why he upholds individual freedom above any other possible value.) There is a profoundly important difference between making promises to your lover in private and getting up in front of everyone you know and love and declaring your commitment. There is a difference when you love someone so much, you’re willing to declare your commitment in a legally binding way. That process transforms you. And no amount of armchair theorizing can tell you how that process changes you until you experience it. A marriage is still prone to weaknesses and no legal stature can totally inoculate it from danger. But the ceremony and tradition links you to all those who have come before you.
And I found I just truly did not care that the state is involved, even if it means we’re pawns in some scheme larger than what we can see. So what if, historically, marriage supported patriarchy? My marriage does not. I don’t have to change the institution of marriage by opting out. I can change it by living it the way we want to, every single day. I’m reminded of a quote by Barbara Kingsolver (bear with me, it’s a little long):
“But his kind will always lose in the end. I know this, and now I know why. Whether it’s wife or nation they occupy, their mistake is the same: they stand still, and their stake moves underneath them….Even a language won’t stand still. A territory is only possessed for a moment in time. They stake everything on that moment, posing for photographs while planting the flag, casting themselves in bronze. Washington crossing the Delaware. The capture of Okinawa. They’re desperate to hang on.
But they can’t. Even before the flagpole begins to peel and splinter, the ground underneath arches and slides forward into its own new destiny. It may bear the marks of boots on its back, but those marks become the possessions of the land. What does Okinawa remember of its fall? Forbidden to make engines of war, Japan made automobiles instead, and won the world. It all moves on.”
– The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver, p. 384.
It all moves on. The state has been involved in marriage for centuries, but the institution of marriage has changed over that time without the state having much say about it. Whereas once marriage might have been a primarily financial consideration to ensure progeny, entered into by a man of at least 30 years of age and a woman under 18, now we marry for love, usually between equals. In the last century alone it has changed. Who knows what it will be a century from now? What matters is the will of the people in it. And we can theorize all we want about the social and political implications, but it all moves on, and people will make of it what they want from it. And that is our power.
I realized that, and I slept soundly. And into my dreams, I did not bring in this argument. I dreamt of different things and lovely things. And when I woke, I kissed my husband good morning.