In her song, “Tall Trees in Georgia,” the late Eva Cassidy gives a poignant glimpse into the regrets felt by those who, having chosen independence ahead of love, realize too late the cost of that decision.
The sweetest love I ever had / I left aside
Because I did not want to be / any man’s bride
Now older, alone, and pining to be married, Cassidy advises:
Control your mind my girl / and give your heart to one
For if you love all men / you’ll surely be left with none
In contrast to the almost universal longing for marriage, the late night stand-up comedians offer a variety of disparaging takes on marriage. The better ones make us chuckle, even laugh uproariously, by highlighting the absurd miscues, mistakes, miscalculations and, yes, mule-headedness in our familial relationships, all evidence of the foibles inherent in our human frailty. Another brand of comics provoke pinched laughs from us as they snarl and bark out their crude, cutting, hate-laced, anger-drenched diatribes about married life; they use their bawdy, blistering humor to lacerate us for of our defects, failures and the sins we commit as we struggle with the challenges of life as husband and wife, parent and child. These cynical, pitiless critics — unlike God who remembers that we are made of dust — portray the shortfalls and weaknesses of our efforts to love and denounce the whole enterprise of marriage as a miserable fraud deserving only searing comedic contempt. Seen through their bitter, anger-warped lenses, marital sex gets little but sarcasm and ridicule.
The comedians are not alone in their disparaging comments. Sex in marriage is nearly always belittled in the media and elsewhere as dull, boring, or ludicrously old-fashioned and out-of-date. Typically, marriage is pictured — on the supposedly rare occasions it is actually attempted — as a pale alternative for the alleged excitement of promiscuous “fooling around.” Regular folks with normal, happy marriages (and thus who know better) can only wonder what sort of experience lies behind this deluge of derogatory bile that is the staple of TV sitcoms and comedic monologues. Why expend the energy to ridicule marriage if it is as pointless and unpalatable as it is portrayed? Even more to the point, if marriage were “as advertised,” why would anyone ever want to be married? Certainly, there is enough truth in the distortions that too many young people get the “joke” and turn away from marriage.
Then, as if the TV treatment of marriage were not enough, there are all the worn out jokes at weddings about the guy getting a ring both for his finger and for his nose (like some prize bull), or worse, the old saw about getting a millstone tied round his neck. Also, there are all the jokes about how you can tell that the honeymoon is over. Altogether, there’s a constant stream of would-be, everyday comedians spouting comments that make solitary confinement sound preferable to marriage.
Again, if this is the whole truth or even half the truth, why marry? Just what kind of foolish delusions are being pursued by those who marry?
In Scripture we find the Creator’s pronouncement, “It is not good for man to live alone.” (In St. Ambrose’s interpretation, this is God’s counsel, i.e., the wisdom of God, as opposed to a commandment.) But if anyone should know certainly it is the Creator, since He understands exactly how He infused the need for marriage into the very fabric of our humanity — in our need for communication, our need to know and be known, to love and be loved. So clearly, the needs that are met through marriage spring from the very essence of our humanity.
By publicly exchanging vows of fidelity and promises of love, those who marry begin a work of building something larger than they know. When both husband and wife lay aside their resentments when they don’t get their own way, learn to appreciate their differences, and thus achieve a deeper understanding of one another than the mere romantic attraction that brought them together initially, their affection for each other can steadily deepen until the relationship they create becomes an influence on the lives of everyone who chances to witness the love they share.
Such is the case any time a marriage nurtures, shelters and protects, when it is a stage where scenes of love and joyful celebration are played out again and again. Certainly the children that come from marriage are vital to the future of society, but the contributions of these good marriages do not end there. By building good marriages, these couples create virtue. In some immeasurable way, the goodness they create — simply by living in conformity to the natural order designed by the Creator — is of benefit not just for the couple; their success contributes vitality to the whole.
Much as the sun holds the planets in their orbits, providing light and energy, these good marriages are little anchor points both within the local community and across the entire society. Though it is not their conscious intent, the way they live generates something akin to a magnetic field that helps to hold a community together. Their vital presence helps to stabilize the whole.
Humans are never perfect, and hence all marriages, despite our early romantic illusions, will have imperfections. However, by continuing to strive towards the ideal, even through their imperfections, the marriage builders keep the ideal alive. Their efforts serve to encourage us all, and as their love endures, even though flawed, they point to the validity of the potential that exists. Ultimately, the commitment to build a marriage persisting through “sickness and health” produces something larger than the mere sum of the parts.
By themselves, pieces of cardboard are flimsy and weak, but cut the pieces carefully (“ouch”), crease and bend them (“double ouch”), staple them (“ouch, ouch, ouch”) and, finally, tape them together so as to form a box, and you can produce something strong enough to protect fragile crystal goblets or carry a heavy load of canned goods. Just so, when two become one, they forge a strong union that can be both practical and inspirational.