“Our life is a short time in expectation, a time in which sadness and joy kiss each other at every moment. There is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life. It seems that there is no such thing as a clear-cut pure joy, but that even in the most happy moments of our existence we sense a tinge of sadness. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitations. In every success, there is the fear of jealousy. Behind every smile, there is a tear. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In every friendship, distance. And in all forms of light, there is the knowledge of surrounding darkness. But this intimate experience in which every bit of life is touched by a bit of death can point us beyond the limits of our existence. It can do so by making us look forward in expectation to that day when our hearts will be filled with perfect joy, a joy that no one shall take away from us.” (Henri Nouwen)
In this life there is no such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy! I want to reiterate those words, coined by Henri Nouwen, in the light of some criticisms that I received to a recent column which quoted Anita Brookner saying that, in marriage, the first duty of each partner is to “console the other for the fact that we cannot not disappoint each other.”
That line provoked a number of critical reactions, ranging from: “Not true!”, “Unduly pessimistic!”, “He should stick to sacred rather than secular sources!” to “I am worried that this can give the wrong signal to young people who are getting married, suggesting that marriage will disappoint them!”
I appreciate the criticism, especially the last point, but feel that the real message was missed. In essence, I wasn’t commenting on marriage, but on life in general, where, sadly, our fantasy of finding some “messiah” to take away all of our loneliness tends to be precisely what makes us too restless to remain happily inside of our commitments, including marriage.
I’m not so worried about sending a bad signal to a young couple contemplating marriage if I tell them that inside of marriage they will not find a panacea for their loneliness. I am more worried that I would be sending them the wrong message if, like our romantic novels and movies, I should give them the impression that the final answer to every loneliness lies in simply finding the right mate. Over-expectation and subsequent disillusionment kills a lot of marriages. If I marry someone because I nurse the fantasy that this other person is the final solution to my loneliness, I am doomed not just to be disappointed but also to place every kind of unrealistic and unjust expectations on my partner. Only God can fully measure up.
St. Augustine began his autobiography with the now-famous line: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you!” Thomas Aquinas taught that “every choice is a renunciation” and that is why commitment, particularly a life-long commitment in marriage, is so difficult. Karl Rahner famously stated: “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we finally learn that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished.” And those of us who are old enough remember the haunting line in the old Salve Regina prayer: “To thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
What each of these captures, in essence, is precisely what Nouwen states, that in this life there is not such a thing as clear-cut pure joy and that we will live more peacefully and happily if we can accept that and not put false pressure on life, on our loves ones, and on God, to give us the full symphony right now.
Every day of their lives, my parents prayed words to the effect that, this side of eternity, they were “mourning and weeping in a valley of tears”. It didn’t make them sad, morbid, or stoic. The opposite: It gave them the tools that they needed to accept life’s real limits and the real limits and imperfections within community, church, family, and marriage. They were happier for knowing and accepting that.
My worry is that today we aren’t equipping our own children in the same way. Instead, too often, we are helping them nurse the false expectation that, if they do it right, they can have it all already in this life. All that is needed is to have the right body, the right career, the right city, the right neighborhood, the right friends, the right vacations, and the right soul mate and they can have the full symphony here and now.
It’s not to be had, and Anita Brookner’s maxim that in marriage we “cannot not disappoint each other” simply states, in secular language, that no one, no matter how good, can be God for somebody else.