I often wonder if my marriage will be the death of me. I say this without sarcasm or angst, and I mean this both literally and figuratively. As the caregiver for a disabled spouse, my life will no doubt be shortened due to the inherent physical and emotional strain. And my marriage, like every commitment birthed of true, unstoppable goodwill toward someone else, has meant an end to part of the life I dreamed for myself, a death of the future Me I always thought I would be.
Admittedly, this isn't what's sung about in most love songs. But perhaps we need to start writing some new ones.
On our wedding day eleven years ago, my wife Katherine and I honestly looked the best we would ever look, and we were feeling the love. We spoke some of the most heartbreaking, breathtaking words one can ever say," For worse...For poorer...In sickness...Until death". But, three years later, the woman to whom I spoke those vows had a near-fatal brain-stem stroke. Overnight so many of the things that initially drew me to her were suddenly gone or radically changed.
So, would my love help me stay?
When it comes to commitment, our current culture is stuck in a tragic impasse. We're encouraged to seek our own spirituality and live our own truth. An authentic life means being true to ourselves, and there's nothing more inauthentic than doing something counter to our current emotional state. Basically, if I'm not feeling it, then I shouldn't have to do it.
Eventually, we meet someone, feel the love, and are invited to board a new roller-coaster called marriage, as if we can seamlessly meld convenience and commitment in one life-long ride. And we wonder why we might feel a little sick to our stomachs as we hang on for dear life?
Is the cost of loving someone -- a spouse, a friend, a stranger, God -- ever worth what real commitment requires: The release of the self, the sacrifice of the self, even death of the self?
While modern cultural narratives tell us to be true to ourselves, I've experienced something different and stunningly hopeful. When I do the loving and sacrificial thing, especially when I'm not totally feeling it, over time, I actually begin to want to do it.
My feelings of love are birthed out of my acting in love. And scarily enough, the opposite is true, too. We so often wait until we are feeling the love before we act in it, as if we don't already know the loving thing to do. We're so caught up in waiting to feel something that we never get around to doing anything. And one day we find ourselves so disenchanted and loveless, we throw up our hands in defeat. While waiting for the feeling of love to arrive, commitment dies.
When Katherine had her stroke at 26, I had a great and disorienting moment of identity crisis. "I'm 'pre-stroke Katherine's' husband. How will I be 'post-stroke Katherine's husband?'"
Since the start of our relationship, we had practiced the rhythms of choosing love, choosing to scrape off the self-protective callouses from the tender but unstoppable goodwill we had for each other. So when everything changed in an instant, we'd already been grafting ourselves together. As Katherine became new, I had to become new right alongside her.
Katherine and I have beaten the odds in an extraordinary circumstance, one which results in a 90% divorce rate typically, and for this new life and second chance we are so grateful. But this is not to say that I, myself, am extraordinary or heroic. What I'm trying to do is what I promised in my vows: To love Katherine's whole self throughout her whole life. And something mysteriously wonderful is happening; our souls are weaving together.
Because I stayed, it may be easy to think I'm the poster child for commitment, the type that only comes around once a generation like a comet or something. Where I live in Los Angeles, people often mistake me for Mark Ruffalo, but a handful have also confused me for a "skinnier Jack Black" (I'm serious). But I guess that's about right. I am both the steadfast and the bumbling, the unwitting leading man and the lovable idiot, but in our most intimate relationships, aren't we all?
For me, the real challenge isn't physically leaving my marriage. The challenge is to not leave my marriage in my heart. In the Christian tradition, there's a story about a father and two sons. The younger son chooses to leave his family to pursue his own dreams while the older chooses to stay and fulfill his duties to the family. When the younger returns after great suffering and loss, the father is delighted to have him home because he loves him. But the older son is resentful. He stayed bodily, but clearly, he had left his family in his heart long ago. The call at the end of the story is from the father to both sons, to live forever in His love, a love that doesn't leave.
Top image via Anna Howard; Additional images provided by Jay Wolf