I Choose You

"Few of us marry as our hearts guide," spoke Queen Anne Boleyn in the 1969 film Anne of the Thousand Days. I don't know if the real 16th-century queen said those words, but they reflect the sentiments of many men and women through centuries when fashionable societies considered it more important to arrange a marriage for social position or financial benefit than for romantic love. The notion of marrying for love is fairly recent in historical terms, and even the notion of love itself has changed.

"In the twelfth century, a new impulse took hold in Europe -- that of romantic love," David Cohen wrote in The Circle of Life. According to mythologist Joseph Campbell, a group of brave, passionately inspired poets and musicians of noble heritage (who became known as troubadours) were the first "who really thought of love as the way we do now -- as a person-to-person relationship; they were interested in the psychology of love." Before this time love was simply "eros" (sexual attraction), or "agape" (spiritual connection), both considered impersonal love. "But the troubadours sang of Amor -- they recognized something personal and believed that Amor is the highest spiritual experience. A kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes...." This is where our stories of chaste, desirable maidens and honorable, chivalrous men come from, as well as tales of forbidden yet genuine love, a place in time when a man or woman had to be courageous and bold to follow their heart. From this spirit we inherited our taste for the freedom to choose a relationship with the one we love, the freedom to live deeply related to another.

Yet "forbidden love" has plagued all sorts of smitten couples through the ages. In the 20th century, the most scandalously famous love affair was that of Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, and American divorcée Wallis Simpson. While I was watching the 1978 British television series Edward and Mrs. Simpson, a discreetly spoken line, almost a whisper, caught my attention. Edward, responding to his advisor's instruction about whom he could bring to the palace in order to avert any further notoriety, softly asks under his breath, "How can he not bring his heart?" These words summed up the feelings of many forlorn lovers, past and future, royal and otherwise, straight and gay.

King Edward also said that he could be a better king with the woman he loved at his side and longed to be able to just "be himself," asking his subjects to trust that that would be enough. ("I am different from my father and determined to be myself.") But palace officials, steeped in patriarchal tradition, feared such heart-centered notions, so foreign to them the possibility of heart and head working in powerful alignment. Queen Mary, Edward's uncompromising mother, responded to her oldest son's dilemma by asking, "What's love compared to duty?"

British feminist Beatrix Campbell later wrote about these complicated personalities and convoluted concepts of love, declaring about the late king, "Impaled between love and duty, he insisted that love was his duty." Perhaps that is what's at stake now as we rumble here in the second decade of a new millennium, a modern age of breathtaking science, technology, speed and conveniences, yet also full of noisy voices sometimes at a loss for wisdom and kindness. How can anyone "not bring his heart" into all of their life -- even "dutifully" -- if they want to live an authentic life? How can we ask another to seal their heart away?

Is it the echoes of those voices from the past, strengthened by the courage to follow one's heart, that are now swirling in the early 21st century? Loving and marrying whom you choose has a deep, courageous and legitimate heritage. As the definition of love has been set free, we're now untangling words like "couple," "husband," "wife," even "wedding." But as we come up for air in the middle of an agitated cultural conversation, it's "marriage" that's caught in the most entanglement.

Are we rewriting the definition of marriage, or are we redefining it once again? With their dual version, Merriam-Webster is still grappling with the definition, but even before the Supreme Court spoke, the Encarta Dictionary defined marriage as "a legally recognized relationship, established by a civil or religious ceremony, between two people who intend to live together as sexual and domestic partners." Journalist Geoff Nunberg untangled it a bit further when he said that Encarta's definition clarifies "not just what 'marriage' has come to mean; it's all the word has ever meant, even when not everybody had the right to it."

So like love before it, maybe it was simply time that we changed the definition of marriage. Somebody made up the old definitions to suit their time; now it doesn't suit. The expiration date has come and gone. We may be redefining marriage in words, but there are some people with open minds and strong hearts who have already redefined marriage by their actions. We may be redefining marriage, and we may just be defining it back to how it was when more enlightened civilizations were flourishing, including the concept of love with no conditions.

In many ancient cultures, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Greece, during times of high spiritual awareness, relationship considerations were focused more on "love, beauty, and excellence of character rather than gender," reported Wayne Dynes and Stephen Donaldson in their book Homosexuality in the Ancient World. They also wrote of many indigenous cultures that openly celebrated same-sex relationships, even marriage. So we're not reinventing the wheel; we're simply righting the wagon -- and it's love that wins!

As the troubadours sang in another turbulent era almost a thousand years ago, "so through the eyes love attains the heart: For as all true lovers know, love is perfect kindness." When it comes to making choices in the name of love, bold and kind hearts are indeed what a conscious world calls for.