Friday, December 3, 2010

The American Dream and the Marriage's Nightmare

We’ve all been there, a bajillion frequent flyer miles to cash in and no way to get really anything of use. I found myself in a similar situation a few weeks back, so what did I do? I took up Delta’s offer and cashed in about 5000 sky miles for a subscription to Time Magazine. The cover of the November 29th’s Time Magazine asks us very poignantly—Who Needs Marriage?[1] Recent polls and surveys have shown that the number of people marrying or wanting to get married has been dwindling because marriage is no longer seen as a necessity for happiness and success. But here’s the rub in my opinion—marriage is not an institution by which we should or even want to derive our happiness or understanding of success.

In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson noted that humans, by being humans, have inalienable rights. What were those? The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When any of those are being upended we are, at our essence, being tyrannized.

From the outset I think I ought to make it clear that I think Jefferson is mistaken. There is no such thing as an inalienable right. And when we start bestowing upon ourselves the notion that there are liberties that are intrinsic to our humanity we slowly slip from the notion of liberty and fall into libertinism. Any time any outside force impinges upon our “freedoms” we must desperately strive against that influence. The problem is this though—pretending we are in some ways not influenced by outside forces, social constraints, peer evaluation etc. is a fallacy. There is no way for us to escape that which influences our decisions and behaviors.

This is where the problem with marriage comes in. Marriage as an institution is distinct because there is an acknowledged relinquishment of our “inalienable” liberties. America can’t understand marriage because America doesn’t have the discipline to create a decent and moral people willing to part with their “inalienable rights.” America creates people who are told they have an inalienable right to pursue happiness—and this poses a problem for marriage. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is an integral part of marriage and in some ways there must be some modicum of happiness for marriage to even be feasible. But thinking that the pillars of marriage are happiness and success ultimately lead to the staggering number of divorces and separations we see.

Marriage (Christian marriage to be exact) is an event witnessed and upheld by the church and family because the witnesses know that there is no way in hell the bride and groom standing at the altar know what they’re getting into. Christians make vows to one another in marriage, not because vows express our deepest sentiments, but because vows require witnesses willing to take the married couple to task when these vows are being broken. Consider it a covenant or a sacrament, but in either case marriage is not something that can be held to the whimsy of the American dream, because America and its “inalienable rights” simply cannot understand covenant or sacrament. Both are theologically imbued terms that rail against the American libertinism that covenants the self only to the self.

Marriage is an act of forgiveness. Marriage is an act of discipline. And marriage is a sign of grace. Marriage is an institution that must be upheld by a community steeped in virtue with an understanding that the practicing of these virtues will inevitably derail American individualism.

So in some ways marriage in America is doomed to fail as long as our understanding of happiness and liberty are inextricably tied to the American ethos. Because American’s have been born and bred with the notion that we have a “right to happiness,” it ultimately follows that anything intruding what we perceive to be happiness is a destructive power and in its tyranny is absolves us of any commitment. As a result, for more ways than just one we need to drop the “right to happiness” ethos that we have in America.

C.S. Lewis has important thoughts about this “right to happiness” that Americans perceive to be integral to their being. He notes that “A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.”[2] This being the case, our perceptions that we have a right to be happy do not coincide with the real facts that happiness is elusive at all times. In reality, “When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also—I must put it crudely—good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.”[3]

What it ultimately boils down to is this—a synthetic understanding of happiness granted to us by the founders of this nation has wrecked the possibility of anyone ever being happy. Happiness is not a transcendent gift, but a neuro-chemical reaction to stimuli. This will eventually fade. However when we train ourselves in the virtues and when we be the best possible humans we can be ala. Aristotle, we find pure and unfiltered happiness. Therefore, happiness is not about feeling good or pleased all of the time, but about living life as a human in all of its complexities. The best marriages are often those that understand happiness in terms of discipline and human development, not action and reaction.[4]

[1] Belinda Luscombe, “Marriage: What’s it Good For?,” Time Magazine, November 29, 2010, 48-56.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness,’” The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis. God in the Dock, (New York: Inspiration Press, 1970) 516.

[3] Ibid. 518.

[4] Thoughts and ideas for this blog also came from:

Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).

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