Office Hours: Happy Ending? Part 1

Mar 05, 2010 |J. Budziszewski

Afraid of getting married because you've seen so many marriages fail? You're not alone.  

Class was almost over. We had been talking about why it takes so long for societies to draw lessons from the consequences of their behavior. I had two more points to make, and only five more minutes to make them in.

"Another reason," I said, "is that sometimes the consequences of behavior can be delayed. Can you provide examples? How about a medical example? Quickly, please. Miss Ferentes."

"For a long time, didn't doctors over-prescribe antibiotics?"

"And the delayed consequence was —?"

"There was a rise in drug-resistant infections. At least that's what I've read."

"Good. Do you notice another thing about your example? Not only has the consequence been delayed, but it's also been pushed off onto someone else — in this case a later generation. Can you provide another example like that? How about an economic example? Mr. Danaus."

"Let's say that a government runs bigger and bigger deficits, but they build up gradually."

"And the delayed consequence is —?"

"Eventually the economy craters, but probably not for a long time."

"Good. How about a sociological example? Anyone." For a long, hanging pause, no one spoke. "Speechless so soon? Miss Quanone, do you have one?"

"No, I have a question. I don't know what you mean by a sociological example."

"I mean having to do with basic social institutions. Religion, marriage, family, that sort of thing. Miss Curmudgeon."

"Would you give an example, Professor Theophilus?"

Glancing at the clock, I decided that I'd better comply. "All right, how about this? My generation invented the sexual revolution, but I have the impression that your generation is paying for it. Is that a fair example? Mr. Contendere."

"I know exactly what you mean, professor."

I smiled. "What do I mean?"

"Well, take me. More than anything — well, I long to fall in love with a woman, marry her, and be faithful to her forever. You know. A happy ending. But —"

He cleared his throat self-consciously. Every eye in the classroom was glued to him.

"Go on," I said.

"But I don't think it's possible," he said. There was another awful pause. "My mom and dad divorced when I was little. I don't see how I can do better than they did. So I'm afraid to get married at all."

The bell rang, breaking the spell.

Most of the students had left. I was gathering my papers to leave, when I became aware that he was waiting to speak with me. "Professor?"

"Mr. Contendere. Thank you for your remark. That was a most interesting example."

"Just Nolan. Do you mind if I ask — do you think it's possible?"

I looked at him. "I do."

"Why?"

Closing the briefcase, I said, "Walk with me."

There was no point trying to have a conversation while navigating the corridors and crowds, but as soon as we got outside and turned toward my building he asked his question again.

I looked over at him as he walked at my side. "Nolan, haven't you ever seen a marriage that endured?"

He shrugged. "I know some people who have been married for a long time. That doesn't prove anything. Things might start going wrong."

"Why should that make any difference?" I asked him.

He cast an odd look in my direction. "Isn't that why people get divorced — because things start going wrong?"

"What do you think it means when the man and woman vow to take each other 'for better, for worse'?"

"But nobody means that literally, professor. What they really mean is 'for better, for worse, but not too much worse, or I'm out of here.'"

"That's not what my wife and I meant when we married."

"But that's crazy. You can't have a successful marriage if you don't keep your options open."

"I'd say that's backwards, Nolan. In order to have a successful marriage, you have to throw your options away."

That stopped him for a second or two. Then he asked, "Don't people have a right to be happy?"

"The idea of a right to be happy is one of the greatest obstacles to happiness I can imagine."

"But some of those things in the marriage vow are just impossible."

"Like what?"

"Like promising to love each other forever. You can't promise to have a feeling. Feelings aren't like that. What happens if it goes away?"

"I agree that you can't promise to have a feeling," I answered, "but who said love is a feeling?"

"What?"

"Who said love is a feeling?"

"What else could it be?"

"A permanent commitment of the will to the true good of the other person."

"How can you promise something like that if you don't know what you're getting into?" he demanded. "It doesn't mean anything."

I answered, "If the marital vow doesn't mean anything, no promise means anything. Nobody knows exactly what he is getting into in any great vow. We make the vow anyway, eyes open to what we can't see. Nolan, that's just the way promises do have meaning. That's the only reason we can make promises. God has given us the inestimable dignity of being able to bind our wills, even though we can't see the future."

Nolan fell silent. We kept walking. After a minute he spoke again. "Prof."

"I'm here."

"What is marriage, anyway?"

"It's a covenant between a man and woman, a mutual promise to enter a certain kind of partnership."

"What kind of partnership?"

"A partnership that joins their whole lives, for their own good and for the procreation and raising of their children."

"Is that why you think it's permanent — because they join their whole lives?"

"Yes. If they give themselves to each other completely, there isn't anything left to take away."

"But where do they get the strength to do that?"

"Are we talking about natural marriage or Christian marriage?"

"There's a difference?"

"Yes."

"Like natural marriage is one thing, and Christian marriage is another?"

"That's not how I would put it. Christian marriage is natural marriage plus."

"Plus what?"

"Plus supernatural grace."

"I've heard people use that word, but I don't know what it means."

"Grace means a gift from God over and above anything we could deserve."

"So is that the answer to my question about where they get the strength?"

I smiled. "It's the second part of the answer. They get some help from how we are made — nature. They get more help from grace, which builds on nature. Grace makes their covenant a door to an actual spiritual union."

We stopped at the entrance to my building. Nolan had been giving me sidelong looks all along. Now he looked me full in the face. "Do you actually mean that stuff? I'm not saying — I don't mean you're lying —"

"Then did you think I was joking?" I answered.

"No-oo, not that either. But you might have been — I don't know — trying to make me feel better or something. It sounds so magical the way you tell it. Fairy tale stuff. Like it couldn't be literally true."

"I would never try to encourage anyone by saying what I didn't consider true. Are you coming up to my office?

"Can I? Wait a sec." He glanced at his cellphone. Whatever oracle he read in it must have been favorable. "Yes. Please."

Again conversation fell away. We crept through the rabbit warren of the building, and didn't speak again until I'd unlocked the door to my office. I waved him to a seat.

"Professor, let me level with you."

"Go ahead."

"I can see you're a religious person," he said. "I don't exactly get any of that. I just don't have the background. Before my mom and dad divorced, they went to a church sometimes, but I don't remember very well. When they split up, I went with my mom. After that she didn't take me to church any more. When I visited my dad, he didn't go either. I don't know whether he went when I wasn't there. Anyway, I don't think religion was important to either one of them, and they didn't teach me anything about it. Do you see what I'm getting at?"

"Not exactly."

"I'm just trying to say that religion is Greek to me. I sort of understand what you were saying before, but not really. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, I do now. Go on."

"By the way, I'm not trying to make you shut up about that. It's interesting. I do get part of it. But the question I want to ask you is a little different."

"What do you want to ask me?"

"The question I started with. When I walked up to you after class. Do you remember?"

"Yes. You asked, 'Is it possible?'"

Just for remembering his question, Nolan looked at me with such a look that I was shaken.

"That was it exactly. Just one thing. I think I can see that lifelong faithful marriage might be possible for — well — religious people, maybe, people like you, people who have a pipeline to that 'grace' you were talking about."

"Ye-ess —"

"But is it possible for someone like me?"

Part 2: Happy Ending? »

Copyright 2010 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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