In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.
So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:
“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.
“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).
“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).
Earlier in the book he notes that unlike in ancient cultures and in every major religion, modern Western society is often unable to adequately deal with human suffering. Many see it as an accident or inconvenience of life that simply gets in the way of our comforts and happiness.
I share this excerpt because as someone who’s been influenced by this world, I’ve sometimes viewed suffering in this superficial way, especially my own. But we should be equipped to wrestle with it so as to learn from it and through it grow stronger. This isn’t the same thing as glorifying suffering and claiming that it is good in and of itself, but it is meant as a perspective that I believe is often missing but which is at the center of the Christian faith – where the greatest triumph over evil was achieved through the great suffering of a Perfect Man on a cross. As Keller writes: “Trials and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same” (190). Below are his points. His explanations for each point are worthwhile, so I encourage you to read them:
1. Suffering transforms our attitude toward ourselves.
It humbles us and removes unrealistic self-regard and pride. It shows us how fragile we are…average people in Western society have extremely unrealistic ideas of how much control they have over how their lives go. Suffering removes the blinders.
2. Suffering will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives.
We will see that some things have become too important to us. [Here he gives the example of someone who’s invested too much of their hopes in their career, which when this is lost or threatened, is devastated.]
3. Suffering can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can.
When times are good, how do you know if you love God or just love the things he is giving you or doing for you? You don’t, really. In times of health and prosperity, it is easy to think you have a loving relationship to God. You pray and do your religious duties since it is comforting and seems to be paying off. But it is only in suffering that we can hear God ‘shouting’ a set of questions at us: ‘Were things all right between us as long as I waited on you hand and foot? Did you get into this relationship for me to serve you or for you to serve me? Were you loving me before, or only loving the things I was giving you?’
4. Suffering is almost a prerequisite if we are going to be of much use to other people, especially when they go through their own trials.
Adversity makes us far more compassionate than we would have been otherwise. Before, when we saw others in grief, we may have secretly wondered what all the blubbering was about, why people can’t just suck it up and go on. Then it comes to us – and ever after, we understand. When we have suffered, we become more tenderhearted and able to help others in suffering. Suffering creates wisdom in people, if they handle it and it doesn’t make them hard.
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Kellers cites an excellent New York Times article by Sara Lipton (above), professor of history at SUNY Stony Brook. In it, she compares today’s sexually rogue men – men like Schwarzenegger, Spitzer, and Weiner – to the “manly men of yore,” for whom the ability to rule oneself, both for the good of their families and their societies, was one of the key measures of a man.
Writing of the Schwarzeneggers and Weiners of our day, Lipton claims: “In every case, they had resisted the traditional purposes of marriage: to change their natural instincts, to reign in passions, to learn denial of one’s own desires, and to serve others.”
Keller then writes: “The conventional explanation for this is that marriage simply doesn’t fit the male nature…that ‘a need for sexual conquest, female adulation, and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition, and confidence in the “alpha male.”‘ But Lipton argues that marriage was traditionally a place where males became truly masculine: ‘For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery…. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex – who failed to “rule himself” – was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity…'” (32)
On a personal note, I’ve already seen these insights come to life in our six months of marriage. For example, I’m more motivated (and often reminded) to do things around the house, such as washing dishes, or taking out the trash, or vacuuming and tidying up before guests. I know I wouldn’t do the same things were I living on my own, and certainly I wouldn’t be cooking delicious meals for myself like my wonderful wife does for us. In large part because of doing life with her, I’m more disciplined and on a daily basis aware that my “personal” time isn’t necessarily “Javi” time. It also helps, however, to have an awesome wife who encourages me and lovingly challenges me to be a better man every day. I pray that by grace and with much love this continues for many years, trusting that though difficult seasons will come, they won’t prevail. Thank you, mi amor – you know who you are!
In The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (Dutton, 2011), Timothy Keller, author and pastor of a large church in Manhattan, enumerates some of the documented benefits of marriage. In our modern society where many, especially young adults, are often jaded and cynical about the institution of marriage, it’s good to bring attention to some of the conclusions of much research about marriage and its effects. Read on – you may be surprised:
“Married people experience greater physical and mental health…Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline than friends or other family members can” (24).
“All surveys tells us that the number of married people who say they are ‘very happy’ in their marriages is high – about 61-62 percent – and there has been little decrease in this figure during the last decade” (26).
“During the last two decades, the great preponderance of research evidence shows that people who are married consistently show much higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives than those who are single, divorced, or living with a partner. It also reveals that most people are happy in their marriages, and most of those who are not and who don’t get divorced eventually become happy. Also, children who grow up in married, two-parent families have two to three times more positive life outcomes than those who do not” (26).
This is a guest post by my wife, who is a much faster reader than me.
I first discovered Meg Jay when I was on kick watching TED talks. I found her talk, “Why 30 is not the new 20,” (see video below!), so engaging and clearly stated that my husband bought me her book for Christmas so that I could keep digging into the topic of the importance of your twenties.
As a twentysomething, I was interested to learn what’s so special about this decade of my life. The quotes below from Meg Jay’s book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now (Twelve, 2013), are a sampling of her answer to my question “what’s so special about your twenties anyway?”. It turns out: A LOT!
- “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty-five” (xiv).
- “A colleague of mine likes to say that twentysomethings are like airplanes, planes just leaving New York City bound for somewhere west. Right after takeoff, a slight change in course is the difference between landing in either Seattle or San Diego. But once a plan is nearly in San Diego, only a big detour will redirect it to the northwest” (xxx).
- “’Not making choices isn’t safe. The consequences are just further away in time, like in your thirties or forties’” (40).
- “As a twentysomething, life is still more about potential than proof” (62).
- “By the time we reach our twenties, the brain has gotten as big as it’s going to be, but it is still refining its network of connections” (139).
- “Twentysomething plans help us think across the years and decades ahead” (141).
- “’Inaction breeds fear and doubt. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.’-Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer” (156).
- “We now know that, of any time in life, our twenties are our best chance for change” (166).
- “Feeling better doesn’t come from avoiding adulthood, it comes from investing in adulthood” (170).
- “Compared to their twentysomething selves, women are about half as fertile at thirty, about one-quarter as fertile at thirty-five, and about one-eighth as fertile at forty” (180).
- “’There is a big difference between having a life in your thirties and starting a life in your thirties’” (194).
Our twenties matter. The decisions of what job to take, what career field to enter and work to get into, and whether or not to pursue an advanced degree (and if so in what and where), matter. Who you date (or don’t date) matters because it can affect who you end up marrying and choosing to partner in life with. Meg Jay covers these professional and personal aspects of life well in the sections “Work” and “Love” of her book. She stresses how decisions made (or not made) in your twentysomethings significantly affect the trajectory of your life. She also presents very compelling biological information about how, physically, our twenties are a unique time in her section “The Brain and the Body.”
I loved The Defining Decade. If you’re in your twenties or have a loved one in their twenties, you should definitely read this book! It’s inspiring and motivating. I think Meg Jay would agree that her book is a call to action written for twentysomethings encouraging us to not put things off for later but really seize our twenties.
When’s the last time you committed a poem to memory? What about a phone number or an address? Most of us don’t need to do these things any longer. Google, our laptops, and our many smart toys have made the need to commit information to memory obsolete. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but perhaps it’s worth reflecting on this change and what it means for our brains and our society.
In The Lost Art of Reading (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin quotes from Eva Hoffman’s Time:
“On one level we are relegating more and more of our mental operations to various technologies, with digital devices increasingly acting as prostheses for our faculties. We entrust our sense of spatial orientation to satellite navigations systems; we give mathematical calculations over to the appropriate gadgets…we have less need to remember information ourselves when so much can be stored in our computer’s memory. The feats of memory recorded in oral cultures, or performed by Soviet poets and writers under censorship, seem hardly credible within our zeitgeist. Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized all of her husband’s poetry because it was too hazardous to write it down. Solzhenitsyn committed to memory each page he wrote when he was imprisoned in the Gulag, and the destroyed the evidence. Such powers of retention are unimaginable to most of us and they may become even more so, as we transfer memory to the many storage places available to us – there to be filed way, for instant and effortless retrieval” (89).
In his extended essay The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch, 2010), David Ulin offers one response to the problem of “communication overload,” taken from an organization whose aim is to “cultivate unhurried activities and quiet places, sanctuaries in time and space for reflection and contemplation” (86). Here are the ten principles of this “technological Sabbath,” which I find helpful, even pleasurable, as some of us consider ways of setting aside quality technology-free time by ourselves and with loved ones:
1. Avoid technology.
2. Connect with loved ones.
3. Nurture your health.
4. Get outside.
5. Avoid commerce.
6. Light candles.
7. Drink wine.
8. Eat bread.
9. Find silence.
10. Give back.
Have you ever paused to consider how much of our culture is influenced by that seminal phrase, “the pursuit of happiness”? I think it’s fair to say that before these words were penned into our Declaration of Independence, no nation had ever before staked its people’s happiness as one of its founding principles and a reason for being.
Today we see this fixation with happiness in many places, from the check-out lines where Cosmopolitan reveals its “7 Secrets to Happiness” to the Barnes & Noble with the prominent display of Gretchen Rubin’s #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project (Harper, 2011). But “happiness” is no simple proposition, and too often in its pursuit we forget that more important than mere happiness is the wisdom needed to negotiate life’s challenges and to know when to try to change one’s circumstances and when to accept, and even embrace them. This kind of wisdom produces not happiness, but joy and peace. Alternatively, does the absence of “happiness” indicate personal failure? Are those whose days are more characterized by difficulty and suffering than cheery happiness doing something wrong or missing out on a fuller and better experience of life?
In his recent book, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (Penguin, 2013), Tim Keller writes that one of the major failings of modern society is that it fails to provide an adequate framework, if any, for understanding suffering. He explains that unlike in previous civilizations where suffering and trials were understood to be a crucial aspect of life which could better one’s character, many people today are more likely to see suffering as an accident of life to be avoided and removed from human experience.
More than fifty years ago Reinhold Niehbur wrote eloquently about this dilemma for American society, calling it “our difficulty as a nation.” Does this still hold true today? And has it gotten worse?
“The real question is whether a religion or a culture is capable of interpreting life in a dimension sufficiently profound to understand and anticipate the sorrows and pains which may result from a virtuous regard for our responsibilities; and to achieve a serenity within sorrow and pain which is something less but also something more than ‘happiness.’ Our difficulty as a nation is that we must now learn that prosperity is not simply coordinated to virtue, that virtue is not simply coordinated to historic destiny and that happiness is no simple possibility of human existence” (The Irony of American History, University of Chicago, 1952), 52.
My work exposes me to difficult questions about America’s role and responsibility in the world community. Iran and the nuclear bomb. The use of chemical weapons against innocents in Syria. Billions in assistance to Egyptian strongmen who offend our democratic sensibilities but who ensure our national interests in the Middle East. These examples are the ones that grab the headlines, but there are many more like them that are no less complex.
Though I have no decision making responsibility over these matters, the people I work for do, and their responsibility forces me to consider the inevitable exercise of American leadership on the world stage. On the one hand we see the reality of this exercise – far from perfect, sometimes hypocritical, but, as I and many others see it, on the whole good and indispensable; and on the other hand we hold the ideal of this exercise – the promotion of the universal principles of liberty, equality and human dignity through our engagement with the world.
Too often in our discourse and our policymaking we lose the balance between the actual and the ideal: some jettison any notion of universal norms and humanitarian disinterestedness as self-defeating delusions that have no place in the exercise of foreign policy in the real world, and others would seek to wield American power to crusade against all injustice and, whether unilaterally or in concert with international bodies, seek to prevent conflict everywhere and usher in world peace. Two men exemplifying these two spectrums are Henry Kissinger, the brilliant realist behind Nixon’s opening to China, and Woodrow Wilson, the academic architect of the League of Nations who said he was taking the U.S. into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.”
To this discussion Reinhold Niebuhr offers wise words which, though written 1952, remain as relevant and pressing today. Public intellectual, Christian theologian and adamant anti-communist, Niebuhr was clear-eyed about the shortcomings of our nation as it proclaimed its virtue against the evil of communism. In The Irony of American History, he shattered the illusion that we as a nation could keep intact our innocence and virtues and still fulfill our responsibility to the world. He understood that though this exercise of leadership is inevitably imperfect and sometimes tragic, the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. Today’s idealists who call on our leaders to either retreat from the world stage or pursue a more innocent and pure foreign policy would do well to consider his words:
“They [the idealists of the 1930s] had a dim and dark understanding of the fact that power cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest, even when it tries to subject itself to universal standards and places itself under the control of a nascent world-wide community. They did not understand that the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.”
This country needs more men like George Kennan.
George Kennan is best known for his “X” article, which laid out the policy of containment that was to define decades of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. George Kennan (1904-2005) was an accomplished diplomat, a devoted husband (a marriage of over 70 years!), a natural teacher, a meticulous historian, and a gifted writer. But perhaps the best way to describe him is as “conscience of a nation,” as John Lukacs puts it in his excellent biography, George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2009). What made George Kennan invaluable as a diplomat was that he was the best kind of patriot: a man who so loved his country that he did not turn a blind eye to its faults and defects but shined a light on them, wishing the improvement of our character and conduct as a nation. He was deeply committed to the principles of liberty and equality and believed America should exert its influence in the world, but he deplored the tendency toward wrongheaded, righteous interventions and the increasing overextension of our military throughout the world. In this vein he often quoted John Quincy Adams: “We are friends of liberty all over the world; but we do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This posture earned him the ire of both liberals and conservatives, and so it should be, for he had “no doctrines, only principles.”
George Kennan led a long and fruitful life, leaving behind a mountain of writings on the role of the U.S. in the world. As our country faces many serious threats, it is worth recalling the lessons of this sober-minded and clear-eyed American, of which the most important may be, humility:
“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130, quoted from his 1953 address to University of Notre Dame).