Only a Rightly-Ordered Heart Feels Grief
Social media was at its best yesterday. My feed started out the morning with an explosion of irritation against a DIY theologian. His ideas about sex, marriage, and God's will could be summarized by changing the name of The Bible to "How to Make Sure Wimmin Don't Win." Anger and refutations were the right response to his loathsome ideas, and it was good to see such an articulate, vociferous rejection of them.
It was even better to see another article slowly take over my feed. At The Catholic Company, blogger Gretchen shared the words of John Chrysostom, who had more or less the opposite to say about what marriage ought to be like (and his words were all the more refreshing, in contrast with the intellectual squalor of the previous article):
I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us... I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.
It was that last part that really got me -- the part about how bitter and painful it is to be of a different mind from your beloved. After seventeen years of marriage, I can attest that this is how it is to be in love. Even when I'm 100% sure I'm right, and I wish with all my heart that my husband would just shape up and see things my way, it's not the not-getting-my-way that is misery, it's being separated from him.
It's not just a pretty phrase, that "one flesh" stuff. To be at odds, to be alienated, to be unwilling or unable to make that connection with the one you have vowed to love . . . it's painful beyond belief. It feels like a physical wound. When I'm fighting with my husband, I half expect to look in a mirror and see a gash, something outrageous, a shredding or an amputation.
And that's just when I'm suffering a temporary rupture. At Peace and Pekoe, Kate Cousino speaks of how she has come to deal with the pain she lives with since her separation from her husband:
It's a pain that sits at a dull, almost forgettable background ache much of the time, until I move or something moves me and the sharp point of loss and regret stabs afresh, as sharp as when the wound was inflicted.
The pain is, understandably, worst when she witnesses people enjoying the kind of loving, happy marriage that she does not have:
The spouse-brag FB posts, the anniversary blessings in church, the sappiness of new love and the comfortable resonance of old love all hurt to witness like a toothache that throbs intermittently and demands attention.
Cousino says she initially tried to hide from these celebrations of love, to shield herself. At the weddings and anniversary celebrations of family members, she would "berate" herself for feeling grief over her own situation, even as she rejoiced for the people she loved. But, she says, she has come to see that
There is no contradiction between sorrow and joy, suffering and celebration. When you smile through your tears, both your tears and your smile can be a tribute.
There is no contradiction, because, she says, "the grief itself is the response of a rightly-ordered heart." And there it is. The suffering, the pain, the feeling of rupture are proof of the wholeness, the rightness of the thing that is lost. If she didn't value marriage, she wouldn't be grieving to have lost it. Pain isn't an evil, she says. "[T]he grief ... is the response of a rightly-ordered heart."
Grief and pain are not the worst evils in the world. What is far worse is to become numb, to be accustomed, to be insensitive to the pain of privation -- because numbness implies that it does not matter. Indifference is worse than pain. Indifference is the enemy of the good.
If we are lucky, pain and suffering can even help us. More often than I'd like to admit, it's the pain of alienation that makes me want to reconcile with my husband, when we're fighting. It would be even better if I simply longed for his happiness, but it's still pretty good when I simply can't stand being so miserable myself -- and my misery propels me to apologize for my part, so I can live again, because it's not really living when we're not getting along. It's a real gift, to a stubborn person like me, that it feels so bad to be on the outs.
We know some couples who don't fight very much, but they don't seem to really enjoy each other, either. They more or less leave each other alone, with a sort of low-level, courteous disdain for each other's enthusiasms and flaws alike. They never experience the agony of rupture because they've carefully cordoned themselves off from any passionate unity. They are indifferent, because it's easier. And this indifference is a tragic waste of marriage.
Not all loving couples fight, of course! But fighting at least can be a sign that you want something better -- that you know that something better, something more whole, is possible. That you have some vestige of a rightly-ordered heart. What remains is to make the sacrifices necessary to come back to wholeness.
Of course, it's not always up to us. Not everyone is so lucky to have the option of making things better. But at very least, we can recognize that those who suffer the pain of loss have a rightly ordered heart. I'll give Cousino the last word as she speaks directly to those who suffer:
Your pain is a celebration of the Good from a heart that knows how Great the Good is from knowing the size, shape, and cost of its absence. Let your grief teach your heart how to value the Good that is as well as the Good that is not.