Marriage rests upon the immutable givens that compose it: words, bodies, characters, histories, places. Some wishes cannot succeed; some victories cannot be won; some loneliness is incorrigible. But there is relief and freedom in knowing what is real; these givens come to us out of the perennial reality of the world, like the terrain we live on. One does not care for this ground to make it a different place, or to make it perfect, but to make it inhabitable and to make it better. To flee from its realities is only to arrive at them unprepared.
Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you – and marriage, time, life, history, and the world – will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.
That’s Wendell Berry, from his great essay “Poetry and Marriage.”
Damon Linker makes an interesting argument here, in which he responds to this post by Daniel Payne, which in turn responds to this post by Kevin Drum.
Payne writes that if Drum kills himself “he will have cheated [his wife] out of something that is hers by right: the chance to realize her wedding vows and her matrimonial commitment to the fullest possible degree by conferring upon her husband the last and most important measures of care and comfort she can give him.” Linker replies, “Message: It would be selfish for Drum to end his own suffering and thereby deprive his family members of having to endure that suffering with him.”
Damon Linker is a good thinker and a fine writer, but I have complained more than once over the years that he has a habit of in-other-wordsing. That is, he quotes or cites someone and, adds “in other words” (or in this case “Message:”), attributes to the author something he or she did not say, and then refutes that. Perhaps Payne does indeed believe that “suffering is not only necessary, but even in some respects good,” but that’s not what he says in the passage Linker quotes. What Payne says is that it is good when a person gives “care and comfort” to someone he or she loves in that person’s time of suffering. Good for the person giving the care, and good for the person receiving it. And having cared for my wife through a long and difficult (though not mortal, thanks be to God!) illness, I can testify — and she can testify — that this is true, as long as the care is both given and received graciously.
Linker connects this belief to the claim that our lives are not our own, but rather belong to God, who gives us stewardship over them, and concludes: “Without these theological assumptions, the opposition to assisted suicide makes no sense.” But is the claim that the bonds of marriage are fulfilled when we care for one another in suffering actually a theological claim? Linker clearly thinks so. Perhaps without a Christian doctrinal foundation we cannot make such strong claims on one another, even in marriage. Even when a vision of mutual care and comfort like Payne’s is not articulated in theological terms, it only makes sense when supported and justified by a model of marriage as strong as the Christian one.
Hey, he said it, I didn’t. (Unless I’m in-other-wordsing him.)