Marriage is as One Long Conversation

The old philosopher said, "Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you're together will be devoted to conversation.” The old philosopher was right, but as with all bits of rightness, it ought to be understood in its place. 

I have always known marriage was not an easy conversation. I am of Scotch-Irish descent; men in my family love their beer and asserting opinions, and as for the women, there's a demure outside but on the inside it's all fire and spit. Most conversations were spent seeing who could talk the loudest the longest without throwing the first punch—even if the punch was merely metaphorical.

When I began to grow outside the incubator of family alone, I saw the long conversation of marriage through a different lens. These marriages were built on the scaffolding of details: who is supposed to be where and when and how, who needs to be picked up, what's for dinner, what should we do about this child or that one. There was an ordinariness to the conversations of marriage, unaccompanied by emotive, defensive jabs at the other. It seemed simplistic. I know now it's because I was not in the middle of those marriages as I was in the middle of the marriages in my family, and when we are in the middle of something all our own, we see all its inconsistencies and broken-places.

As I stepped into adulthood and was able to see my skewed perspective of childhood and adolescence both, I began to see marriage was a long conversation, but the tone of voice could change it from a pleasant one to a violent one. Armed with this newfound knowledge of tone, intention, nuance, and even love, I began to assume all the long conversations of marriage could be blissful. A constant sharing of ideas and delights and hurts and confusions, a true partnership. Whenever I thought of being married it was the long conversation I looked forward to most. 

Marriage has been that for me and Nate. The cusp of our friendship was on deep conversation, leading to dates full of long, easy talks, quiet pauses, intentional listening, and slow responses. This was the long conversation of marriage I wanted, I could see that clearly from our first date. 

The long conversations become subject to the tyranny of the urgent, though, as most things can. A few weeks ago there were twelve decisions that needed to be made and seven of them required quick conversations but the other five required depth, time, focus, and charity. We were short on all of that, though, and so if the conversations were going to be had, they were going to be had on the surface, quickly, while we multi-tasked, and were short with one another. As with most conversations built on bedrocks like that, we needed to repent later to one another. 

The urgent doesn't let up, though, does it? There is always someone who needs an answer or thinks they need an answer, or wants one. There is always something that must be signed up for or paid or responded to or agreed upon. There is always something left unfinished, unsaid, unsealed. I have learned to say to others, "I want to talk to Nate about that first," but the when of talking sometimes comes slowly or is mingled among the other conversations, never finished.

Nate and I practice (and by practice, I mean we are very unproficient at this and must practice) the discipline of saying "No," to ourselves, our minds, our friends, and the tyranny of the urgent. If, in saying no, we find ourselves disappointed or others disappointed by our lack of a quick answer—this is the discipline of the practice. This is the sacrifice, the hurt, the pain. This is where we admit to ourselves and to others that we are not God, as much as we sometimes think we would like to be. 

I think about Jesus in John 16. He says to his disciples and friends, "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you." I think about how often we fill conversation simply because we do not want to feel the lack of the incarnate Christ and we do not want to wait for the Holy Spirit to do what only he can do. We are uncomfortable with the long silences, afraid the Spirit will not do what He does: move. 

Yesterday morning, in the early hours of our day of rest, Nate mentioned some conversations we've left unfinished this week, answers others expect. And then he said this: I want to pray about these things, ask the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom, humility, and a direction, even more than we simply talk about them. And then, for the rest of the day, we didn't talk about things we could not solve on that day. We left space for the Spirit to enter in, give peace or withhold it. 

Marriage is one long conversation, but it is not, primarily, a conversation between two, but three. If we find the conversation to be focused on just two, it may go the brawling way of my family, or it may go the stoic way of my checklisting friends. But, I think, if we move ourselves away from one another for a moment, stop talking and begin listening, not primarily to one another but to the Holy Spirit, we may find that conversation more robust, full, and gentle than we could have imagined before. We may leave more things unfinished, more things unsaid, more events unattended, and more lists unchecked, but I do not think we will leave less full. 

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If you're married today, what might it look like to still the conversation—even about the rudimentary things or the things that seem pressing and necessary—and begin to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in this longest conversation of your life? 

If you're not married today, what might it look like to trust the Spirit is still at work in all the seeming silences of your life? In the lonely places where you long for conversation, how can you exercise listening to the Helper, learning from him, and obeying him as he perhaps prepares you for the long conversation of earthly marriage and definitely prepares you for the long conversation of eternity? 

Living the Whole Life

I am working through two books concurrently (three, if you count fiction, which I do, but not for today's purposes). One is Eugene Peterson's As Kingfishers Catch Fire and the other is Curt Thompson's The Soul of Shame. Both were gifts to me from friends who read them and knew I would need them or love them, or both. 

For many years I thought of myself first as an artist, a spinner of words. I lived in a place full of natural beauty, with never enough words to describe the way the blue heron dipped his head into the quiet riverbed, amidst lily pods and sodden sea grass. Waterfalls and mountains and quiet piney woods and apple orchards were mere minutes away, ripe for inspiration. I drew my cues from poetry and the contemplative. 

Then I moved to the other side of the country and my mind began to be captured by the intellect of theology, ideas, concepts, and I began to think of myself as a thinker, and lost the artist within. I was valued for my mind and ideas, and less valued for art. And I thought myself okay with this because I thought intellect was better than art. 

A friend turned 30 a few weeks ago and felt the things we all feel when we pass a marker in life: fear, anxiety, inadequacy, the question of "Have I wasted my life?" I remember feeling all of those same things on the eve of my 30th and in some ways those feelings have increased, but really it's just that I think myself more aware of their presence and less aware of their power. Turning 30 was hard, but being 30 wasn't. There is hopefully a settling sense of growth, maturity, and the temporality of life that no longer frightens you as much as invigorates you. If being in my 40s or 50s or 60s only brings an increase of that, I await it eagerly. Age brings the disparate pieces back together again, I think, or it should. All the scattered feelings and identities and questions come more into focus with a quiet, settled yes.

So I am reading Peterson and Thompson and both of them wrote about the union of these disparate pieces, namely the body, spirit, heart, and mind. How when we only address one of these, or address it more than the others, we begin to live lopsided lives. I am thinking of a man who skips leg day at the gym, whose body is strong on top and meager on the bottom. Or a comic illustration I saw many years ago of a man who only lifted weights with one arm so it was bulky and disordered from the other which was skinny and limp. We laugh because it's laughable but we also do it more than we like to admit. At least I do. I exercise my mind because it's easier than exercising my body. I engage my spirit because it's easier than engaging my mind. I entreat my body because it's easier than giving my heart. I am lopsided piecemeal. 

The growing awareness of these malnourished pieces came into focus over the past year in the void of anything to feed them (affirmation is such a powerful feast and we are such hungry paupers). We have been trying to begin seeing ourselves as whole creations intended for wholeness, instead of limping along at breakneck speeds without the equal use of our limbs. What does it mean to slow the growth of one part of us, in order to give attention to another? What does it mean to set aside the mind for the flourishing of the spirit, or to prioritize the health of the body when the spirit is strong? Not to neglect the other at its own peril, but to acknowledge that we are more than one appendage and therefore must attend to all of them? 

We are by nature legalists, always adding to the laws of God because we fear he will overlook us otherwise. But what does it mean to trust the Creator made us for wholeness and not half-ness? I cannot answer that for you and most of the time cannot even answer it for me. It takes time and trust and some times are easier than others. But I know I want it. 

I wonder, sometimes, if one of the reasons we're constantly searching for meaning in everything is because we're discontent with our under-exercised limbs. I read this recently and it's funny because it's true: 

"It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear."

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car waiting for someone and a girl sat on a park bench alone nearby. For nearly twenty minutes she posed herself with her phone camera, shooting image after image, and deleting, I'm sure, all but one. There were probably wrinkles or glints of light or too much chin or not enough hair or someone in the background or any number of reasons why being a whole person with wrinkles and frizzy hair and among others would not do for her. I don't know her, but I wanted to sit with her, make conversation, distract her from the myth of Narcissist inside her for one moment. Tell her she is not less than a body, but that she is certainly more than one. 

Someone asked me recently how we help young teens not obsess about perfection and I don't know the answer. I think it starts with teaching them they are whole people, whole image bearers, that their hearts, souls, minds, and bodies are all made by God and he called all of creation good. I think that's where we start, by not neglecting what God called good—even if it's frightening to engage. I don't know what you'll find there, when you begin to stop counting calories and running incessantly, when you begin to engage your mind instead of only your body. I don't know what will happen when you set aside the books and papers and themes and dig out the painful occurrences of your childhood, ways your spirit was crushed and hasn't ever recovered. 

Yesterday morning I sat on the couch with my husband and confessed some shame I've been feeling about something that happened when I was nine years old. I had wronged and been wronged and couldn't differentiate the shame I felt from doing wrong and being wronged in the same scenario. All I knew is, years later, confessions later, I still feel the clinging shame of those moments. Most of that is because I've neglected that space, have been afraid to enter into it for fear of what I'll find there. It's easier to engage my mind or my body than it is to open the door to my heart. But I must go there, I know I must, because wholeness cannot happen when only half-ness thrives. 

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31