Words for the Newlyweds

From my talk at my niece’s wedding.

I would like to point out to those who don’t know me that I am not merely an aunt, but that I am in fact, The Sainted Aunt. In that role—and since you’ve given me a microphone—your mistake—I would like to offer some small pieces of advice which the bride and groom probably won’t hear today or remember later.

Never mind.

Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her science-fiction children’s books. But she was also a prolific essayist. One day while reading something of hers about creativity, one sentence brought me up short.

It was this: Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a policy.

That may be an odd thing to say at a wedding, but it is the secret to all relationships. Because if we base our relationships solely on how we feel, then we have the power to ignore them if we become tired; to throw them away if we can’t forgive; to crush them and destroy them if we are angry.

The intense passion and devotion we feel for one another at the beginning is not an experience that continues constantly. People annoy us; they bore us; they disappoint us; they desperately hurt us; they forget to pick up their socks. So does that mean if we aren’t feeling passion we don’t love? Of course not—if it did, no human relationship would last more than a few minutes.

No. Love has its seasons of emotions that come and go, but it is, in fact a policy. It is a decision we make about commitment, about value, and for the day to day essence of any relationship: It determines how we treat each other in the casual exchanges of every day life.

It is so often true that we make more effort to be civil to strangers than we do to people in our own house. Surely these people whom we love most deserve our most full effort to be kind? So my first piece of advice is to be polite to each other. Save your best selves for each other, not for strangers. If you do that, your home will always be a place of refuge.

Life with humans—even with dogs, as any of us who loves dogs will know—also involves a lot of mistakes. And thoughtlessness. And grievous hurts. And when we are hurt, it is natural to be angry. It is an instinct of self love and preservation. But to nurture anger is to willingly harbor a killer within your heart. George MacDonald said “It may be infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over a feeling….”

And in any relationship—especially in marriage when, at our most vulnerable, we can innocently hurt one another—it is essential to drop your pride and to forgive, forgive, and to forgive again.

But if you remember one thing, make it forgiveness.

My last piece of advice may be, ironically, the most difficult.

We have some friends who have a very busy life. He has a very successful business; she does, too. His 93 year old grandfather with the beginnings of dementia lives with them and likes to wander out on his own to mow the lawn; they have 3 children, and one of them, a teenager, is seriously ill. Their life is full and busy, and demanding. It can be hard. But every morning when they wake up, he says to her: How are we going to have fun today?

One of my favorite public figures is John Cleese—one of the original members of Monty Python. Think: a sort of 1970’s version of Eddie Izzard. Since the days of the television show he has gone on to a career—believe it or not—as a creativity consultant—which sounds like a sketch from the show, but it is actually perfectly true.

Cleese talks about the distinction between being serious and being solemn. He points out that you can be sitting around a table talking about the most serious things in the world: Love, death, the meaning of life, great literature, and you can be laughing while you speak of them. Serious doesn’t mean humorless. And you don’t have to go to the circus—or the New York trapeze school—to have fun.

But laughing and finding escape can be liberating and inspiring, and relationship building.

Not to mention a whole lot cheaper than psychotherapy.

Our life’s landscape isn’t geographical. It’s human. When you are young, life is an endless horizon of years ahead. It’s hard to realize how fast time goes, and how quickly the people we assume will always be here can suddenly be gone, changing the landscape of your life forever. It’s easy to allow the demands of every day to take up our energy and our hours. But in this, in every day, we have the essence of our lives. Our lives are only time, and, however far off the horizon seems, finite. So take the time every day to have fun together.

For all that, Marriage is serious business. To return to Madeleine L’Engle, (and I am paraphrasing) marriage is a fearful gamble, requiring risking everything of yourself. Marriage starts with love, and it is something that you must create together. And, she says, it is that creation that is part of our human calling.

So…Remember: love isn’t a feeling. It’s a policy.
Be polite. Forgive, forgive, forgive.

And have fun.

Off you go.

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