Friday, September 30, 2011

Coda 5: Modus vivendi

Over lunch in May, a friend told me that, despite decades of separation and a current relationship of long standing, he and his wife are still married. This is reminiscent of Vanessa and Clive Bell, discussed previously, who stayed married "unto death" while they went their mostly separate ways. Formally, there's marriage and there's divorce. More recently, there are also domestic partnerships, a halfway house toward marriage. Meant to extend some of marriage's rights to those excluded from it, this category could end up disappearing as marriage grows more inclusive. Its existence as an alternative to marriage sets up the possibility that a married person, living separately with another partner, might embrace it in order to afford the new relationship more rights and standing.
    Some might argue that this is a kind of bigamy. I don't think it is, but the notion of a domestic partnership may not satisfy the other partner, either, since at least some of the impetus for divorce is to be free to remarry. 
    Marriage and divorce are usually a binary pairing, a black-and-white rendition of a landscape that we know full well is resplendently colorful, textured, messy, and in flux. When you look back in history, especially across cultures, you see a lot of variation. And looking across a table sometimes, you see former partners breaking bread. I realize that time is a factor here, but when you consider both the tumult and reconciliation, life often proves to be bigger than the partners imagined. Certain ties still bind them.
    We speak of no-fault divorce, but it may also be useful to speak of no-fault marriage. This is to recognize that much of what affects a marriage reflects our human dilemmas. Moreover, if a marriage is a partnership of two individuals, then we have to accept everything this implies. In particular, we have to accept the essential good will of the other, even when the situation seems impossible. This is not an argument for any particular outcome, but for modus vivendi - the ability to take a larger view of things and use one's imagination.
    Empathy, if one has it, makes a mockery of any insistence that there's only one course to follow. This is the basic fallacy of a black-and-white view of life. We are, each of us, a boiling pot of desires, fears, limitations, and smarts. We slowly acquire wisdom as we age, but slowly is the operative word. Our wisdom, though hard-won, can be gone in a flash. Volatile, subject always to our natures, we make our way. Marriage and friendship alike have to deal with the carnage. There are times when we've had enough, but then we remember that we're like that ourselves.
    Part of the idea of no-fault is to accept that along with the individuals involved, the nature of a marriage or a friendship (and their variants) changes over time.  The form it takes matters infinitely less than the attitude of the individuals toward this. "An end that endures" is the I Ching's phrase for this "seeing the woods for the trees.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thesis 6: Individuality

My sixth thesis is that each one is her or his own person, not the property of any other. Vows cannot transcend this basic fact.

Individuality is fundamental, which is why to be works better in the long run than to have. We don't actually possess even our selves, these ephemeral would-be vessels of our possible souls, but we can be more assuredly than we can have. That's the Buddha's take, but this is also the territory of La Rochefoucauld, what the French call amour-propre. The love of two individuals dances around their singularity, which is to say their self-love and self-regard.
    Individuals are not unchanging monoliths. Over time, as their lives unfold, their interests, desires, tastes, pursuits, and natures evolve. Their use of time evolves, too. So it's not just their appearances that change: they are literally not the same from point to point. Yet within themselves there is a kind of thread of identity that makes each one feel she or he has a self, is the same individual all along. We are and we aren't, which is to say that we are best understood as having an inherent uncertainty, like particles of light.
    Try to possess this other and there's nothing there beyond the moment. This thought can be maddening, especially to those who see life in a binary black and white. To extend the analogy to Newtonian and quantum physics, the old tradition of marriage is rooted in the former, simplifying existence by holding to an ordered universe in which a binary view of things is of a piece. This mode of living works up to a point. The point where it ceases to work is where it runs up against the realities described above - where it becomes obvious that its narrow descriptive power and repertoire of responses are unequal to the actual human situation. The old tradition declaims its absolutes and real men and women deal with the nuances of their individual situations.
    A new tradition of marriage acknowledges the quantum nature of life. It sees life's basic relationships taking place between individuals. Yes, they have responsibilities to each other and to their issue, if any. But yes, they are still individuals. A new tradition brings the nuances to the forefront, acknowledging that the real history of men and women, their intimate history, is always vastly richer than the absolutes the old tradition posits.
    Most of all, a new tradition makes modest claims, not sweeping ones. It recognizes that many of the problems we face in life are wicked, as Horst Rittel called them: they can be resolved, but the solutions are ad hoc and provisional. One could say they are time- and context-bound. A new tradition brings this forward. It seeks a better understanding of how life works. It's more interested in narratives, individual histories, than absolutes.
    This points to the necessity of consciously setting aside whatever properly belongs to the past. The grudges that we hold, the slights and betrayals that we count against others, are really and truly our baggage, artifacts of memory. They can become objects of identity, I suppose, but this puts the brakes on our own unfolding. We owe it our selves, our individuality, to acknowledge this and set these burdens down. To put this another way, we owe to the present an ability to be present within it, to be open to what unfolds and able to respond with immediacy. To live otherwise is to be prejudiced, and experience suggests that prejudices are seldom warranted.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Coda 4: Paths

I've used the word territory elsewhere in this essay. The word trajectory also comes to mind, but path to me combines the idea of movement through time with the idea of the different territories we inhabit. Path suggests the threads or strands of our individual lives, which seem separate but are often linked in certain ways - overlapping people and places, for example, that may cause our individual paths to converge or diverge.
    We are born into territories, like that of our family, but we take up our paths individually. Paths may be or may appear unavoidable, but there still seems to be an element of volition to them. In their positive sense, paths are voluntarily taken up. They may involve vows of marriage or friendship, or of "voluntary suffering" (in George Gurdjieff's phrase).
    Like a path through unexplored terrain, the paths we take up in life may not take us where we expected. It is tempting to label "false," a "dead end," a path which leaves us "nowhere," but life proves the contrary often enough that I resist this terminology. Paths aren't linear. They're more like streams that sometimes disappear, only to surface later in a different form. Other paths are like rivers, always visible even if their nature constantly changes. All of them are part of our life's terrain.
    Buddhism asserts the connectedness of all things. It suggests never to abandon anyone. It also suggests how paths intersect as life unfolds. The process seems accidental, but may not be. When I look back at my own life, how it unfolded makes sense in retrospective. This may be what Nassim Taleb calls the "narrative fallacy," our human trait to reconstruct our life so it adds up. Yet this narrative reflects what we see. Except in the very broadest sense, it lacks predictive power. (Pace Taleb. He sees life as a sea of randomness, and humans as blind to it. My "very broadest sense" reflects what we're prepared emotionally to stake our life on. I think Taleb would agree with this. Very few things qualify.)
    The Soto Zen essayist Kocho Uchimaya says that when we die, our world dies with us. I'm not sure (to paraphrase the Buddha). There's an aspect of destiny visible to me in my own life when I look back at it. Sometimes I think of it as a cycle of plays in which the parts are divvied up among the same company. The actors looks familiar, but the roles they play differ. Perhaps karma relates to this, and the part we're assigned reflects and answers the previous play or plays, even as it is played out in real time, a different story.
    Paths are not predestined, but we find them and take them up with some sense of being properly on them, some sense of recognition or intuition of their rightness. This is an inexact science, to say the least. Life doesn't come with an instruction book. We read the signs as best we can. We do our best to walk a path we've taken up, although our best may fall woefully short of what a path demands of us.
    When a path involves a vow, the vow is properly a vow to persevere. This is equally true in marriage and in friendship. To persevere means, in a formal sense, to continue regardless. It doesn't mean to insist on the features of the path or the constant presence of another on it. A path is always an individual path, even the path of a marriage. Sometimes we find ourselves on it together is how I look at it. This is why I suggest relegating to family the issue and material effects that accompany most marriages. A family is a territory.

Thesis 5: The importance of friendship

My fifth thesis is that friendship is the other core human relationship, on a par with marriage and potentially its complement.

The factors that lead us to marry are many and varied, so it is difficult to generalize. In my own experience, the attraction between the marriage partners obscures their differences. They then spend considerable time dealing with this. The book editor Elizabeth Snowden told me once that she felt that the first four years of marriage or its domestic prelude, sharing a household and daily existence, are spent sorting this out.
    My sense is that beneath that sorting out are deeper differences that can't be fully sorted. For the marriage to continue, there has to be an accommodation. Beyond this is whatever the marriage partners cannot or will not provide each other. Part of the ripening of a marriage is often the desire for a fuller life. Individuality asserts itself, and with this comes the impulse to transcend the marriage - in effect, to enlarge it.
    Part of the initial sorting out early in a marriage is the sorting out of friends. Their claims are examined and their relative compatibility with both partners examined. Some friends survive this vetting and others fall away. The friendships that are made in later life may revive the past or arise anew, but they reflect a truly individual preference.
    Friendship becomes important because it's part of the territory the individual is exploring and extending - the territory of the self. The friends one makes there may be exclusive to it or they may come to relate to the marriage, too - this cannot be said in advance. What is possible to say is that the marriage can be enriched by friendship and vice versa. For this to happen, the territory of individuality has to be respected.
    The other partner may envy or regret the friendship, because it speaks to differences between the married couple. One cannot be what one is not. Yet friendship makes a different point: we are who we are. This applies to the marriage, too.
    Friendship is not a familial tie, although it may become one. The friend of one or the other partner may become the friend of the couple and the family, or may simply be the particular friend of one individual, ideally accepted and respected as such, but not part of the larger circle. Each couple, each family, and each friendship has to work this out for itself.
    What makes friendship a core human relationship is its tie to our individuality. Friendships arise, in the end, because self-fulfillment is part of our makeup. As we get older, this aspect of our humanity comes forward. We may find it entirely in activities, but friends often figure. At this stage in life, a friendship can be profound. Among friendship, marriage, and family, the love and closeness we feel is different in each case. Each has its claims, but of the three, friendship is the least encumbered. It has no dynastic ambitions. Two friends may end up sharing certain things, like a correspondence. They may even end up living together. Still, there's a difference. The heart of it, to me, is the willingness to take the other straight up.

Thesis 4: Marriage anew

My fourth thesis is that marriage needs to develop a new tradition that acknowledges its familial and dynastic aspects, its potentially long-lived nature, and its periods of vulnerability and dependence.

Much of this thesis has been anticipated in the previous discussion. Here, I want to consider the new tradition itself. Marriages evolve and the couple gets older. In the child-bearing years, the presence of dependent children makes the couple more dependent on each other. This dependence resurfaces if one or the other partner becomes seriously ill. Any new tradition should acknowledge this.
    Earlier in this essay, I revised the marriage vow, as follows: Marriage is a commitment to treat as family the issue and estate, however acquired. To this I would add that marriage is a commitment to treat one's partner as family, whatever else may happen. There are instances - I've seen them in my own extended family - of long-divorced couples reuniting around an illness, because the sick person is the parent of the children and often has no one else.
    Marriage is family, as I've asserted. The partners have a continuing obligation to each other. This may not be true in every instance, but even without children, longevity creates familial ties. As I write this, I can think of many exceptions - individuals who want nothing to do with an ex-partner and the ex-partner's family. That's fine. Do what you will. This is an ideal statement of a new tradition, just as the old tradition posed an ideal.
    The mutual obligations of the partners in a marriage evolve over time. As two individuals, what they owe each other versus what they owe themselves changes. A new tradition of marriage accepts and works with this. It doesn't say what to do, but acknowledges that something may need to be done.
     The nature and timing of marriage's evolution is up in the air. One partner may object. The new tradition of marriage says fine, but don't point to tradition to back you up. You knew going in that this might happen when you reach a point when mutual dependence is no longer an issue. Instead of seeing of it as an affront, see it as a time of growth.
    Marriage, as an "honorable estate," has legal meanings and involves the couple in a legal process to undo its status and redefine its obligations. Among my hopes in proposing a new tradition of marriage is to prompt discussion of this legal context. Just as the old tradition seems out of sync with the realities of modern life, the legal framework of marriage feels rooted in another era.
    If there's a pattern to the evolution of marriage, it coincides with the evolution of self, the slow or precipitous shedding of narcissism and possessiveness in favor of being, with its greater willingness to accept others as they are and allow life to unfold. Being as I understand it isn't passivity or fatalism. You still plan and daily life still has its discipline and √©lan. What's different is that you recognize life's contingent and ephemeral nature, valuing others for who they are, but not as "yours." This takes an act of will. When precipitous, this shift is like having your skin pulled off.
    Yet it is the necessary step. Being is the only way to live with life as it really is. A new tradition of marriage accepts life on its own terms. It accepts this other who is not us as part of something larger, a family, to which we both belong. 
    That identity is indelible, but this says nothing about this other belonging to us. "Until death," as the old tradition has it, is about a path we each take up. How we walk it is up to each of us. A new tradition of marriage accepts the other as an individual whose life unfolds independently from ours.
    As this implies, a new tradition of marriage needs to be open and capacious. The old tradition left this unstated - left it to each couple to negotiate the openness and deal with the marriage's evolution. The new tradition is more forthright about marriage's possible trajectories, willing to see it as a union of individuals who necessarily grow and change. It acknowledges what arises from the union - the sense or reality of family - and anticipates its importance.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Coda 3: On family

If family also needs a new tradition, what might it look like? Family is detaching itself from marriage or extending beyond it. It's worth noting this. It means that marriage in the context of this essay should be understood as any pairing that, formally or informally, acknowledges and seeks recognition as such, from each other and from others. I want to distinguish this from what Roger Fry described as a "little marriage" - his brief but intense relationship with Vanessa Bell, an innately domestic person, although iconoclastic. We might call this an affair, but Fry aptly captured the fact that it was more. And he suffered more because of it, being attached not just to her, but to the domesticity she enlivened. That domesticity pulled him psychologically into the orbit of her family, where indeed he remained, but further from its emotional heart than he desired.
    This reaches to the borders of friendship, a separate topic, but I mention it to say that the boundaries of marriage are broad, not only along the formal-informal axis, but on the brief-long axis, too. I would put the Fry-Bell "little marriage" in the friendship category, but the placement is arbitrary.
    Another trend, still being fought by the forces of reaction, is the pairing of men, of women, and of older women with younger men. Paralleling this is the decision of single women to have children, often with a gay donor who participates in the child raising, sometimes with his partner. These families are common now in urban America. They are families, that's the point, and a new tradition of family has to include them.
    Social transformation happens at the edges. Vanessa Bell, independently wealthy thanks to a devoted, tolerant husband and a legacy, lived as she wanted and had a daughter with the lover who, despite a world of differences, was her closest friend. In a way, she perfectly exemplifies the motive power of family, which held hers together despite its unorthodox arrangements. She also exemplifies the fluid boundary between love, marriage, and friendship. Artists and writers stake out this territory: Picasso, Stein. The poor and dispossessed also redefine life as they struggle to cope with it. Sometimes they resemble each other, these two categories, but the children of the poor and dispossessed, as they rise, often crave a conventional life. They reach a point where they feel they have something to lose and conventionality can help them secure it. (Maslow's hierarchy of needs is relevant here.)
    A new tradition of marriage needs to encompass the expansion of its boundaries. It needs to enable the members of the expanded family to identify themselves as such. It needs to recognize that this expanded family, too, has ties that are indelible. This isn't a simple issue - the old tradition of family maps to other concerns, like inheritance, in its aristocratic and bourgeois manifestations. This migrated to rights and responsibilities, especially in the era of no-fault divorce. The new tradition would grant a kind of indelibility to the new range of familial relationships, absent issues like abuse that require judicial intervention. In the end, the rights and responsibilities may end up being defined across this larger collectivity, the expanded family.
    Because this overlaps the legal apparatus that's grown up around the family, I run the risk of seeming idealistic and unrealistic. When I look at my own limited experience with family situations that challenged convention, I would say that what was crucial to a good outcome was the shared desire for it. That desire led the individuals involved to set aside their theoretical prerogatives and consider the outcome. And because of this - because of the familial love that each person felt toward the one most at risk - that one now has an expanded family to draw on and identifies with all of it. There were formal agreements behind this, but in the end they never really figured. Would it have been different if those agreements had never been formalized? I'm not sure, but I don't think so.
    Not every marriage has offspring, but dependencies arise. For example, a partner gets sick or lapses into senescence. These are situations that tax the resources of any individual. A new tradition of family would both recognize the idea of collective responsibility and tie it to a social safety net that came into play with certain triggering events. For an advanced country, we are shockingly stupid in the way we provide supports, rarely doing so when they're actually needed. This is perverse. As a country, we are lucky to have a positive birthrate. Alone of the developed countries, we're still adding population and the ratio of young to old here isn't yet disastrously out of whack. Our support system is tied to individual families and to organizations like churches. That's not sufficient. Moreover, it runs the risk that public support will be increasingly shaped by agendas opposed to "non-traditional" families and women's rights, either because the government channels support through them or because it defaults to them entirely.
    A new tradition of family needs to cut the family loose from every organization that's ever tried to kidnap it for political or religious reasons (which is often the same thing). It needs to reassert the underlying realities of human life and gear public support accordingly, sharing responsibility across a larger community of which the family is part. The key phrase here is "sharing responsibility" - not the handing over of responsibility, but acknowledgement that sometimes our human resources aren't enough. That's when families fall apart, with huge social costs. A new tradition of family would focus on this.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Thesis 3: Marriage's need for freedom

My third thesis is that the acceptance of marriage's dynastic purpose is aided rather than subverted by the freedom afforded to its parties, but the aid this freedom brings has its moment and needs considerable maturity to understand and act on sensibly.

So far, I've used the word familial to describe what married love becomes when personal love is transmuted or transcended by the family's pull. To the extent that families will, consciously or unconsciously, seek their perpetuation, familial love is tied up in what tradition knows as its dynastic purpose. And while this seems like the stuff of aristocracies of one kind or another, families are nonetheless engaged in it to the extent that they look to their future as a family, concerning themselves with their children's and their children's children's lives, wishing for and often working for their success.
    Accepting the dynastic purpose of marriage is a logical development of familial love. The family provides a context for the marriage, and the marriage partners start to see themselves as an intrinsic part of it. Ultimately, they end up as the elders. If they've earned it, they're respected and sought out as guides by the younger generation. There's often property and other assets to be considered. Some families are like businesses: the elders look for successors, if they can find them, to carry it on.
    (Let me be clear that what I'm describing is one pattern out of many. Not every married couple even thinks of itself as a family. Not every married person wants to "get past" his or her initial desire for a purely personal relationship with another. Indeed, this transition can be difficult and even a disaster. Yet it happens. Yet it can look differently from the other side, more like a breaking through than a breaking down. My theses aren't meant to be deterministic, but to describe patterns and draw their possible implications. Thesis may be the wrong word, but let's go with it for now.)
    Accepting the dynastic purpose of marriage makes the family more valuable. Whatever tensions exist between the married couple, they have more incentive to resolve them. This can be taken in several ways. Tradition argues for hierarchy: family first, often with one or the other partner "in command." Despite the lip service paid to modernity, this model persists. In its modern form, the family is invoked to stifle dissent.
    To me, this is not a modern marriage. It's the traditional model trying to cope with modernity. A modern marriage accepts that its partners are individuals, with their own lives. It acknowledges the love - personal and familial - that each brings to the marriage, but recognizes that love can take many different forms. When a modern marriage accepts the dynastic purpose of marriage, it commits itself to perpetuating the family. How it does so is not and cannot be wholly predetermined. Tradition is often of little use when a couple faces a crisis that tradition suggests should end the marriage.
    It's like the difference between the Decalogue, with its moral absolutes, and the Buddhist precepts, which focus on state of mind and not causing harm. There are times in a marriage when for practical reasons the partners are almost totally dependent on each other. If the marriage vow has its reasons, these are them. Our responsibilities to offspring are similar, but we recognize that there's a point when we have to let go.
    A modern marriage is open ended about the means but less so about the ends. To put this another way, quoting the I Ching, it seeks "an end that endures." Not ends that can be foreseen in any detail, but with a hope for the family that is like that of a gardener, considering not just the next season, but the future of the garden itself. There's an element of cultivation to it.
    That this hope may be pointless in the grander scheme of things, life's ephemerality, means little to families of cultivators. There's an element of stewardship to them, a sense of connection to an enterprise that predates them, often by a considerable amount, and on this basis alone posits their future. I can trace part of my family by individual names back to 1620, and its previous history can be inferred to its arrival in Parma early in the previous century. Within my family history, my "dynasty," are the individuals involved - the personal histories. Modern marriage accepts that individuals matter and looks for ways to enable them to live as fully as they can. The individual freedom that this implies carries risks; modern marriage accepts that they're worth taking.
    The stretching out of life means that modern marriage has more incentive to do this than traditional marriage did. The freedom to live fully becomes more important as one grows older. The truism that "youth is wasted on the young" seems true in that there's a ripening in human life. That ripeness pervades individual experience. Its actual potential is to enrich the marriage, but this is not always apparent at the outset.
    Tradition, Friedrich Hayek noted, is "received wisdom," evolutionary lore. The way society is set up, its norms and laws, are not "designed," he says, but handed down. This is "common law" as I understand it. It follows that traditions evolve. They're part of unfolding life. As Thoreau pointed out, they have their limits and there are times when we have to disregard them. Slavery is tradition, too, and today, no one defends it.
    In writing this out, I see that a new tradition of family may need to accompany new traditions of marriage and friendship. The modern family is itself being redefined even as I write this. The dynastic purpose of marriage isn't applicable to every family that considers itself one. I would guess, though, that cultivators can be found in all of them.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Coda 2: Time

I owe to Robert Grudin the idea of time as a crucial dimension in human affairs. Not that this is original to him, but his book Time & the Art of Living sets it out especially well. I want to also acknowledge a debt to Stephen Batchelor's Alone with Others.
Everyday time is ordinary time. It has dimension, but its boundaries are both contained and amorphous. It has its plans and deadlines. It's also where work happens, where we practice. We don't always or often practice with any larger sense of time in mind. When we're young, others do this for us, urging us forward in the name of where we might end up. This is closer to evolutionary time, in which our genetic makeup plays a similar role. Evolutionary time plays out in cycles, so its horizons are in a way infinite. Hence being's chain, a linked series of events that repeat a sequence in roughly the same way.
    As individuals, we're born into both types of time. The everyday gives us glimpses of evolution's cycle. (In this sense, the Buddha's secular story of being protected from it rings false. You don't need to leave your palace to see time's effects. Pets are often our earliest experience of it, but every household also has its illnesses. Everybody ages. So it seems more likely to me that he left his household and marriage in an effort to solve the apparent dilemmas of existence on his own, a spirit quest that brought him back to their radical acceptance and the establishment of another family, larger, rooted in being.)
    "Just sit." This is Dogen's famous summary of Zen. Sitting is placing yourself in life, within all of time's dimensions - the ordinary, time you can measure and count, and the evolutionary, geological, cosmological, time that moves steadily beyond our lived experience. We see and slowly grasp these latter dimensions of time by their traces and artifacts, but intuitively we experience them as a cycle or chain, a learned sequence, a set of theories, a mystery. Our persistent belief in a parallel world of spirits, of reincarnation or the hereafter, reflects the oddity of being adrift in a world in which this unknowable force works invisibly and relentlessly. "Just sit" acknowledges that as life unfolds, we unfold with it. We are part of life, not separate from it.
    When the Buddha became enlightened, he noted that every blade of grass was enlightened, too. I take this to mean that he saw that the entire universe, including himself, unfolds. Can time run backward as well as forward? I have no idea, but the analogy to a river, to water that finds its way no matter what, seems apt. The mystic George Gurdjieff talked of shifting streams in order to make the soul immortal. He called time "the merciless" and said our souls had to acquire a coating in order to avoid its ravages. The Buddha also spoke of taking our selves out of time, an ending that ends the unfolding.
    Yet the Buddha added that no one knows what lies beyond visible life, and in any case this isn't our problem. What troubles us is the fact of our ephemeral individuality, living in time as we are. We are haunted by our ephemerality. "Work as if immortal": this maxim, coined by E.M. Forster, was taken up by Christopher Isherwood, a writer with a guru. I interpret it to mean, "suspend time as a factor in order to taste something of time's expansiveness and fill your sails with its beneficial wind." Ordinary time is a place of such immediacy that it can blind us to this if we're not careful. School and work both structure ordinary time so that, without really thinking about it, we accomplish a lot. 
    Part of the power of organizations is to recognize these accomplishments and move us along, an escalator that can take us beyond our actual capacities, "promoted above our station." Without a critical sense, we can get on this treadmill and lose ourselves entirely in the everyday. The way that men with consuming careers act in retirement, racing to pick up lost threads, attempting to continue as they were, or simply falling apart as they finally realize their predicament, points to the dangers. We don't teach how to live with time in the same way that we don't teach how to live with death.
    Death is "out there" unless we understand along the way that time will drown us. "I had a good ride," many men say as they slip under. That part at least is granted them. But my "drown" is not quite right. "Just sit" invites us to contemplate how we fit. It also invites us to wonder at the sheer expanse of life, to take seriously every aspect of it. Zen practice is more than just sitting - it's living consciously in ordinary time. Zen practice is a vow to be aware - aware of what connects everything, of the fact that we're all just passing through, time-travelers all. Compassion and responsibility start here. 

Thesis 2: Marriage's transitions

My second thesis is that marriage passes through what Zen Buddhism calls gates or barriers. One of these is the transition from personal to familial love.

Behind this is the Buddhist notion of practice. Gates and barriers in Zen parlance are not markers of progress, but of a depth of exploration of the same phenomenon, so to speak. Love, marriage, and friendship are practices, too. Family is one of their contexts.
    When I first arrived at this thesis, I was thinking quite literally of the birth of my oldest son, a remarkable event that even now I can remember vividly. Birth reminds you that we are a species, part of the "great chain of being." It places us in the timeframe of evolution, faster moving than geological time, for example, but also subject to time's riverlike shaping. My son stared at us and we at him, meeting for the first time in one of life's sacramental moments. In this respect, acts of lovemaking are like the collisions of galaxies, each bringing a unique but overlapping ancestry, conjoined at the heart.
    Marriage exists in everyday time and evolutionary time. The family is both a socio-economic unit and an evolutionary unfolding, dynastic and genetic. Against this background, the partners in a marriage work through their own and their shared desires, dilemmas, and frustrations. They acquiesce and they rebel. They age. Life unfolds and the marriage experiences the stresses and strains characteristic of our situations. Many of these are age-old. Sometimes they break us, break the marriage, break the family.
    But the family can also be a refuge. Families are typically more accepting, between the generations and among siblings, than the partners in a marriage may be in the midst of its stresses and strains. The family in this sense provides both a reason to keep the marriage going and a model for how to do so. What families exhibit - familial love - is more likely to forgive, more likely to be unconditional and accepting, more likely to see ruptures as an aberration, a product of ego rather than of nature.
    Behind this is a consciousness of evolutionary time that becomes clearer as we get older. We begin to understand that our own life has threads, that "heaping up small acts," as both the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching put it - continual modest effort, may get us further than repeated acts of "reinvention." Time is the unseen dimension in life, but families can bring it into higher relief. One of the purposes of marriage is to bring us out of ourselves - something that work, for example, only partly accomplishes.
    Behind this, too, is individual ripening, the slow shedding of ego for being. The "great matter," as the Zen Buddhists call it, seems to relate to this. (I'm not an adept, so all I know is what I've read.) Familial love exemplifies being as much as having. In their dynastic aspects, families appear rooted in having, but when you scratch the surface, being is what persists - what families possess is more often the means to new ends. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Coda 1: Work

As a coda, I want to mention work - the role it plays and the attraction it has for us as an extension of, complement to, and/or substitute for the family. Directly or indirectly, work is life's other great thread, the successor to school, first of all - that other great inculcator  of discipline. And work is also the enabler of family, creating the wherewithal to achieve a measure of independence, to marry, and to support the household.
    A topic in itself, work needs to be mentioned here, not least to note the social costs of economic stagnation and exploitation. One achievement of the postwar era was to quell for a time in selected countries the terror of unemployment and put family life on sounder footing for the working and middle classes. That achievement has been undermined here and elsewhere, and family life has suffered in consequence.
    The employers of my father's young adulthood were altruistic, reflecting the sacrifices the younger generation made on their behalf. The first 15 years of the postwar era, 1945 to 1960, were a period of rebuilding, which drove economic growth and made work inherently and self-evidently valuable. In the 1960s, this fell apart. At the same time, the shadow side of the postwar era - its apparent emptiness - triggered a reaction from the next generation, which was committed foolishly to pointless "tactical" wars by its elders. Unburdened by their elders' gratefulness for having survived and prospered, and taking prosperity for granted, the 1960s generation (and its older camp-followers) turned society inside out. Billed as a revolution, it was more of an interregnum that paralleled the real one - for civil rights - that started earlier and persisted longer. That struggle played out across life: love, work, and family.
    Work lost its altruism in the 1960s, too. The social paradise narrowed and was criticized. Pundits looked to the market. Friedrich Hayek, actually an admirer of tradition, was cited along with Ayn Rand to justify dog eat dog. The era of high finance supplanted the era of manufacture in the west, Japan excepted. (Japan kept it going until 1990.) Western families began their long accommodation. Governments bought it and enabled it.
    Yet, oddly, the altruism of work rises as often as it falls. New enterprises regularly take it up, even now. That the market sometimes crushes them doesn't negate the impulse. As with the family, some organizations understand that altruism is part of a social compact that creates a bond stronger than money alone. These organizations stand out today as the exceptions. Along with the economy, a lot of its would-be prime movers are broken. Their destruction is attributed to strategic errors, market failures, and bad luck, but often it looks more like the people at the top took leave of their senses, walling off the play of opinion - the intimate tension - that is intrinsic to marriages and families.

Thesis 1: Marriage continues family

At some point, I'll turn this into a proper essay. As an experiment, I'm posting it in draft form, section by section. I'm also writing codas, which I'll post separately.

My first thesis is that marriage is the continuation of childhood and so is as wrapped up in family as it is in the desire for love that gives rise to it.
We are born into a family and it forms the context of our lives through our upbringing. We make friends and eventually we split off from our family in order to form another. But that act, if we pursue it, is also part of the family dynamic, which posits its continuation and views marriage, particularly from the standpoint of the parents, as a vehicle of generation. (Marriage is a "genetic conspiracy" between grandparents and their grandchildren.) In time, these families join up. The year's feast days still bring them together under one roof. Cousins meet and form a larger cohort. The elders age and die, but the family lives on.
    Marriage recreates the intimate tension of the family at its heart. We enter the family by passing through our mother's birth canal and then attaching ourselves to her breasts. Long before this, we take hold amid passion and make our presence felt. Once born, we relate to our mother physically. That physical intimacy, the realm of childhood, is forcibly put aside until our hormones stir and our bodies change. At that point, we may seek lovers. Not always consciously, we may want children.
    There's a hardwired aspect to this, and not everyone shares the wiring. So I should say that at a certain point, we want another (or others) with whom to share an intimate tension. Family may be both the cause and consequence of this. We do so despite the inconveniences, the unhappinesses, and even the dangers that come with it.
    For my purposes here, I'm going to set the untoward aside. Marriage in one form or another is a common feature of life, so it exhibits the full range of human behavior. There are sociopaths and psychopaths out there. A lot of family life is toxic in one way or another. This is not about that toxicity. Its sense of family is more benign than not.
    Yet the inconveniences and unhappinesses are real. And there are dangers, even among the benign. You can be messed with without anyone laying a hand on you, often with the best of intentions. Misunderstandings abound. We bring our natures with us, on arrival. Parents do their best, and then friends, lovers, and partners take their turns.
    Oddly, though - improbably - we invite this. We bring it on ourselves, throwing our ill-suited natures into unlikely combinations that nonetheless attracted us: incompatibles attract. This too is like family, which despite the bond of blood is a genetic menagerie. Perhaps instinctively, we want to mix it up. (Personally, I give destiny some credence.)
    What family has going for it is staying power. Not for nothing do cults seek to break its hold. Cults and gangs are family substitutes, but poor ones that suffice only when the real family doesn't cut it. And of course a lot of families don't. Those that do manage to transcend the self-centeredness of our species often enough to be altruistic. It's limited, as Swedenborg noted. (He condemned families for tending to restrict their kindnesses to themselves.) It's limited, but it's a start. You have to learn altruism somewhere.
    Within the family, altruism is an evolutionary tactic. Hayek contrasts the altruism of the traders' host with the xenophobia and tribalism of the family, posing it as an ancient tension only resolved in the agora, that sanctioned meeting and mixing place. These days, altruism is an evolutionary tactic in aggregate. Xenophobia and tribalism persist, but the cosmos we inhabit suffers from them. Intimate tensions at the community level have a way of exploding. The family is where we first learn how to negotiate difference.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Beginnings of an essay

Marriage, Family, and Friendship: my working title for the revival and completion of an essay, "Love & Marriage," that I started in 2001. (It also draws on another, "Buddha's Ladder," begun a few years later. Both were set aside.) This brief summary lays out my theses.
    My first thesis is that marriage is the continuation of childhood and so is as wrapped up in perpetuating family as it is in the desire for love that gave rise to it. My second thesis is that marriage passes through what the Zen Buddhists call gates or barriers, one of which is the transition from personal love to familial love. Marriage is ultimately about family. As an institution, it is intended to bridge between generations. My third thesis is that the acceptance of marriage's dynastic purpose is aided rather than subverted by the freedom afforded to its parties, but the aid this freedom brings has its moment of ripeness and needs considerable maturity to understand it and act on it sensibly. My fourth thesis is that marriage needs to develop a new tradition that reflects the previous three theses. Such a tradition would acknowledge the potentially long-lived nature of modern marriage. It would also acknowledge the periods of vulnerability in a marriage (the presence of young children, for example, or an illness), when the commitment of the partners to each other is a necessity. My fifth thesis is that friendship is also a core human relationship, on a par with marriage and family, and potentially their complement.
    My polemical goals are several. I want to lift the unendurable weight that tradition has placed on marriage by demanding that it fulfill every human need. There may be such marriages, truly self-complete, but they seem unlikely. I want to protect friendship and raise its stature, most of all between friends. I want to acknowledge the potential and even the likelihood of friendship overlapping the territory of marriage, but distinguish their claims and end their disputes. 
    To do so brings me to the sixth thesis: each one is her or his own person, not the property of any other. Marriage vows cannot negate this. Marriage should be thought of as a commitment to treat as family the issue and estate of the partners, however acquired.
    Friendships are voluntary and self-renewing. How they relate to the familial contexts of the friends, if there are such contexts, cannot be prescribed or proscribed in advance. My polemical goal with friendships is to grant them a standing and a human importance. To pursue a friendship needs to be sanctioned by the traditions of marriage, family, and friendship. It follows that there needs to be a new tradition of friendship, too, especially among the married, but also among the would-be married, who too often rigidly and foolishly draw a distinction. Hence my seventh thesis: friendship is at the center of all successful human relationships. It is the heart of our humanity. If we're lucky, we succeed in putting our marriage on the sounder foundations of family and in making a real friend of our marriage partner. That friendship at the heart of a marriage is then more likely to accept and respect other friendships. (My eighth thesis is that friendship is mutually accepting or it is not a true friendship.) 

Note: I use the word thesis here to suggest that this essay is drawing on my lived experience of the human condition and its conundrums. These are not laws or rules; life is not algorhythmic, but it has discernible patterns. There's no map, just a way in and a way out, neither very well marked.