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.

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