Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Life in an Institution

They should never have gotten married. And fortunately, they didn’t. When they broke up and eventually found other people better suited to each of them, congratulatory telegrams came in from all over the world.

Well…not quite. However, their friends and family members did finally express the opinions that they had kept mum about during the years that the two of them had been seeing each other. You know…“He seemed like a nice enough person, but not quite right for you.” Or, “I didn’t say anything because you seemed happy at the time, but really, this new person is sooo much better for you than she was.” And of course, there were the friends who saw the problems from the start and tried to warn one or both of them, only to have their warnings fall upon deaf ears…these people who have worked hard not to say “I told you so,” but have waited for the people involved to come back and admit that they should’ve listened, but were blinded by love…or hormones…or both.

But what if they had gotten married? What would life had been like then?

Well, my money is on them both realizing that they’d made a horrible mistake within five years. However, while my money is on them realizing that they’d made a mistake, my money is not necessarily on them getting a divorce. Nah…my money’s on them staying together for the long haul out of spite.

Now when I say this, I don’t mean that they’d stay married out of sheer spite for each other. I mean that they’d stay married out of spite for all the people who thought that their marriage was a bad idea in the first place. They’d stay married just to prove that they could do it. One of them might even say that they’d stay married in principle, “out of respect for the institution.”

Notice that at no time did I suggest that they were staying married because they cared that much for each other and thought that they could and should work things out for each other’s sake. No…it’s not about the other person involved, it’s about the institution; and I believe it was Groucho Marx who said that marriage is a wonderful institution…if you want to live in an institution.

Now despite what Jesus may have said to the two Pharisees when he was asked about divorce in the Gospel of Mark (which may not have been the answer to the question we tend to think it was) [1], ancient Jewish law was quite understanding about the fact that sometimes things don’t work out between people as they had hoped, and this is reflected in the tradition that said that the empty shell of a marriage should not be allowed…or forced…to continue. In fact, quite the contrary from other cultures, the Jews believed that marriage was not something to be endured, but to be enjoyed. It was to be a gift, a blessing, to both parties. But when that blessing turned into a curse, they believed that dissolving the marriage was the lesser of two evils.

Did you hear that? Dissolving the marriage…for the sake of the other person…was the lesser of two evils. This implies that the person is more important than the institution. Or to paraphrase something else Jesus once said, the institution was made for the people, and not people for the institution.

So what does this say about my friends who mercifully didn’t get married?

It says that their refusal to consider divorce after they realized that they’d made a terrible mistake would’ve been more about their own pride of being able to say that they stuck it out in the rotting shell of a dead marriage, than about caring for each other by doing the kindest thing for everyone, and dissolving it.

And yes, I realize that there are those whose religious convictions maintain that they must endure…but I maintain that those same convictions wrongly put the institution ahead of the two people trapped in it.

We all know people like this…who put Herculean effort into trying to keep together something that is dying or dead, for the sake of “the institution” rather than the other person, and it’s extremely painful to be around these people, lurching around in this rotting carcass that they can’t bring themselves to bury.

But sometimes you do have to bury it. Sometimes you do have to admit that it’s dead. And sometimes the kindest thing is to walk away, rather than to stubbornly try to give CPR to a rock.

Yes…marriage can be a wonderful institution, but when it’s not, we need to put the people in it ahead of the institution.

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