Richard R. Crocker
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
April 21, 2013
Last week I spoke about kindness as a chief component of a good life. This week I want to talk about a related virtue, an essential part of the good life, which is love, and especially marriage. Love is an essential part of the good life – perhaps the essential part, and marriage is one of its truest expressions.
I mentioned last week that, during my forty years as a chaplain/teacher/dean/counselor, I have frequently been asked what one should look for in a life partner. I replied “kindness.” One of you accosted me after chapel and expressed amazement that I had been asked that question at all, much less that I had been asked it frequently. This person stated that such a question (about choosing life partner) was not on the minds of college students during this generation.
Hmmm, I thought. Maybe things have changed. It is certainly true that I do not perform as many weddings as I used to. It is also true that dating is almost taboo in college these days, while “hooking up’ seems to have been normalized. Nevertheless, I stand by my assertion, slightly revised, to say that, during the forty years of my ministry, thoughtful young people have often asked me what quality they should look for in choosing a life partner, and I stand by the answer: Kindness. Beauty, brains, and wealth are appealing but not enduring, while the character trait of kindness is the key to a happy relationship.
Recently Susan Paton, a 1977 graduate of Princeton and the mother of two current Princeton students, created quite a stir by her article in the Princeton newspaper telling Princeton women that one of the chief parts of their Princeton education should be choosing a mate. She wrote: “You will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who will be worthy of you.” This argument has drawn understandable criticism from many – but it is still true, isn’t it, that many of us do find our life partners during the college years.
I thought I should begin this meditation by going back to the beginning, to the Garden of Eden, when, according to the story, God created Adam (man), and then, seeing Adam’s essential loneliness, created Eve (woman) by taking a rib from the man and making a woman. Now, please remember that this is a story – a profound and important story, but a story. It is not history and not biology. Those who literalize the story are missing the point. I remember that when I learned this story as a child in Sunday school I was told that someone (a woman), somewhere in the world had my rib, and it was my task to find her. This was not helpful. But the essential point is profoundly true, because this story gives us the best definition of love that I know. It is this: love is a connection that alleviates loneliness.
A connection that alleviates loneliness. The ancient story in Genesis says that God first brought all the animals to Adam to see what he would name them. That is cute, but also profound, because, for many people, their connection to a pet, to an animal, is their chief antidote to loneliness. Some people love their pets more than they love anything or anyone else. This is true. But the story says that connections with animals were not enough for Adam. He needed another human connection, an intimacy so profound that the two shared their very nature. And so Eve was created from Adam’s own flesh, as a true companion, the essential companion, to alleviate loneliness. Now I am aware that this story is offensive to some people, but it is the story, and its essential point is profound. There is no feeling so miserable as loneliness. Remember how you felt when you first arrived at Dartmouth? Remember how desperately you sought friends, or at least a friend? And then remember how much better you felt when you found one? Remember, even now, how difficult it is for some people to go to commons unless they know they will find someone there to eat with?
Friends are important to the good life. Indeed they are. But even if we make life-long friends, they will not be with us every moment. They will not share our daily successes and failure. They will be integral parts of our family on a daily and perpetual basis. They will go their way and we will go ours. We will not share our lives completely.
So most of us desire and need a lifepartner --- not a one night stand. Sex is the biological drive that fuels our search, but it is only the fuel, not the essence. And so it is that marriage has evolved as the relationship in society that many people find essential to the good life.
I say many, not all. Let us be aware that the forms of marriage have been varied. Plural marriage was common in the ancient world, and serial monogamy is common in the present one. Marriage between a man and a woman has been, in the western tradition, the only legitimate form of marriage for millennia, but same-sex life-long partnerships, though not always recognized, have always existed. Now, in our society, many more people recognize that same-sex relationships can have the same sacred legitimacy as heterosexual ones, but this reality is very disturbing to some people who are more traditional in their ideas. They sometimes cite the Genesis story: you have heard them say, I am sure: God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. And they point to the words of Jesus himself, when he said, in reply to a question about whether divorce is permitted: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:3-6)
This passage both reflects and establishes a very traditional view of marriage. But note that Jesus used the words in relation to a question about divorce. Just as we have come to understand that divorce is sometimes necessary (though always painful), so we may also say that the gender specificity in Jesus‘ words is not the main point; rather, the devoted union of two human beings is.
What can I say to you about this? My voice is only one of many. The Christian church is quite divided on questions of gender, but I hope that it is united in its understanding of God’s love. I can only say this: Love is the connection that alleviates loneliness. Most of us seek and need a human connection that will endure for our whole life-long, and that will include, for many, the nurture of children. Such a relationship, when it is founded upon mutual kindness, and directed toward increasing the amount of kindness in the world, is one of the greatest blessings of a good life.