Sunday, March 21, 2010

chess, sex, and commitment

I do not want to kiss Austin the actor. In fact, I do not want to do anything of that sort with Austin. Don't get me wrong - as men go, Austin's not a bad fish (pay attention, ladies). He is smart and funny. He is tall, broad-shouldered, talented, and I suppose one of the less sorry-looking examples of man-meat you're likely to find. He does a glamorous job and cares about truth. Even though he's on speaking terms with Phillip Morris, I like and even love him. Just not like that, because Austin is a man (I'm not attracted to men) and he is my friend.

Good friends are hard to come by, because they are generally situational. First, your life has to brush up against theirs. Then, there has to be a sparkle as you recognize that, yes, you have commonalities that might make for interesting interactions. Like how the fact that Austin likes to play chess blends perfectly with the fact that I like to beat Austin at chess. Or how the way he liked to make fun of me when we first met while working as waiters blended exceptionally well with how I've always enjoyed latching onto people who make fun of me - desperately trying to prove myself worthy of their affection.

Long-term, though, it's hard to say exactly why we or anyone else stay friends; because life's main constant is change. Austin is always talking about moving back to New York or LA, and I'm always talking about staying here in my shed in the woods and not moving to New York or LA. So as beautiful as our friendship is, it doesn't come with guarantees.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was driving an hour to pick Austin up. He'd asked me to give him a ride to his car; which for some reason was about a half-hour from where he'd been stuck (for a whole week) at his dad's house. When you're a freelance actor, you can be stuck for a week at your dad's house and nobody will say "boo."

As we were driving I mentioned this friendship stuff to Austin and admitted that I'd been thinking about the possibility of someday getting married again. He kindly suggested that I needed to stop being an idiot and thinking such thoughts at a time when I have not yet, in fact, been mailed any divorce papers. He suggested, sarcastically, that maybe it would help if he promised to be my faithful friend forever and ever amen. To which I replied, "it doesn't work that way"... which got us back to talking about marriage.

There are two things, in my opinion, that differentiate a marriage relationship from a bosom-buddyship, or even a life-long cohabitation of roomate-pals. Both of these things have been routinely, systematically dismantled by our culture, rendering marriage in our day and age practically meaningless. The first is sex.

I know someone who used to get really mad at me when I'd say that the difference between a roommate and a spouse is sex. Maybe we had different views of what sex is, but I tend to think of it as this mystical, wonderful, sacramental gift between a man and a woman (I'm a heterosexual. So shoot me.) that provides the glue for what a married relationship can be. I think of it as natural and good. I think of it as a mysterious union that is inherently tied to reproductive cycles. I think of it as an opportunity to rejoice in one's human finitude - to love oneself while simultaneously, paradoxically, self-sacrificially loving someone else. I think it was designed for that (I am a man attempting to have faith. So shoot me.) and I think that as such it is an ideal that married folks ought to fight for with everything they've got.

And fight they must, because sex is something that in our culture is marketed as anything but the above-described mystico-poeic union. It is seen as a bestial act (you and me, baby, we ain't nothin' but mammals...). It is seen as a way to sell soap, toothpaste and car wax. It is seen as a way to prove you have a penis or that you're a better man than your father or that you are the most important being on the face of the planet. It is seen as leverage in a relationship, a weapon, and a tool for career advancement. It is seen as a way of solving all your problems, getting what you want out of other people, and otherwise generally taking power and being in control.

I am not trying to be one more of "those guys" here. I am not speaking out of my position in a faith tradition and saying, "look at all those horrible, mixed-up, no-good, very-bad sex-fiends out there." My faith tradition (such as it is) has been thoroughly infected by this systematic dismantling of the significance of sex. My faith tradition also does not love or cherish sex, but rather vacillates wildly between seeing it as this dirty, bestial act that needs to be quarantined by a couple of rings and a piece of paper, and seeing it as exactly the sort of selfish idiocy I've just been describing.

A sixteen-year-old high-schooler who is very much an active and participating member of my faith tradition recently defended to me her practice of regularly "hooking up" (in this case, defined as heavily making out with an assortment of guys to whom she is not committed in any way) as being, and I quote, "necessary". "We have needs," she insisted, "we can't just ignore them." When her fifteen-year-old best friend grunted a half-disapproval, she argued that in her opinion it was better than what she'd done, which was to cheat on her pot-head boyfriend by making out with some other random guy. The thing is, these girls don't think of what they are doing as sex (it is).

I am not bringing that up to bemoan the state of our kids today. We made this bed, and we sure as condiments are going to lie in it. We taught them to think this way with our own warped attitudes towards sex, and it's no fair whining that we were just parroting our parents. Just as I expect a teenage girl to take responsibility for her own decisions, so too do I expect the same of myself. My attitudes towards sexuality are warped and wonky, and I have made them worse by following the paths of least resistance, choosing a quick-lift and a responsibility-free mind-party over the difficult, often arduous path of really loving women the way (I firmly believe) they desperately want and need to be loved.

Sex isn't all there is that separates marriage from a lifelong chess-arch-rivalry with my friend Austin, though.

There is also the part implied by that whole "reproductive cycles" thing, and that is commitment to marriage as an institution. This ideal has likewise been systematically dismantled in a culture that in every possible way has actively sabotaged it, ultimately bringing us to a place where marriage is nothing more than another form of marketing - a way to make an average of eighteen thousand dollars (last I heard) off of a whole lot of frippery on an event that is billed as "the most important day of your life", but which is really just another excuse to participate in the grand consumerist frenzy that is savagely strip-mining our planet and our souls. A grandiose statement, I know... but possibly, I think, true. The most important day of your life is always TODAY.

It isn't my purpose here to attack weddings, though. Despite my aversion to their scale, I do believe the extravagance of weddings proceeds from a noble desire to celebrate a big, big thing... entry into a life-long relationship. It is the sort of relationship in which I in faith balance my feelings and my desires and my ambitions against those of another person. In this relationship I choose to die to myself a little each day and come alive to the possibilities that a life together can bring. In a sense, I don't even marry another person - I marry a belief that together we can make something that is bigger than the both of us. We can make a community (and, possibly, a family) out of faith in the value of that relationship. We can do this with the power of commitment, regardless of how we might feel on any one of the "most important day of our lives". Or week of days. Or year.

You may now leave in a huff. But if you don't, know that I am desperately trying not to be the sort of person who advocates for structures and institutions over people. Neither am I trying to rant and rail about what has happened to me - to pick a literary battle with an unarmed person over the death of my own marriage. As I look back with bemused sorrow at my somewhat tragic life, I can see countless ways in which I have personally, actively sabotaged myself both in terms of sexuality and commitment. But beauty can come from ashes. It doesn't have to be this way.

Where do I end? How do I tie this all up in a way that neatifizes things and leaves everyone all warm and glowing? I don't think I do. It's a broken world and we are in it. Somehow, though, in the midst of all our brokenness and the destruction we've wreaked on ourselves with our blind acceptance of a warped sexuality and a selfish betrayal of the ideals of commitment and community, I think we can begin to make tiny little choices and weave back together the strands of what we have so savagely torn. I find it very, very hard to have enough faith to do that right now. My default position is to believe that all this dismantling has left marriage irreparably broken.

Faith, however, is the evidence of things that I hope for but just cannot for the life of me see. Let men and women be re-made in their joinings and, God-as-my-witness-and-aid, let it begin in me.

4 comments:

  1. Well said Josh. I enjoy your writing.

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  2. Thanks, Ryan. I enjoy writing it, so that makes two of us :)

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  3. hey josh. it's me brooke. jes reimer introduced me to your writing and art a while ago. your offerings are beautiful and inspiring.
    i have a few things to say...first, you're brilliant (i bet that's hard for you most of the time but really great once in a while). second, i have a very reliable bullshit detector and i'd like you to know it hasn't gone off even once while reading your posts. i mean, i can sense how genuine you are and it's refreshing. lastly, i sure hope you won't mind me saying, but i'm familiar with the sort of dis-satisfaction that plagues your heart and mind. it makes you different than a lot of other people but i imagine it also makes you sharp as a tack. as you search for peace and clarity don't wish away the anguish....it's a powerful muse.

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  4. Thanks, Brooke. I wish I WAS brilliant. Sick of using coal-based energy to light my house.

    I think that probably the reason I haven't been setting off bullshit alarms is that I have finally had it all kicked out of me :) I am oddly very, very grateful for that.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

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