Jun 10, 2014

A Vocational Approach to Saying “Yes”

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

One of my eight-year-old students once asked me why I wasn’t married. “All you have to do,” she explained, “is to find a man who likes you a lot and be really nice to him.” The funny thing is that during that same school year, a long-time (male) family friend began calling me on the phone to chat. Apparently I was suitably nice to him, because by spring break he proposed. I said yes. We picked out a lovely ring. By the end of the summer, we were married (since then we have advised marriage to everyone we know, if they can possibly manage it—marriage is awesome).

Yet when a Lutheran woman is offered a shiny little diamond by a man who likes her a lot, she is suddenly forced to realize how different her understanding of Christian decision-making is from that of the world around her. Both the evangelicals and the secularists of our culture treat the “marriage decision” with mysticism. Despite (or because of) rampant divorce, we often treat marriage as some kind of civil holy rite, as a mythological meeting of “soulmates,” as if the key to a happy marriage is somehow having the incredible luck to find the one true person (out of the billions on this planet) for oneself. We construct odd systems of morality in which only passionate emotions are a respectable reason for marriage. Marriage is often treated as a fluffy, pink, emotional yet eternal decision that is like no other.

If I had been an evangelical, I might have waited to accept the ring until I felt that God was directly telling me to do so. If I were a mainstream secularist, I might have taken the ring and figured that I could always back out later if my prince grew clay feet. The tough thing about being Lutheran is that you believe marriage is till-death-us-do-part and yet you don’t think that you can count on God to pick out your spouse for you. Instead, you realize that God has given you the freedom to use the wits he provides, to pray, to seek wise advice, and then (by His grace) to stand by whatever decision you make.

When the responsibility for choosing a life-partner rests on one’s shoulders, the weight can be a little unnerving. To misquote J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, “Forever is an awfully long time.” There may be some women who walk on clouds from the moment of the proposal, filled with blissful confidence that their true prince has found them, but most of us are earthier creatures with a bit of mud on our shoes. We are down here among the begonias where we can see our beloved’s flaws. At times, we wonder if this is the right path to take, and whether he is really the right man for forever. And the minute that one wonders such things, one can’t help wondering if the fact of wondering proves that one should be further wondering (ahem) if wondering is a bad sign.

I think that the popular concept of marriage is quite paralyzing, because how can one ever truly know that one has found the absolutely perfect person? What if one marries the wrong one? What if one’s soulmate actually lives in Siberia? In contrast, thinking of marriage as a big but ordinary decision helped calm my fiancé and me down. We spent a lot of time talking about decision making. We realized that for us, the key was to be self-aware. We needed to know if we were merely suffering nerves, or really beset by doubts. We agreed that nerves are inevitable to any big decision, but that doubts should be treated as speed bumps and maybe even “no entrance” signs. We found the following questions very useful.

Am I nervous about marriage because it is a big commitment, or am I nervous about marrying this person?

Both of us felt that the commitment of marriage itself was so big, so exciting, and so all-encompassing that it made our decision solemn and a little bit terrifying. Yet we were not worried about marrying each other. I trusted my fiancé. I knew that he would do his best. I knew that we would both work through our future conflicts instead of avoiding them.  

When I make other big decisions in my life, do I feel jitters about those, too, or am I usually confident about my choices?

We both agreed that we tend to stress over decisions and to experience moments of self-doubt (“should I really move cross-country / major in this subject / buy the blue sweater instead of the red one?”). For our personalities, moments of nervous self-examination are par for the course, and thus not a red flag of warning. If we had experienced far more uneasiness than was usual for other decisions, we would have been more worried. Knowing ourselves helped us to ask the right questions and to reject the wrong ones. For instance, it is often said that you should never marry someone until you’ve had a few fights with him, so that you can see if the two of you have compatible methods of handling disagreement. My fiancé and I never had a fight, a quarrel, or even an argument. We laughed about the possibility of staging a conflict just for the sake of resolving it, but that didn’t seem like playing by the rules. The thing is, though, neither of us has even mildly combative personalities, and we share so many beliefs that any fights would have been about such trivial things that it would have been hard to muster any anger or fighting stamina. Because of our long, pre-romance history together, we knew that our mutual amiability was genuine and not just the result of romantic attraction. We knew ourselves well enough to focus on talking extensively and building good communication patterns instead of prolonging our engagement until we could muster up a good fight.  

Since the days of my engagement, I have been asked whether it is normal to suffer from nerves before one’s wedding. It is. In fact, marriage is so large a thing that it would be a bad sign not to feel any uneasiness at the prospect of trying it. The degree of concern that a prospective bride should feel varies with her personality. Too much might indicate that something really is wrong with her decision. Too much might suggest that she is trying to ignore problems in her man simply because she wants the white dress, the married life, or other blessings of marriage. It is important for every bride, but perhaps especially us Lutherans, to honestly examine ourselves before marriage as we decide whether or not to accept a proffered ring.

Marriage really is an awesome gift of God, and I encourage others to seek it out. It is worth all the stress of such a decision. Being Lutheran may make saying “yes” harder in one way, but it also makes it easier. Instead of asking myself whether my fiancé was the prince who would serve and make me happy forever, whether he was my soulmate come to me on a fluffy pink cloud, I could ask something different. I could ask whether I was ready to enter into the vocation of trying to help and care for him. I could ask whether I was willing to commit to that vocation until death parts us. This question is liberating. I cannot control what he is or what he does, but I can ask God for the strength to be and do what I ought. I will need daily forgiveness when I fail, but what’s new about that? God may not have promised to tell us whom to marry, but He does promise to hear our prayers and to work through our weakness. He blesses the gift of marriage and he doesn’t require pink clouds to do so.

P.S. My husband found this cartoon on the subject rather amusing (note: earthy language). No, it doesn't symbolize his feelings on the day of our wedding!




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Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados.



Title Image: "Proposal" by John Pettie

4 comments:

  1. Excellent!! Thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lovely! I will be passing this along.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hamlette (https://www.blogger.com/profile/11961916847426233995) posted this comment, and I inadvertently deleted it by pressing the wrong thing on my phone. I am copy/pasting here.

    "When I was contemplating marriage, and those "is this the right person?" thoughts were running through my head, oddly enough, a line from the movie version of Emma (1996) helped me put things in perspective. Emma Woodhouse asked her friend Harriet Smith if she thought Robert Martin was the most agreeable man she had ever met or would ever meet. And I always found that to be so ridiculous -- how do you know you won't ever meet someone more agreeable? But does that mean you can never marry anyone at all, because some day you might find someone nicer? What nonsense!"

    ReplyDelete

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