I got married too young. Or so everyone tells me. There are so many things to do and places to see and people to meet. And now I’m going to spend my days cleaning a cramped apartment, arguing with my wife, and trying to pay the bills on time.
I settled. I cashed out. I chose comfort and security over risk and adventure.
Or so everyone tells me.
All my life, I’ve been seeking adventure. But out of all the mountains I’ve hiked, countries I’ve visited, language barriers I’ve manoeuvred, nothing has been more adventurous than my first year of marriage.
Cooking dinner with this girl for the 300th time, watching our favourite movies together on the couch, going for long walks as the sun finds its home behind the mountains — these things, these incredibly simple things, take on more significance than a two-day train ride across Central Asia.
What I’m talking about isn’t romance, not necessarily. More than dedicating my life to one person, I’ve learned what it means to commit: to people, to community, to a neighbourhood, to a church.
For the first time in my adult life, my feet are planted, roots penetrating deeper into the soil, and I’m letting it happen.
We’ve all got commitment issues
It’s no secret. Millennials have trouble committing. We have watched the generations before us tie themselves down with false notions of progress and the delirium of the American Dream. We saw the divorce rate erupt more intensely than Mount St. Helens, not to mention all the pain and frustration within the marriages that last.
We saw the grey hairs sprouting on the grocery store checker who was content to never move up the ladder. We saw the church sell out, trading its authenticity for what’s trendy and relevant, turning temples into community centres and disciples into spectators.
We saw the majorities take the road most often travelled, settling on the easy way out. In reaction, it seems we do everything we can to make our lives more difficult.
Barna Research Group, in Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials, captures the characteristics of Millennial life in the image of a traveller. “They want to wander the world, both in real life and in digital ways. They want to feel untethered. There is a trend among young adults of delaying the pressures of adult life as long as possible; they want to embrace a lifestyle of risk, exploration and unscripted moments,” writes Barna. “The generation has come to appreciate and take identity from a spiritual version of life on the road. In other words, it is a generation that is spiritually homeless.”
Being the vagabonds that we are, we Millennials still cherish loyalty, and we know how to work hard. Most of my peers excel quickly, working their way into management, finding creative ways to boost productivity. But the second their work plateaus, they jump ship.
Same for relationships, both friendly and romantic. Craving intimacy and transparency, my friends like to open up quickly, learn people’s stories, make grand romantic gestures. But as the interesting stories begin to run out and excitement fades into regularity, most of my friends move on, content to simply add another fling of romance or friendship to their diary of pub stories.
We’ve been led to believe that love is an organic, spontaneous gift that springs upon helpless souls and leads them into the depths of happily ever after. But we forget that love is our duty. This idea is carried out best by Søren Kierkegaard in his book Works of Love. He argues that through the command, “You shall love,” love is set free.
The object of love, after God, is your neighbour. This might mean that adorable face you long to marry, but it might not. It may be your boss. It may be your parents. It may be your sister, or brother, or the stranger down the street. The point is, love is our duty. It’s not an added bonus.
When it is a duty to love the people we see, one must first and foremost give up all imaginary and exaggerated ideas about a dreamworld where the object of love should be sought and found — that is, one must become sober, gain actuality and truth by finding and remaining in the world of actuality as the task assigned to one. (Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love)
Most of us had to learn about inductive and deductive reasoning throughout our education. Here’s a simplistic refresher: inductive reasoning takes an observation, moves in to make generalizations, in order to arrive at knowledge, a theory. Deductive reasoning does the reverse; starting with logic, it moves outward to predictions that lead to an observation.
What most people are spouting today, I call “Inductive Joy” — the “follow your heart” way to find fulfilment. You take your desires and your passions and you follow them, through ambition and merit, to some ideal ending which will be an eternal, ethereal fountain of joy.
But there’s another mode of fulfilment. The way of Jesus that goes something like, “Seek first His kingdom (His presence, His leadership, His love) and His righteousness (loving people more than yourself), and all these things (like decent clothes, good food, and a warm bed) will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33, my additions in brackets).
I call this “Deductive Joy.” Joy is something you start with, and it’s the joy that comes from being loved by God and others. You’re not searching for security or stability; you’re beginning with it. In this mode, first you commit, and then your commitments fuel your desires and passions.
Homo incurvatis in se. Augustine and others in the Christian tradition used this Latin phrase to describe the fundamental human problem, that as humans we are curved in on ourselves. With our undefined desires and passions fuelling us, we often trample over relationships and hurt the people in our lives so that we can find freedom, so that we can find joy.
We Millennials have been loaded with the “do what you love” mentality before we actually get a chance to do anything. So we’re all pulling out our hair trying to figure out what it is we love so that we can actually do it. So many of us in our culture are writhing in pain because we’re following our desires out of some distorted moral duty that says we have to be true to ourselves.
The Gospel is all about bending our nature the other way — curving us outward. Through deductive joy, our passions and desires can actually find definition and clarity, stemming from the joy within and the commitments we’ve made. Rather than letting our desires design our identity, our identity, rooted in relationships, spells out our desires.
Settling for Grace
When it is a duty in loving to love the people we see, then in loving the actual individual person it is important that one does not substitute an imaginary idea of how we think or could wish that this person should be. The one who does this does not love the person he sees but again something unseen, his own idea or something similar. (Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love)
I’m not saying you should settle for the first thing that comes your way. These things come through discernment.
What I am saying is that we need to stop hating on the idea of “settling.” The Gospel does not commission us to be wanderers, but it calls for roots, for real investment in real people and community. People, for better or for worse, are what make life worth living. The heartbeat of human existence lies in good conversation and hearty meals eaten around crowded tables. There’s a reason people flock to pubs and cafés, and yes, even churches.
When you settle for the grace of God, you don’t have to worry about being stuck in a dead-end job or a miserable marriage. You have to worry about investing in a community, in people, as frustrating as they are.
You have to worry about sticking around after the interesting stories have stopped, after the sparks of romance have turned to ash. You have to worry because it is after this where true joy lies. When you can go to bed with a stupid smile on your face because this average day with all its deadlines and headaches has been an adventure. When you can see everything in your life as gift, temporary and fragile, and know that even if all the gifts are destroyed, you still have tasted the sweetness of the kingdom of God.
I talked with my grandparents, Harold and Jean Stevens, a few days before their 64th wedding anniversary. They’re cuddled together on the couch as the morning light shines through the window behind them. Blazing through their 80s, their smiles are vibrant as ever, their minds sharp.
Like me, they got married too young. Harold worked as a military cop after he was drafted at 17 to support the Second World War. On a visit home, he stopped by the church to attend a youth group event. When the lead for the upcoming play dropped out, Harold volunteered to take the role. It was this role which would lead him to the altar to marry Jean.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better partner,” he says.
“We just enjoy each other,” my grandma adds. “We just like being together.”
They go on to tell me they’ve never really been alone. They went from having each other, to having kids, to having more kids, and then grandkids. Now they’re swamped with great grandkids.
I asked them whether they thought they missed out on any adventures.
“No,” my grandma replies quickly. “We never viewed life that way. I can’t think of anything we wanted to do that we didn’t do.”
My grandpa, smiling, adds, “We just lived life one day at a time.”
Of course, they missed out on a few things. They haven’t travelled far and wide; they’re not sitting on mountains of money. They never wrote a bestseller or won a Nobel Peace Prize. They sacrificed a lot to be together, to have children together, and to love those children.
The point isn’t what they got to do and what they missed out on; the point is that they have reached old age utterly satisfied, and remain in the joy of the life they built together.
“The love we’ve tried to instil in our children,” my grandpa says, “it looks like it’s woven off into our grandchildren and our great grandchildren. The love is still there that we tried to instil in our kids.”
Call of Duty
When it is a duty in loving to love the people we see, there is no limit to love; if the duty is to be fulfilled, love must be limitless, it is unchanged, no matter how the object becomes changed. (Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love)
Sometimes I wonder if I’m making all this up and avoiding a truer version of myself. Then I hear the keys jingling as a fidgety lock begins to turn. I see my wife walk through the door of our small, crappy apartment, exhausted from a long day’s work. All she has to do is look at me with those bright eyes of hers, and I know everything else in this world may be a lie, but this is true. She is here, and with her by my side I am reflecting the image of God more fully. We are participating in a love way beyond us.
Believe it or not, I still get to travel these days. And it’s usually a lot more fun than before because I get to share the experience with someone else. I still have dreams, but now I have someone to dream with. I still have desires, but they’re more defined and they have context.
No, I don’t get to disappear for days at a time and go off by myself without telling anyone, and sometimes I wish I could. I have to buy double the groceries and raise my standards of cleanliness, and that’s a pain. My wife and I disagree on things, we argue, we get frustrated with each other. We get scared.
But at the end of the day, our commitment to each other wipes out all fear.
Marriage, if you’re doing it right, is anything but comfort and security. It’s a constant awareness of the gifts you have and of their fragility. It keeps you awake and on the edge; it pushes you to be better and won’t let you settle for anything less than the fullness of joy.
I used to be consumed by worry, longing to know what God was calling me to do with my life. Now, I’m far more concerned with who God has called me to: who to stand next to in friendship and support, who to embrace with grace and love.
You want a real adventure? Commit to something. A person. A community. An employer. Give it, them, him, her everything you have. Seek first Love itself and its reign in your life, and then watch as you’re catapulted into the depths of fulfilment, the adventure of a joy lived outward.
Originally published in Issue 19 of Converge Magazine.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Jason Sussberg.