Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I greatly enjoyed reading the lively discussion in your December 2013 Correspondence about the interview with Nathan Winograd [“Inhumane,” by Lisa Sandberg, September 2013]. I was taken aback, however, by Winograd’s response, in which he asserts, “Death . . . is hope’s total antithesis. It is the worst of the worst — a fact each and every one of us would recognize if we were the ones being threatened with it.”
As a priest in the Episcopal Church, I could not disagree more. I have stood at the bedside of a man who had terminal cancer and had not made out an advance directive. His pain had gotten so severe that the doctors couldn’t control it. He writhed and moaned, and the nurses cringed when they had to pass his room, knowing that his suffering was utterly futile, because he would soon die.
I thought of that scene when I brought my beloved dog to the vet at the end of her life. Riddled with bone cancer, she flinched each time I touched her, but still she wagged her tail. I held her in my arms as the vet slipped a needle into her vein and it was over.
I find myself wondering why we grant this mercy to animals but not to one another. There is a point in each person’s life at which death becomes a friend. And for people of faith it is not the antithesis of hope but the door to a life renewed and made whole.
When I received the December 2013 issue, I was pursuing a divorce from my wife, and the holiday blues were running rampant. As a lesbian and a feminist, I’d never really believed in marriage, but we were twenty-four years in, with two kids, so we’d thought we might as well try. But we’d struggled.
When I opened the issue to the back, the Sunbeam by May Sarton pulled me in: “Love opens the doors into everything.” But it was Mark Leviton’s interview with Esther Perel [“A More Perfect Union”] that showered lovingkindness right where I needed it. Why we stay, why we leave, why we wander, why we grow, why we are stifled — it’s all there. And without blame.
Perel says couples “crumble under the weight of expectations.” Yes. Maybe if my ex and I had been schooled in this perspective, we would have discovered a path to resiliency. Or maybe we would have separated sooner.
It was the expectation that we should be everything to one another that made the divorce necessary. There was no breathing room. And when hard times hit, we could not hold up the weight. In my circles it is said that lesbians often “merge.” Our best friends and lovers become everything to us. “Everything” is a lot to hold. Monogamous marriages — or our attempts at them — cannot override our larger need for community. We are in peril if we think that two people are enough.
Even though it is too late for us, the lesson is still valuable. I appreciate that Perel is not aiming to save marriages. She is saying there are more ways to be with people than traditional monogamy. She opened my eyes.
Mark Leviton’s interview with Esther Perel brings many fresh insights about what works and what doesn’t work in modern relationships, but Perel tries so hard to be nonjudgmental toward infidelity that at times she contradicts herself. On the one hand, she recognizes that our present marriage model isn’t working, and she doesn’t abide by the perpetrator-victim view of infidelity. But, on the other hand, she says that an affair is never good.
Instead of having it both ways, Perel would be better off recognizing that monogamy is contrary to the basic Buddhist principle of being in the moment. Many people date, have amazing sex, and want that feeling to last forever. So they agree to be monogamous. But nothing is permanent. Sex can’t be captured; it’s always feral. You might continue having those incredible orgasms until one of you dies, or they might end tomorrow. If a couple sees great sex as temporary, then it doesn’t matter if they’re married or monogamous or “monogamish” or have many lovers. By not trying to make the moment permanent, they are free to have more moments like it — or not. That’s life.
Esther Perel’s concern that an “overwhelming focus on the children hurts the parents’ relationship” seems to ignore children’s needs. Kids today often don’t have extended family, live-in grandparents, access to nature, or the freedom to play with neighborhood friends. Who or what will fill the void if parents withdraw their presence to fulfill their own personal desires?
One of Perel’s concerns is that children spend too much time in their parents’ bedroom. In most cultures, including here in Japan, there is no need to shut that door at all: children sleep with their parents. Seeing my kids sleeping beside me, giggling or moaning during a dream, has given me comfort and joy. And the children know they are free to return to their own rooms whenever they want. My wife and I are capable of curtailing our emotional needs, and our kids grow up with a greater sense of security. In Japan the attitude is that kids truly come first.
I disagree with Esther Perel that American couples focus too much on their children. Is it too much parental attention that drives our scandalous rates of teen pregnancy and teen suicide and students’ declining academic performance? Is it too much parental attention that sends large numbers of American children to psychiatrists or to street dealers or to prison, especially if they happen to be poor and black? Few American families have dinner together anymore. In most two-parent households both mother and father work. I think parents who still manage to attend their children’s soccer practices and other activities are to be applauded.
Why can’t parents find the time to properly raise children — who, after all, are the primary reason sex exists — and maintain the bonds they need with each other? The real problem lies in the nuclear family as the default condition of modern life. This arrangement often places too much weight on too few shoulders. Historically the extended family, the community, or the tribe provided more hands and additional supervision and a larger pool of mentors for the children. Parents, likewise, had options for finding counsel, support, comfort, love, and sex. We have invented quite a different family model that respects the individual above all else. It has become dysfunctional economically, socially, politically, and environmentally.
My own child was raised by both parents, a doting aunt, two doting grandmothers, a bunch of uncles, three teachers, and forty or so families. Our community was a village of sorts, with plenty of social interaction. Though divorced, my wife and I closely cooperated when dealing with our son’s needs. We attended school and family functions together, and we occasionally still went on outings as a nuclear family. Our son thrived and is currently studying medicine. This arrangement was not without conflict, but it worked out quite well.
Couples who have brought children into the world must accept that their primary task is to produce well-adjusted, functional human beings. In a complex, demanding, and rapidly changing society such as ours that’s unlikely to happen without the engagement of communities. We need to start getting creative about how we raise our kids, not just for their sake but for the parents’ sake, too.
I loved the Esther Perel interview. Her thoughts about relationships, sex, and love are illuminating and enlightened. But I was horrified by her easy categorization of Holocaust survivors into two groups: those who “chose to keep their vitality, energy, and eros” and those who “merely survived.”
I live with a fairly mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder. I cannot even imagine the unspeakable suffering a Holocaust survivor must live with on a daily basis. To say that trauma survivors have the ability to “choose” how to live the rest of their lives is absurd. And to say that those who “merely survived” somehow rejected the option of a full recovery smacks of blaming the victim.
To Lee Taplinger: Yes, infidelity invites us to hold a dual perspective: growth and expansion on one side, hurt and betrayal on the other. They often coexist. The affair can be empowering for one partner and crushing for the other, especially if discovered. My thinking about an affair depends on whether it is a secret or has been exposed. When I say that affairs are never good, I’m talking about the betrayal, the wounding, the feeling of being replaced. Affairs redefine the relationship, but the couple defines the legacy of the affair.
More important, I would suggest not confusing the conversation about infidelity with the conversation about monogamy. They are, of course, related, but they are different topics.
To John Spiri: Indeed, in many cultures children share rooms and beds with their parents, but these are more often collective societies with a different understanding of the couple as an erotic unit and desire as the catalyst of the sexual act. In cultures like ours, sexuality is elevated as a marker of marital satisfaction, and an erotic space must be cordoned off for the couple.
To John Kastner: I resonate with all your points. Important and well argued.
To Lisa Rosinsky: I should start by saying that, in the grand scheme of things, those who survived were the stronger ones, the fittest, and of course also the luckiest. The weak and vulnerable died.
I wasn’t attributing blame or responsibility, merely sharing my observation of the thousands of survivors who made up my childhood community. Some homes were deathly, others joyous; some morbid, others hungry for life. And there were many in between. I was drawing a spectrum and not making an accusation against individual people or their suffering.