What starts this little niggle in my brain is that some months ago, I came across a letter (from David McCullough’s book, John Adams), written by John Adams, second president of the United States of America, to his daughter who had fallen in love.
The year is 1782 and it goes like this:
Daughter! Get you an honest man for a husband, and keep him honest. No matter whether he is rich, provided he be independent. Regard the honor and moral character of the man more than all other circumstances. Think of no other greatness but that of the soul, no other riches but those of the heart. An honest, sensible, humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy.
Although the language is dated, in those few lines, John Adams seems to have summarized eloquently, the qualities of character which are the makings of a good husband and which cut across race, creeds and cultures. Of all the wonderful and varied persons in our lives, the one person whom we should not ‘make a mistake’ about is the one we freely choose to be bound to for the rest of our lives. Even rather befuddled sounding individuals like China actress Zhang Zi Yi who is reported to have said that a woman would hesitate [to marry] if she had to change her lifestyle for her relationship, has an instinctive sense that happiness is tied to a lasting marriage. She is reported to have said that she would want a lasting marriage “like her parents”, although she then skillfully confounds herself and her listeners in the next breath, by muttering, “Although divorce isn’t a big deal, I’m suddenly afraid.”
I read her comments with a grip of fear in my heart. Are young people quite so superficial or clueless about marriage? Is my son?!!!??? Okay, given he is only 12 but he is on the cusp of adolescence and I guess in a couple of years’ time, girls are not going to be “yucky” to him and his preadolescent friends as they have been till now (at least they have progressed from “evil” to just “yucky”), but will become intoxicating, compelling, perplexing feminine packages who will most likely be able to run rings around the poor hapless boys…those minxes!
I tell myself to take a few big breaths and to get a hold on reality…and the present. Better still, to re-focus on John Adams’ letter. He seems to be saying that the character of the spouse was crucial to the success of a good marriage. Perhaps his puritan upbringing forbids him to speak about love, or perhaps I have missed out on that reference somewhere else in the letter as it is only an excerpt I have read. I would think that love, authentic marital love between the man and woman (with a good dose of twenty-first century reality!) in addition to their goodness of character, are the crucial ingredients of a good marriage.
How would I write a John Adams-type letter if my son is, at some future point in time, to present me with a prospective daughter-in-law? Hopefully my reply would be a logical one and definitely not a text message! Hopefully twitter would not have atrophied my writing skills beyond redemption so that I am no longer able to use pronouns or can only communicate up to a hundred and forty words and no more. Hopefully at some point during these years past (and the years to come), he has heard some of the judicious comments his father and I have slipped in. Or better still, remembered some of our casual discussions artfully (we would like to think) using those “opportune moments” provided all too often by the media and its habit of sexualizing our kids so early, to flesh out his ideas about sexuality, respect, responsibility and all the rest of the things kids want to hear about but would rather die than let their parents know that.
Sometimes, writing articulates much better what we want to communicate but struggle to verbalize. So if I ever do get the opportunity, maybe my letter will run like this…
My dearest son,
Falling in love is an amazing adventure which makes you feel like you can fly like Superman, or climb every mountain, ford every stream and all that Sound of Music stuff. It is corny and wonderful at the same time and an experience everyone should go through at least once in their lives to understand the giddy heights that our human heart will climb to love and be loved.
But you know, my son, to fall in love is but the first tottering step in the long process of love between a man and a woman. This incredible intensity of feeling you have for her right now, the physical yearning you might feel for her even at this stage, are important ingredients of the relationship. But in truth, they are but the mere settings for the development of true love.
Why is it so important to know the real meaning of love? Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, once said that ‘[to] fool oneself regarding love is the most devastating loss…for which there is no compensation”. I guess what he means is that if you mistake the true nature of love, you will be depriving yourself of the greatest opportunity for true happiness. If you mistake love for mere sentiment or just feelings, reduce it to the mere physical level, validate it only for the pleasure you get from it, you will be walking down a path where no relationship is safe from the vagaries of passions and whims, likes and dislikes, circumstance and opportunity.
That wise old Greek, Aristotle, once wrote that to love is “to will someone’s good for his own sake”. So beyond the intense feelings that you have for each other right now, true love develops when you choose, with your free will, to want to love her because she is the person she is, worthy of being loved.
It is forgiving what may seem like the unforgivable, it is accepting her as she is with her beauty and her warts, her strengths and her weaknesses. It is the joy of reveling in each other’s goodness, and the patience of putting up with each other’s faults and imperfections – the dirty socks and excessive chatter, and later, the sagging body parts and thunderous snoring. It means wanting to love even when the feelings are not there at a particular moment. True love is above all when you choose to always want the good for her even at the expense of your own desires.
If you are thinking, at this stage, “Whoa…hold your horses there! This seems to be all about her and nothing about me. What’s in it for me?”, think a little more. As humans, we have a driving, ingrained need to be happy. Of course, sometimes we mistake pleasure for happiness, or we mistake what will make us happy and we go off on a wrong tangent, but ultimately we all want to be happy. What makes us happy is not just to be loved, but to love. If it is just one or the other, it is not going to make us happy. It has to be both. And here is the big, wonderful secret of love: no matter how thankless it may seem at times, even when we seem to be killing ourselves for the other person, even when our pride seems to have bitten the dust more miles back than we care to remember, even when it seems easier at the moment to love Frankenstein than our other half, the reward is that we are sowing love, and to paraphrase a very wise man, where you sow love, there you will reap it, and to reap love is to reap happiness.
So when you walk on the clouds because your heart is bursting with love, rejoice! And when those clouds become thunderclouds, heck, just put on a raincoat and wait for the sun to break through! Because authentic love equals happiness, so you stick it through the good and the bad because that is what will make you happy in the end.
A contemporary philosopher once wrote that love is “perhaps the most exquisite human act that can be performed”. It is an act that has its origins in the essence of who we are as human beings when we are most ourselves by loving and being loved. It is when love is like this that you are ready to embark on the ultimate relationship of your life, marriage to your beloved where before, you were two and now you are one.
For that reason, get to know her very well so that you know who it is you want to love. Get to know her very well so that you can truly love her by knowing what is best for her.
May the woman you have fallen in love with be worthy of your authentic love. May she be a woman of character and integrity who has the capacity to also truly love you in the same way that I know you will love and respect the woman who will be your wife. May she be in her love, generous and forgiving, persevering and determined, committed and inspiring. May you be likewise with her, loving her by being yourself lovable, making it easy and pleasant for her to love you (the best gift you could ever give her even if she still insists diamonds are a girl’s best friend!), never letting pride get in the way of letting her help you, being graceful in forgiveness and humble in asking for forgiveness, receiving her love with gratitude. May you always remember that love is where you choose to pursue the good of your beloved, not for your sake, but for hers. Love perfects us; it is what makes us happy, it is what helps us to grow to be the persons we are intended to be. Remember and nurture the true nature of love, and it will prosper and blossom in your and your beloved’s hearts, bringing happiness to you both through the good times and the difficult ones.
From your loving mum