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There is a question about what marriage is, and then there is a question about what it might be. I am interested in the latter. In our society, marriage is still widely used as a tool of social exclusion and oppression; it has been over-idealized, over-commercialized, and half of the time it ends in divorce. Nevertheless, there is something about marriage that presents a deep challenge to the way we think about the most important choices in our lives.

First, marriage is an act that we undertake despite the impossibility of really knowing what we are committing ourselves to in undertaking it (I’ll say more about what I mean by this below). Second, it is also an act whose meaning is determined less by our own individual understanding and more by the wisdom of a community—living and dead—that surrounds us. Beyond the obvious change in perspective involved in committing yourself to another person, marriage presents a fundamental challenge to our conception of ourselves as individual rational agents, independent of others and in sole control of our own destiny. In marriage we become—or at least, we ought to become—more deeply conscious of our reliance on sources of meaning much larger than ourselves.

Marriage is not the only act that involves an inevitable element of not-knowing-what-you’re-doing. Recently the philosopher L.A. Paul created a buzz that spread from academic blogs to the NPR website when she posted an online draft of a paper entitled “What Mary Can’t Expect When She’s Expecting.” In the paper, Paul argues that a widely held assumption—that it is rational for a childless person to decide whether to have a child by reflecting on what it would be like to have one—is mistaken. Paul’s reasoning, simply put, is that a childless person cannot decide whether to have a child on the basis of what it would be like to have one because she does not know what it would be like to have one. Having children, at least for the first time, is what Paul calls a transformative experience. “Before someone becomes a parent,” she writes, “she has never experienced the unique state of seeing and touching her newborn child. She has never experienced the full compendium of the extremely intense series of beliefs, emotions, physical exhaustion and emotional intensity that attends the carrying, birth, presentation, and care of her very own child, and hence she does not know what it is like to have these experiences.”

What Paul says about having children seems to me to ring equally true of marriage. Until you have spent a lifetime in the company of another person, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to do so. When we get married, there is an important sense in which we really don’t know what we’re doing. This doesn’t make marriage a complete leap into the dark, of course—you can be pretty sure that another person is well-suited to you, that you have similar goals, that you love each other, and so on. Even so, no matter how much you know about another person on the day of your marriage, you still don’t really know what you’re doing in marrying them. This doesn’t make you wrong or irrational to do it anyway; it’s just part of what it is to be human. Living as a finite being means projecting oneself toward the unknown.

The title of Paul’s paper is inspired by a classic article by the philosopher Frank Jackson, entitled “What Mary Didn’t Know.” Jackson asks us to imagine a brilliant scientist, Mary, who spends her whole life inside a black and white room. Although Mary, with the help of books and videos (screened on her black and white TV), comes to be an expert on the science of color perception, she has never actually seen the color red for herself. When she first steps outside her room and sees a red object, Jackson argues, she will learn something new: what it is like to see red. Until she actually has the experience of seeing red for herself, Jackson argues, there is no way that Mary could come to know what it is like to see it.

Paul helps us understand how real life experiences, like having children or getting married, are similar to Mary’s experience of seeing red for the first time—but there is also an important difference. Whereas Mary is alone in her colorless room, we inhabit a social world, and that world plays a crucial role in preparing us for transformative experiences. Take the example of another such experience: falling in love. It is practically a cliché that, if you have never been in love, then you cannot possibly know what it is like. At the same time, however, we do expect people to recognize the experience of love when it comes along. “When it happens,” we say confidently, “you’ll know.” One might wonder how these two pieces of popular wisdom could possibly be consistent with each other. If we really did not know what falling in love was like until it happened to us, how could we ever know that it had happened to us?

The answer, I think, lies in our capacity for metaphor—i.e. our ability to think of one thing in terms of another. In their book Metaphors We Live By, the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson list six of the many different metaphors associated with love: Love is a Journey; Love is a Physical Force; Love is a Patient; Love is Madness; Love is Magic; Love is War. These metaphors are not merely poetic or decorative; they give systematic structure to our thought and language. The metaphor Love is a Physical Force underlies a whole range of expressions:

I could feel the electricity between us. There were sparks. I was magnetically drawn to her. They are uncontrollably attracted to each other. They gravitated to each other immediately. His whole life revolves around her. The atmosphere around them is always charged. There is incredible energy in their relationship. They’ve lost momentum.

Part of the reason that we’re able to recognize love when it comes along is that such metaphors allow us to imagine something we haven’t experienced in terms of something more familiar. Even the expression “falling in love” has a metaphorical root. Until I fall in love myself, I don’t know exactly what it will be like, but the range of metaphors associated with love do at least give me a sense of what kind of experience to expect. These metaphors, we might say (to deploy another metaphor) prepare the cognitive ground for the experience of love to take root. If, when I do fall in love, I find myself saying something like: “Now I know what it means for my whole life to revolve around another person,” there is an element of genuine discovery in that statement, but also an element of recognition. I may not have known what love was like, but I knew the kind of thing that I was looking for.

It is our access to imaginative resources like these that makes our situation different from Mary’s. Our social world provides us with a rich and complex set of metaphors that help us to imagine what it will be like to undergo transformative experiences. And it’s not just that the metaphors with which we are provided help to prepare us for these experiences; they actually play a central role in structuring the experiences themselves. If I am exposed early and often to the metaphor Love is a Physical Force, I am likely to experience my relationships differently than I would if that metaphor were completely foreign to me. It is not just that someone who has been surrounded by metaphors of electricity is more likely to describe her experience in terms of sparks flying; she is more likely to feel sparks flying. That is why we so often find parents attempting to instill certain metaphors in their children: “Love isn’t all about chemistry, you know; it’s hard work.”

All of this brings us back around to marriage. In his book Moral Imagination, Mark Johnson offers an analysis of a series of discussions with married couples conducted in the 1980s by the anthropologist Naomi Quinn, focusing in on her conversations with one particular interviewee, “Alex.” At the beginning of his marriage, Johnson observes, Alex tended to think of marriage in terms of a specific metaphor, i.e. marriage is a resource.

I thought it was all going to be wonderful. You know it was—the problem of sex was going to be solved. You know I was an adolescent or barely out of adolescence, you know—this was a wonderful idea … there really are some things that I knew about and that I wanted. A companion and friend. Probably the most … that seemed important then—to have someone there all the time that you could rely on. And talk to all the time about things. Somebody to help and somebody to help you, you know, that seemed like a real good idea. That seemed like something we got out of the marriage. Somebody always there.

The metaphor marriage is a resource helps Alex to form a conception of what he is doing in getting married. It gives him a way to understand the unknown (i.e. being married) in terms of the more familiar (i.e. exchanging resources with another person). Over time, however, the metaphor begins to show its limitations. The longer his marriage continues, the less sense it makes to Alex to think in terms of what he, as an individual, is getting out of it. He moves toward a new understanding of marriage, one that Johnson suggests is grounded in the metaphor marriage is an organic unity.

I got the first promotion [in the U.S. Navy] with the idea that the second one might be coming. I think that’s how it was and that was quite successful because Shirley got pregnant right away. And she, you know, when I got back from Guantanamo [at that time, just a U.S. naval base] she told me and we told the news to everybody and it was a really big deal. And I think that the apartment and the baby and all of that stuff really began to come down on us, you know, and we started believing that we were truly a couple. And we were truly a family and really married.

What does it mean for Alex to say that he felt “really married”? How is he so confident that he knows what that feels like? The answer, I think, is that he finds himself able to make use of a metaphor—i.e. marriage is an organic unity—that is drawn from the community and the tradition of which he is a part. We do not know what Alex and Shirley’s marriage ceremony looked like, but it is not unreasonable to think that it might have included some reference to the metaphor of organic unity—to the idea that, in marriage, “two people become one.” I think it is also quite possible that, at the time of the wedding, Alex did not really understand that metaphor, at least not in the way that he understands it now. This is not to say that he didn’t understand what the words meant, but rather that he wasn’t yet equipped to see what it really meant for a marriage to be an organic unity. It was something that he needed to experience for himself first. Now that he has experienced it, however, the metaphor is there to be picked up and used, like a tool whose purpose only becomes clear when the problem it was designed to solve arises.

If this is right, then we might say that a wedding is a ceremony in which two people, using words they don’t fully understand, make a commitment whose consequences they don’t fully appreciate. Depending on one’s perspective, that is either a damning indictment of the institution of marriage, or evidence that it deserves its place alongside birth, death and falling in love as one of the great transformative experiences of life.

What is clear on either account is that marriage is connected to a particularly deep form of dependence on a wider community, which expresses itself in the metaphors that constitute the marriage. To take just one particularly striking example of the latter: at the end of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, a wine glass is covered by a piece of white cloth and crushed under foot. This is an act rich with metaphor, one whose potential meanings are almost endless. Breaking a glass is an irreversible act; it is one that has connections with celebration, but also with violence and danger. From a historical perspective, it echoes the destruction of the temple, the idea of being definitively separated from one’s home. We can imagine someone saying, decades later, that they were only just beginning to understand what they were doing in crushing that glass. One might see this lack of knowledge in advance as a reason to be suspicious of marriage, but one might also see it as an example of the value of trust in one’s community to provide sources of meaning that go beyond one’s own individual understanding.

The trust that has been placed in religious communities to act as gatekeepers has been—and continues to be—abused by some. To deny the right to marry to entire sections of society is not merely to deny those people the right to visit each other in hospitals and avoid punitive inheritance taxes (important as these issues are). It is to deny them access to a set of imaginative and metaphorical resources that have been built up over centuries and that are contained within marriage rituals and liturgies. These metaphors stand as a reminder of something that all of us have in common—that at the most important moments of our lives, we never quite know what we are doing. It is a strange paradox of the debate over marriage equality that the guardians of marriage, those who might be expected to understand the endlessly mysterious nature of the institution better than anyone, have somehow become so confident that they—unlike the rest of us—really know what marriage is.


Art credit: Mr. Throk

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