A few nights ago I couldn't sleep. It was midnight. I was in bed. I looked at Mel. As I watched her sleep, I thought about our marriage. I often tell people that the hardest thing I have ever attempted is marriage. It takes sacrifice, tolerance, passion, and understanding.
But what does that look like? I thought.
I know what the hard work of writing looks like. It's me hunched over a computer screen every morning from 5:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. I know that the hard work of farming is long hours in the hot sun herding cattle or walking fence lines. And I know that the hard work of graduate school is a lot of reading, writing, and thinking in a cramped library carroll.
But what does the hard work of marriage look like?
Earlier that day, I showed some of my students a graduation speech by David Foster Wallace titled, "This is Water." Wallace's speech suggests that the overall purpose of higher education is to be able to consciously choose how to perceive others and act appropriately in everyday life. He argues that the true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be adjusted, conscientious and sympathetic. To accomplish this, we must constantly remind ourselves that the people we interact with are people too, much like how fish need to be reminded that they are surrounded by water.
Wallace warns against the default setting. To Wallace, the default setting is the basic assumption that you are the center of the world, and that everyone around you is in your way. He uses an example: a woman yelling at her kids in a grocery line. Rather than assuming that she is a bad mother, Wallace suggests that you can choose to assume she is a mother at her wit's end, stressed out mentally and financially, and that her actions in the store are not representative of her overall disposition. Not functioning on the default setting means giving strangers, even those that you find irritating in the moment, the benefit of the doubt.
I looked up at the ceiling, and I started to realize the connection between Wallace's default setting and my marriage with Mel. Avoiding assumptions, and constantly reminding myself that I am not the center of my marriage -- that's what that hard work of marriage looks like.
Avoiding the default setting, means making it a point to think about Mel during the day, and taking that little extra step of letting her know about it by sending a text message. That is what the hard work of marriage looks like.
By not making negative assumptions about the reason Mel and I have not had sex for over a week (because she hates me, or doesn't find me attractive, or is cheating on me), and realizing that she's exhausted from raising two small children while working on a college degree, I am doing the hard work of marriage.
It's a different kind of work -- a kind of work that happens ALONGSIDE the regular life work of your job, caring for your family, making ends meet, and so on.
Avoiding subconscious knee-jerk reactions about my spouse, giving her the benefit of the doubt, and taking just a moment to let her know that she is on my mind even when we are not together, these simple acts/things are what the hard work of marriage really looks like.
This is marriage.
This is water.