I was talking to a good friend the other day about the pitfalls of dating.
There was a boy. He wasn't that nice and he wasn't that mean. He talked like he cared and acted like he didn't. When she walked into a room he would make his way to her eventually. They dated and then didn't and then dated again. At the moment, they were back to didn't.
We laughed our way through the ridiculousness of the conversation until she wasn't smiling anymore.
"I don't know. I want more. But is that awful? Setting my standards too high? Being too selfish?"
And then the laughter left me, too. I wanted to hit out at the people, places, situations and inner dialogues that have convinced so many of my sisters that "wanting more" is an unforgivable act of self-centric thinking. As if somehow the pursuit of a life partner is an act of charity and to take our hopes, hurts and desires into account betrays the nature of the enterprise.
I remember spouting off the same misgivings and gentle questions. Anxious and sure my worth depended on the eyes and evaluations of others. It preoccupied my mind at college and at home. My poor parents could never figure out where they'd gone wrong.
They'd throw their hands in the air and talk emphatically. Didn't I know that choosing my husband had to be the most selfish decision of my life? That it was one of the last times that I could sit as a single entity and decide to get exactly what I wanted without the interference of pledge or the obligation of a shared life, shared children, shared disappointments, shared hopes? Be selfish, they cried. Seek for the best. Make yourself what you want and don't break for someone that can't appreciate the god given, mortal mess you are. Find a man to partner, not a boy to parent. Walk away if it gets too hard, too hurtful, too disappointing. Right now, you don't owe anyone a damn thing. Not a week, not a month and certainly not your whole ever loving life. You don't owe anyone anything. You only owe it to yourself to find what you want. You get to have what you want.
What do you want?
It seemed so counter-intuitive and led to one of the most constructive arguments I've ever had with one of my parents. At the time, I was dating a boy that made it seem like sacrifice of self was really the sacrament of love. And I believed him. How, I cried to my good dad, how can marriage -- the most selfless of institutions -- begin with my most selfish decision? Didn't he know the heart hurt sacrifice of self had to begin beforehand? Didn't that make the most sense? The good man looked almost disappointed in me.
He said my name once,
and then cleared the tears out of eyes and throat with a wipe and a cough,
"You are selfish in choosing a mate because once you commit yourself to a person you've decided to never be truly selfish again. Sure, at times you will take time for yourself and splurge and do all the fun stuff we do when we say we are being selfish. But you will never again be able to live your life with only thoughts for yourself, not really. And that is a beautiful thing. If you and your husband are living your marriage correctly you will always be thinking of, working for and loving one another. The selflessness of marriage is the kind that lifts each party up to a place they could not have reached alone. It is not a sacrifice of self. It is a clarification of self. Marriage should make you more of who you are. It should refine you. Both of you. Anything less than that isn't worth your time."
I think at that point I grumbled something about him always having to be right. He laughed and then was serious again.
"Listen, it is important to remember that you are not just being discerning, and yes, even selfish, for yourself. You are being selfish for the children that will eventually come into the marriage. Is this the person that will help your sons and daughters understand their place in the world? Can you both create a sanctuary of love and learning for them? Maybe you aren't at a place where you can see you deserve that, but surely you know your children deserve it. I hope your mom and I gave that to you kids and I hope you do the same for your own."
It was an eye opening conversation. For years, my parents told me I had great worth and deserved more happiness than my inward thinking heart could fathom. I didn't ever believe them. But that day when my dad talked about my future daughter, I suddenly understood what they had been saying. I knew she deserved the kind of joy that could crack the universe in two. And somehow, knowing that about her helped me understand it about myself. I had to give her what she deserved and the only way to do that was to get exactly what I deserved.
So I broke up with that boy. I stopped asking those questions and started asking others. Who was I? What did I want? How could I create my own happiness? And I started living the life I hoped my daughter would lead. One with questions and laughter and legs that moved me from moment to moment to moment. Until, somewhere in between a good book and a grand adventure, I found and was found, by the kind of man that made me want to be selfish one last, glorious time.
My marriage isn't perfect. I can't even see perfect from the place we reside. We fight and misunderstand. We hurt and are hurt. We work and sweat and love and kiss and start over again. It's messy and hard and there are days when I can't wait for the morning. But when the light of our lives is just right, I can see us lifting one another to the places we are supposed to be.
Sisters, stop asking if your standards are too high, if you want too much, if you are being too selfish.
Figure out what you want. Don't settle for anything or anyone less. And then, once you and that worthy man find one another, love and work for each other as if your heart and souls depend on it.
I hope you do it for yourself. I know you'll do it for your daughter.
You both deserve it.