By Jeff Mallinson –
Is he the one? Is she the one? These are age old questions that some college students still ask today. This thinking is wrongheaded. Not just ill-advised, but fundamentally disastrous to a healthy relationship.
No doubt, some romantic partners are more compatible than others. Shared values, religion, and life-goals matter. For instance, if a gal wants to travel the world, but the guy wants to establish a stable home and career in his home town, there could be problems down the road. If financial security matters, one might choose not to marry a grad student who’s getting a Ph.D. in Irish novels. But these practical concerns aside, seeking the perfect mate can get in the way of a good relationship.
Most of us intuitively understand this. But the heat of romance has a way of tripping up human understanding. Why do we set up false expectations, then? There’s a good reason, and it has to do with something so deeply ingrained in the human consciousness, that it often goes unnoticed. We have the whisper, a rumor, of some distant past in which all was well. We were made for Eden, but we are now expatriates from God’s fertile soil.
One of the best psychological articulations of the way in which spirituality relates to psychology and family relationships came from a World War II hero, who once flew a fighter—for fun—upside down, under the Golden Gate Bridge. His name was Paul “Stormy” Fairweather. He was a wing-man for the legendary Chuck Yeager, and at the risk of a court-marshal, called off the first attempt at a D-Day invasion because of the cloudy weather. The dude had guts. Partly through things he learned in dogfights with German pilots, and partly through time spent with wounded friends, he developed a unique approach to psychology, that rejected many of Freud’s ideas about “regression” to childlike behaviors and impulses. Instead of seeing the desire to return to idyllic childhood as problematic, he recognized this as an attempt to return to the spiritual peace, unity, and wellbeing of Eden, something he calls the human “birthright.” Thus, as a Christian, he eventually brought his ideas to the psychology program he established at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena.
His book, Symbolic Regression Psychology (New York: Irvington, 1981) is unfortunately undervalued by the larger psychological and theological community. It seems to me that it should have instantly become a classic. But what do I know? Well, I suppose I do know that it isn’t an easy read for the layperson, and theologians and academic psychologists are notoriously picky about theorists from schools of thought in which they were not trained.
I mention Fairweather because his ideas help us both appreciate the longing for perfection, deep within each of us, and also help us to navigate life in this imperfect, penultimate world. He argues that each of us “is born with an implicit sense that life is to be a garden of harmony and delight,” (p. 1) and that this sense is what inspires the best human poetry, literature and music. This sense conflicts with our experience of reality. Everything seems to be out of whack. We lack peace. Our relationships are fragmented. We are fragmented within ourselves. We are in disharmony when we seek deep unity. He explains:
The person especially feels this uneasiness in his family, where it becomes most obvious that intimacy is only partially experienced. His parents teach him that he should feel at peace with life, but in their very way of living there is an implicit demand that he, the child, dispel their own doubts about the promise of life. In this he is asked to perpetuate the very uneasiness which throws doubt on the meaning of his own existence. Thus he learns no longer to recognize the promise as his own. Moreover, he begins to question its reality. At the same time, he has a deep, perhaps unacknowledged sense of its loss. His life has become a contradictory response to this sense of promise: he at once desires it and distrusts it (p. 2).
In other words, we live between the fading vision of Eden in our rear view mirror, and yet the vision of a future paradise is still too far down the horizon for us to see. Our options seem to be to either a) choose the way of cynicism and despair of any peaceful union in this life, or b) to become frustrated when those around us fail to live up to the standards of Eden or the coming Kingdom. In our irritation with others who fail to relate to us in an Edenic way, we ourselves become intolerable and perpetually angry that something is not quite right.
But what if something isn’t quite right? Would that be a pessimistic attitude? No. By recognizing the imperfection of our current situation, we can start to heal ourselves and our relationships. Likewise, this honest acceptance of reality does justice to the fact that we really were made for something better. And we can work day by day to provide a slight glimpse of the peaceful human connections promised in the world to come.
We must stop expecting our romantic partners to act as if we were living in paradise. Neither of us own real estate in Eden. Thus, so long as we expect the other person to be perfect, and ignore our shared imperfection, we will never find harmony in our relationships. We will always have a nagging, but obviously unfair, sense that the other person is what stands in our way of bliss.
But once we’ve realized that we won’t find a relationship that can perfectly fulfill our deepest needs, there’s more to learn. We also can’t so despair of the childlike longing for spiritual and relational harmony that we fail to realize that it is what those around us deeply need. For example, I am not an unfallen Adam, and my wife is not an unfallen Eve. Nonetheless, something within us seeks out such a person, and rightly so (given how we’re designed). When we can’t find that person, we sometimes punish each other for failing to be that person. We must realize that this tragedy is both unjust and understandable. Fairweather writes:
Persons can actually degenerate to the point where they become defensive against the child self’s orientation toward its primary needs. Frequently husbands and wives will act toward each other as if they did not really need each other and as if the comforting which any child would instinctively enjoy did not exist for them. Spouses often cannot express their needs for this kind of personal comfort because they are protecting a precariously instilled sense of ‘adult’ dignity and autonomy. They do not understand that dignity and autonomy themselves must be redefined in terms of a more basic reality, which is the nature of the child self. (p. 48)
This means that we must neither expect too much from a romantic partner, nor shut ourselves off from the pursuit of imperfect love. We must rightly seek erotic joy and unity, in line with the Spirit of goodness, but must simultaneously avoid expecting the complete experience of such a thing in this life. Practically, we need to give our loved ones a break when they are weak. At the same time, we need to realize that our loved ones were made for the Garden, and some of the frustrating things they do reflect their discomfort with the weeds that inevitably spring up in earthly life.
Leonard Cohen describes this in a stanza that always haunted me from his song “Bird on a Wire:”
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”
Because of our fallen situation, we must not expect from others what we cannot hope to get. But, we must not settle. We must not let the embers of love—for God or for connection with others—to die out. When we fight against erotic despair, against the idea that we’re just animals trying to release some biological tension, that true love is just a fairy tale, we are like sacraments. We become a veiled reality of God’s great reality. When we kiss, we celebrate the unity that once was and soon will be, even if after we kiss, we end up fighting about who is supposed to take the kids to school in the morning.
So, what about “the one.” The one is the one you’ve decided to make the one. Courageously traverse this wasteland together, despite the obstacles. Decide together that, in patience and hope, you will endure even the agonies of romantic life. You will endure in confidence that God promises that, despite what it looks like today, we will garden together once more, when the cosmic story takes us back to the Beginning once again.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
[This post, as usual, riffs off of and expands on a conversation I had with co-host Dan van Voorhis, on this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast, though this time I go off in a very different direction. On the show we talk about utopias, politics, and the ideal society.]
Composed while sipping coconut milk and cinnamon, between chapters of Amy Frykholm, Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography.