Friday, June 06, 2014

Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles

“When David slew Goliath (yes!), that was a miracle.
When God gave us manna in the wilderness, that was a miracle too.
But of all God's miracles large and small,
The most miraculous one of all
Is the one I thought could never be:
God has given you to me.”

            From the Musical, Fiddler on the Roof

As a boy, I remember being livid when my parents shut off the Oakland Raiders’ game and dragged me to watch something called “Fiddler on a Roof” in a theater.  Back then, the choice between football and theatre was a no-brainer, and I spent the entire play sulking.   It wasn’t until Sholem Aleikum’s book was turned into a movie that I fell in love with it.  Like everyone else, I adored the character of Tevye the milkman, whose way of relating to God as if He were a business partner remains one of the prototypical Jewish forms of communication with the Divine.   But I appreciated the tailor Motel Kamzoil every bit as much.  Motel’s song, Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles, is a classic.  He sings it while radiating unmitigated joy at the thought that a poor, uncharismatic nebbish could somehow become betrothed to the most beautiful and heavenly woman in the world.

Was Tevye’s oldest daughter truly the world’s most beautiful creature?  The most heavenly?   Motel wouldn’t doubt that for a second.   And therein lies the miracle of love requited.   The beloved is put on a pedestal, and when she returns affection with affection, it casts a spell.   The Motel who sang that song surely would have lost much of his objectivity in assessing his fiancé, and that is just how things should be.   That’s how nature works her magic.  Objectivity is suitable for scientists, even certain types of philosophers, but not for lovers, and certainly not for husbands and wives.

This coming Saturday, I will be attending my second wedding in a month.   I’ve also heard about a recently announced engagement – nobody important to me, just my older daughter.  Like Tevye’s oldest, my Hannah is also very beautiful and heavenly.  But she’s not the most beautiful and heavenly.  That would be my wife.  

As set forth in The Creed Room, one of the central tenets of Empathic Rationalism is the prohibition against deceiving oneself.  But maybe that principle should be clarified.  When it comes to which glasses to wear while observing our spouses, we are permitted to make them rose-colored.   In fact, the muse of romance doesn’t merely permit it, she commands it.  And to those of us fortunate enough to take our romantic feelings and consummate them on a wedding night, that commandment truly seems to be the wonder of wonder, the miracle of miracles. 

But that’s really not the case.  Not even close.  What the euphoric couple doesn’t realize on their wedding day is that there are miracles, and then there are MIRACLES.   Broadway and Hollywood often celebrate the former, but only occasionally do they let us observe the latter.  Motel Kamzoil is just the kind of guy who would know the difference.   

Seven years after the fall of Anatevka, a massive cruise ship hit an iceberg and disappeared into the North Atlantic.  And 85 years after that, a movie was made commemorating that terrible tragedy.   For many of us, it was a film best remembered for its up-and-coming leads and its mega-hit song.  But for me, the image that lasts is that of an elderly couple, lying together in bed, the man reaching out to grab the hand of his wife and then kissing her on the cheek, preparing to meet their demise while truly at peace.  Watching that brief scene, I had the type of experience that is typically reserved for witnessing a Rembrandt.  There, in front of my eyes, were two souls who didn’t merely find a mate and host a big party, but who dutifully and contentedly sailed the ship of love throughout their lives and remained content to the bitter – or should I say bittersweet? – end.

James Cameron, the Director of Titanic, never used words to describe that couple’s life, but he didn’t have to.   Tolstoy told us that “happy families are all the same; the unhappy ones are different in their own ways.”  His statement suggests that there are certain laws of nature that apply to family life.  And they govern which marriages succeed and which do not. 

Here are a few examples of these laws of nature as I see them:  Marriages only work between the best of friends.  Each spouse must look up to the other.   And that admiration must be translated into allowing the other to enjoy true autonomy.  Constant communication is required.   Neither is permitted to “cheat” on the other.  Nor can either spouse make the other feel that if they don’t live up to their potential as an individual, they’ll lose their marriage.  In other words, they both are given unconditional love and they never doubt that for a second.

That’s one side of the ledger.  But there’s another.  And that is, that even the happiest of marriages will have all sorts of problems.   If James Cameron had taken that elderly couple and made a movie about their marital problems, he could have surely found enough ammo to create a depressing story.   Invariably, it seems, even the happiest couples will bicker about many of the same things.   Money issues, child-rearing philosophies, you name it.  The happiest of couples will periodically get frustrated with one another.  That’s another law of nature.   But you know what?  They remain loyal – physically and spiritually.  And gradually, year after year, decade after decade, they come to understand each other better, and then to appreciate one another more, and then to bicker less.  When they identify a problem with their spouse, they talk it through.   And if they live long enough, they are left with the contentment of knowing that half a century ago, when the time had come for them to make the most fateful decision in their lives, they made the perfect choice.

I didn’t need to interview that elderly couple from Titanic to understand the path they’d taken.   I didn’t have to live as long as they had lived to recognize all the marital laws they had honored, or to acknowledge all the crap they were willing to endure without losing their commitment to one another.  How did they do it?  That magical spell which started with their first intimate conversation, grew with their betrothal, and intensified at the altar -- how was it able to deepen over the decades, even as they lost their looks, lost their health, lost their initiative, and perhaps even screwed up at the office or with the family finances?   How could that spell be so strong that they were at peace despite the certain knowledge that their lungs would soon be filled with seawater?  

Now THAT is the wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles.  It starts with love.  But it’s more than love.  It’s about character.  It’s about having a capacity for kindness, responsibility, humility, and self-restraint.  In short, it’s about being a mensch.  When Motel the Nebbish sings about miracles, there is surely not a soul in the audience who doesn’t recognize him as a mensch.  “God willing,” as Motel would say, he and his fiancé would live long enough to be as old as that couple on the Titanic.  And if so, you could bet your house that Motel would have been true to his wife from beginning to end.   For a man of his character, such spells might not last an eternity, but they sure last a lifetime.  

I often hear people say that monogamy is not “natural.”  But I don’t buy that for a second.   Surely, some of us are more inclined to it than others, and I would be the first to say that it isn’t for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for anyone.   Or that it can’t produce something of the greatest beauty.   From my perspective, the human ability to appreciate another person to the point where both spouses can steadily build a magical world that revolves around their lives together is indeed the wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles.    

To those of you who are getting married these days, or getting engaged, or even thinking of getting engaged, I wish you the character of Motel and the life of the couple on the Titanic.  Yes, I know that life ended badly.  But it was still worth it. 

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