Saturday, August 3, 2013

Letters to Emma: On Soul Mates, Self-Seeking and Systematic Overload

Dear Emma,
I saw that your mama sent you the links to a few hot articles circulating around these days on the concepts of marriage, romance, and future spouses. I'm sure you weren't too thrilled to find out that you might just marry someone who is not your soul mate and that overly romantic movies might just be women's own version of --blush--pornography. While I am not totally sure I agree fully with that premise, I think there is something about these things worth considering.

Look, you're young, you're trying to figure out this great big thing called life and how to do it God's way. And God love you, Emma, you want it do be a-maz-ing. And you deserve for it to be so, my dear. But here's the thing I re-learn every day of my wide-eyed, high-hoping life. Expectations are the death of amazing. That's why this whole soul mate, "I want to marry Mr. Darcy" thing can be so destructive.

You see, Em, at the end of the day, our notions of what we want, and the feeding of those notions with overly idealized fiction, are usually not the way life works out. And they are almost never the way a life lived radically sold out for the gospel turns out. And so when we indulge in crafting our own idyllic visions of life, of marriage and of the men we will marry, we risk being constantly plagued by disappointment. The problem with that is that disappointment is never content to be just disappointment. It insists on growing into resentment, envy and covetousness. It is an ugly little monster.

And we, Emma, girls like you and me? We are the queens of expectations. And, in my case, dramatic let down. When I was graduating from high school, there was some question in our cute little final profiles about the man we would marry. I wrote about the wild concoction of a man that was lot of my daddy, a lot of Jesus and little bits of physical pieces of about twenty-five movie stars and fictional characters. Really, I did. By the time I graduated from college, I had met a couple of men who kind of looked like this fictional man in my mind. And I'll tell you what, Emma, it was a good thing there was that little bit of Jesus and my daddy in my criteria, because they were all big fat jerks who were nothing like either of those two.

So at twenty-two, I took to hiding in the Adoration Chapel and lamenting dramatically my old maid-dom. And telling all my friends that if I wasn't married by the time I was thirty, I was going to adopt seven Haitian children and move on. Because, you know, that's the logical next step. But something happened to me in that chapel, Emma. When I began to put my eyes on Jesus and what He might want for me instead of myself and what I might want for me, my criterion list for a husband became suddenly very short. It went something like this: "God, please send me a husband who will love only you more than he loves me. And who wants to have as many babies as possible. And who wants to serve the Church."

Because what I learned about all those soul mate expectations, sweet Em, is that they are entirely self-serving. They have nothing to do with the very real sacramental, sacrificial laying down kind of love that is Christian marriage. I mean, you don't sit around dreaming about your soul mate and how you will pick his dirty socks up off the floor and wash them even when you are mad at him or how he will be the one to scoop a screaming colicky baby out of your arms when you are at your wits end. You think all about how good he will make you feel with his flowers and his love notes and his sweet secret winks and dimpled smile. And all the nice things he'll do for you to make you feel good about yourself. At the end of the day, our notions of soul mates are entirely self-serving. All about the way the person we marry will be perfect because he will make us feel good about us.

I would suggest that we need to be more invested in looking for our soul challenger -- the person who will challenge us to grow, challenge us to holiness, accept us for who we are, weaknesses and all, but not be willing to leave us there. The person who will love us like Jesus' loves, which is a lot more about teaching us truth and stretching us in grace than it is about making us feel good. And he should occasionally buy you flowers for no reason and leave you love notes too. But that won't be what makes him the perfect spouse for you.

I celebrated my sixteenth wedding anniversary this week. We squeezed in a sushi lunch between shopping for a new washing machine hose and running to the grocery store. And we stopped first and picked up my anniversary gift. Do you know what it was, Emma? Three huge red plastic laundry baskets. The most romantic, un-romantic anniversary gift ever. Not the stuff of chick flicks and soul mate dreams, no. But real, true love in action. Why?

Because my husband knows me, loves me, and respects me. And this gift proves just that. You see, Emma, I have this temperament issue that does something strange to me. When I feel overwhelmed by life and my responsibilities and start to feel behind on the daily routines that keep things running smoothly, I tend to jump off this dramatic mental cliff and crash hard on the conclusion that I am an abysmal failure, that I will never, ever get things right, that God was totally wrong when He gave me this life and the world would be better served if I listened to music and browsed Pinterest than if I actually tried. Because trying would just thrust my incompetence upon the world again and that would be a terrible tragedy.

I really, really wish this was humorous exaggeration, Emma. But it's not.

Here's another little quirk about me. I can not mentally or physically function unless I have a strategy, a plan, a system in my head for how I am going to accomplish something in small steps. And I mean anything. Like when I go to the sink to wash the dishes, I have to mentally say to myself, "First I'll wash the plates, Then the cups. Then the silver ware. Clean out the sink. If there's time and space left in the universe, I'll wash the pots and pans." Because, seriously, if not, those sinks full of dishes will seem like a mountain I am completely incapable of climbing and I will end up in my bed with the covers pulled over my head. I have to have a system that makes sense and breaks things in to small chunks that feel doable, or I implode. For every. little. thing. I. do.

Oh, and a third quirk. My brain does not understand a system created by another person. Nope. If I read someone else's "keep the house clean in twenty minutes a day"plan, I run headlong off that same, "I am such a big failing loser"cliff. I get tight in the chest and think I will never, ever have a clean house if I have to do it her way. Seriously. Even my beloved's suggestions for how to tackle something that is overwhelming me send me tears. Because, obviously, if he had to make a suggestion about how I could tackle something, it is because he noticed I am not doing it satisfactorily, and that obviously means I am tragically flawed and there is no hope at all that I will ever be a good wife, mother, or missionary. Right? Right.

So, here's the thing. Laundry in rainy season has been sending me off that cliff every single day. To the point that my husband asking me for clean socks can make me shake, tear up and flop on the bed in utter despair. But at some point while I was buried under the blankets, my mind made up a system! If I could just put the clothes in baskets in an order that made sense to me, then rotate the baskets from the front to the back of the line, nothing would fall through the cracks, the laundry mountain would be broken down into steps that didn't make me nauseated, and I could be a good wife again! Laundry baskets would make the universe livable, Emma!

Now, I am sure by now you can see that this is probably an issue I should work at improving on, Emma. And I dare say my husband might think so too after 16 years. But you know what, he didn't say that when I told him about my plan. Instead, he took time out of our anniversary lunch time to take me to buy laundry baskets. He invested our minimal missionary income into something that is really wholly unnecessary (you do realize that sorting laundry when you only have ice cold water to wash in is pretty pointless, right?) but made me feel capable again. AND he let me pick the color. Because you know, the color of your laundry baskets matters. (It totally does, by the way). AND he cheered with me when I got home and organized my previously life-sucking laundry mountain into a line of pretty red baskets and all was right in my world.

Now, I don't think laundry baskets for an anniversary present were in my dreams of my future with my soul mate. They certainly aren't the stuff of emotional pornography. But when it comes to the man who got down on his knee and proposed to me in front of Jesus in that same adoration chapel where I had prayed for God to send Him to me? They are the perfect statement of the way he loves me. He accepts me for who I am, dramatic systematic overload and all, and desires for me to succeed, to feel good about myself and to enjoy the work and the sacrifice that our life together requires. He appreciates that I have said yes to this life with him and thus no to aisles full of pretty baskets at Target around the block and a car I can drive and a pretty red front loading washer and dryer. He is invested in me and our life together. And he wants to eat his sushi without talking about laundry. Why? Because he wants ME to be able to celebrate, to know joy, to relax and feel appreciated while I am with him.

That, my dear, is what this is all about. And that is why it worth setting aside those soul mate expectations. Because they may just blind you to the truth of what real love and romance could look like one day. Don't marry your soul mate, Emma. Marry the man who will make you think that getting laundry baskets for your anniversary is a reason to melt into his arms with appreciation. And who won't mention that even with your system in place, he still couldn't find his clean socks two days later. Because that, Emma, is what love really looks like. And that is what makes life a-maz-ing, dear.

His dimpled smile doesn't hurt either. Swoon.

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