Greater Expectations: Don't Settle In Marriage, Life
Several years ago I was teaching a senior class, an honors psychology course, when a student asked me, "Father Wissel, what grade do I have to make on the final exam in order to pass the course?" Of course, we have to remember that in order to graduate you had to pass all courses. If you failed one course, you did not participate in the graduation exercises. You would have to go to summer school and take a three-credit college course, since very few high schools had summer school for psychology.
Answering the question for him would be secondary because the question reflects a minimal attitude toward education in general and that course in particular. The student was not concerned with what grade he could make. Even less was the interest in what he might learn. His only concern was the lowest he could make and still pass the course.
That young man was doing with school what many of us do with life. He was expecting too little. Knowledge could be his for the taking. But he wasn't interested. All he wanted was the lowest grade that would make him eligible for graduation.
There is a Gospel reading that includes some men who reflected a similar attitude, although their concern was not passing a course in school. That part of their lives had long since faded. They were grown men now, dealing with grown-up issues. One of those concerns was marriage. Apparently, they had been a part of that sacred institution for some time. In any case, they had learned that it was not all fun and games.
Sooner or later, all married couples make that discovery. And then they have to decide how to deal with it. There are basically three options. One, you can endure it. Two, give up and quit. Or, three, work at making their marriage something good and beautiful.
These men were considering option no. 2. They thought maybe the best thing for them was to quit. If a marriage turns out to be hard work and no fun, just walk away from it. For them that seemed a reasonable solution, and they asked Jesus whether it was permissible within the laws. He agreed Moses did allow for that, but it was only a concession to human stubbornness. Those who insisted felt there was no escape clause. God's original plan afforded something far better.
To make his point, Jesus went back to Genesis, the book of beginnings. There he cited a beautiful story. It tells how the institution of marriage got started. God saw that it is not good for people to live in loneliness. So he decreed a partnership. He created a man and a woman and brought them together. It was a perfect match. The story says that the two of them became as one.
That is the beauty of marriage. It affords the ultimate intimacy. I know a couple with an unusual little magnetic sign on their refrigerator door. It says, "Happiness is being married to your best friend." That seems fairly accurate to me. I can't think of a much happier arrangement than for a husband and wife to be best friends. Even though, as a priest I am celibate, I can imagine the beauty of that relationship.
These men had a shot at that. But they were willing to settle for a divorce. That is strange. Why would a person expect so little from life? Maybe it's because we don't know real value when we see it.
Each of those men had in his possession a diamond in the rough. And he was thinking about throwing it away. Why would a man do that? One possibility is that he did not know what a marriage can be. Maybe he could see nothing except what that relationship required of him. He had to give up some of his freedom. He had to consider the wants and wishes of another person. He could not always have things his way. Almost every day, he was confronted with the necessity of some small sacrifice. And, occasionally, he had to make some great ones. So, he said to himself, "I don't need this." And he was really ready to walk away.
Overlooked in his calculations was the priceless worth of a good home. It is a place where love is purest, and dearest and deepest. It is a place where life's shocks are softened by unfailing friendliness. It is a place where we can be ourselves without the fear of rejection. Sometimes we settle for too little of life because we don't know what the really valuable things are.
I suppose, however, that more often it is because we are unwilling to work. We are not told the kinds of problems these men had in their marriages. They could have been quite serious. I have seen marriages that appear beyond saving. That, however, is unusual. Of course, one person cannot do it all alone. Both have to work on it. But when the husband does his part and the wife does hers, most marriage problems can be solved. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that most problems of any sort could be corrected with a little hard work.
Many of us have heard of "Habitat for Humanity," an organization that builds houses for poor people. When a house is finished, the occupants have no money, but they have what Habitat calls "sweat equity." That is to say, they helped build it. They invested their hard work in their new home.
You and I are required to do that with most good things. A good marriage, a great friendship, strong character — none of these things can be had without "sweat equity." If we accept the lowest passing grade in a course, none of these things can be achieved without commitment and hard work. Let us not expect too little of life.