Insanity, Marriage, and the Virgin Mary

I couldn’t let this day pass without posting my favorite passage from Alain de Botton’s […]

David Zahl / 2.14.17

I couldn’t let this day pass without posting my favorite passage from Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love, in which our favorite Swiss pop-philosopher/religious atheist hints at the appeal of ‘true religion’ under the guise of abreactive art and in the process gives us a crash, er, course on grace in relationships. It comes from mid-way through the book in the chapter on “Universal Blame” (ouch!), just after one of the protagonists, Rabih, finds out that his position at work may soon be up for grabs. In other words, if things don’t turn around, he’s going to lose his job:

The threat of unemployment plunges [Rabih] into gloom and anxiety. It would be hell to try to find another job in this city, he knows… He is threatening to fail in his most basic responsibilities as a husband…

Today his walk home takes him past St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. He’s never been inside before–the facade has always seemed gothically gloomy and uninviting–but, in his perturbed and panic-stricken mood, he decides to have a look around and ends up in a niche off the nave, in front of a large painting of the Virgin Mary, who gazes down at him with sorrowful and kindly eyes. Something in her sympathetic expression touches him, as if she knew a little about… the shortfall of work and wanted to reassure him of her own ongoing faith in him. He can feel tears coming to his eyes at the contrast between the challenging facts of his adult life and the kindness and tenderness in this woman’s expression. She seems to understand and yet not condemn. He is surprised when he looks at his watch and realizes that it’s been a quarter of an hour. It’s a sort of madness, he concedes, for an atheist of Muslim descent to find himself in a candlelit hall at the food of a portrait of a foreign deity to whom he wants to offer his tears and confusion. Still, he has few alternatives, there not being many people left who still believe in him. The main burden of responsibility has fallen on his wife, and that means asking rather a lot of an ordinary, non-canonized mortal.

At home, [his wife] Kirsten has made a zucchini, basil, and feta salad for dinner from a recipe of his. She wants to know all the details about the work crisis… She wants a blow-by-blow account because that’s how she copes with anxiety: she hangs on to and arranges the facts. She doesn’t want to let on directly quite how worried she is… Rabih wants to scream or break something. He observes his beautiful, kindly wife, on whom he has become a constant burden. Eight times a year at least they have scenes a little like this, when disasters happen out in the world and Rabih brings them back to the hearth and lays them before Kirsten in a muddle heap.

She joins him where he is standing by the fireplace, takes his hand in hers, and says with warmth and sincerity, “It will be okay”–which they both know isn’t necessarily true.

We place such demands on our partners, and become so unreasonable around them, because we have faith that someone who understands obscure part of us, whose presence solves so many of our woes, must somehow also be able to fix everything about our lives. We exaggerate the other’s powers in a curious sort of homage to a small child’s awe at their own parents’ apparently miraculous capacities.

To a six-year-old Rabih, his mother seemed almost godlike; she could find his stuffed bear when it was lost, she always made sure that his favorite chocolate milk was in the fridge, she produced fresh clothes for him every morning, she would lie in bed with him and explain why his father had been screaming, she knew how to keep the earth tilted on its correct axis…

Both Rabih and Kirsten have learnt how to reassure the anxious child selves concealed within their adult partners. That’s why they love each other. But they have in the process also unknowingly inherited a little of that dangerous, unfair, beautifully naive trust, which little children place in their parents. Some primitive part of the grown-up Rabih and Kirsten insists that the beloved must control far more of the world than any human being in an adult relationship possibly could, which is what generates such anger and frustration when problems nevertheless arise.

Kirsten takes Rabih into her arms. “If only I could do something, I would,” she says, and Rabih looks sadly and kindly at her, recognizing as if for the first time an essential solitude he is faced with that remains utterly impervious to love. He isn’t angry with her; he is panicked and battered by events. To be a better husband, he recognizes, he will have to learn to place a little less of the wrong, destructive sort of hope in the woman who loves him. He must be readier to expect to be, where it counts, all alone. (pg 92-94)

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De Botton does a beautiful job here, as elsewhere, of dramatizing what Ernest Becker calls the “apocalyptic ideal” upheld in most modern understandings of romance, namely, the projection onto our (soul-)mate of the hopes we used to place on God, not only that they meet all our needs–spiritual, emotional, material, etc–but actually redeem us from the pain those longings have brought, and continue to bring. Indeed, all it would take to drag the illustration into a Sunday School classroom is to sub out the “all alone” at the end with a different type of sola (or three).

Of course, part of the projection Alain describes is important and even beautiful. It accounts for much of the joy and transcendence of falling in love, why it is such a helpful corollary for matters eternal. Moreover, the experience of grace (received) and full-blooded faith (offered) we celebrate on Valentines is real, however many cracks its foundation may contain.

Alas, although such vaunted expectations of the other (or the relationship) appear to dignify our love lives, in the long run, they denigrate them. Such is the love-killing power of the law. You might even say that those initial butterflies have less to do with l-o-v-e than (unexpected) appreciation/flattery doled out on the basis of perceived attributes. Or something like that:

“There is, in the early period of love, a measure of sheer relief at being able, at last, to reveal so much of what needed to be kept hidden for the sake of propriety. We can admit to not being as respectable or as sober, as even-keeled or as ‘normal’, as society believes. We can be childish, imaginative, wild, hopeful, cynical, fragile and multiple – all of this our lover can understand and accept us for.” (pg 23)

“Infatuations aren’t delusions. That way a person has of holding their head may truly indicate someone confident, wry and sensitive; they really may have the humour and intelligence implied by their eyes and the tenderness suggested by their mouth. The error of the infatuation is more subtle: a failure to keep in mind the central truth of human nature that everyone – not merely our current partners, in whose multiple failings we are such experts – but everyone will have something substantially and maddeningly wrong with them when we spend more time around them... The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.” (pg 179)

What sounds unromantic here, though, isn’t. It is merely unromanticized, and therefore the gateway to the very definition of romance. Because without the death inherent in the deflation of our relational anthropology, true understanding (of the Marian variety) remains out of reach. How wonderfully unexpected, then, when such disillusionment/de-idolization allows room for actual love to blossom–something born of mutual forgiveness rather than mutual fulfillment. Which is where De Botton’s ultimate thesis comes in, one we’ve reproduced elsewhere, but bears repeating:

“We don’t need to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane.”

The sentiment applies more broadly than the bedroom, thank God. It speaks to the living room, the office, the kitchen, the minivan, the intensive care unit. Something like it even speaks to the cathedral pew.

Not from a painting, mind you, but a cross.