In a World of Suffering, the “And Yet”

Well, Modern Love’s Daniel Jones is certainly not on vacation. This past Friday’s installment of our […]

$_35Well, Modern Love’s Daniel Jones is certainly not on vacation. This past Friday’s installment of our favorite relationships column was a heat-seeking missile into the dark depths of marital skepticism. Surprisingly, though, the article does not object to marital skepticism–it normalizes it. Ada Calhoun writes about her own 10+ years of marriage and the difficulties that quickly skimmed off the fluff of most wedding toasts you hear–“I will never let you down,” “You will always be my best friend,” etc. Strangely enough, Calhoun indicates the inherent optimism of these kinds of toasts as part of the problem. We feel entitled to their sentiments, so much so that when the cumulative pressures of life weigh upon them, and our selfishness weighs upon them, we crack. And we resent the union that promised to provide them.

Much like Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg’s analysis, this is the weight of the cultural imperative to “find a soulmate.” This cracking moment is also when we begin to look at return policies, when we look to alternative solutions that could make us happier. Calhoun says this is simply a part of marriage–part that will never find its way into a wedding toast.

I want to say that one day you and your husband will fight about missed flights, and you’ll find yourself wistful for the days when you had to pay for only your own mistakes. I want to say that at various points in your marriage, may it last forever, you will look at this person and feel only rage. You will gaze at this man you once adored and think, “It sure would be nice to have this whole place to myself.”

In Zen Buddhism, meditation helps practitioners detach from the cycle of desire and suffering. In my brief stint as a religious studies major, I preferred Pure Land Buddhism, an alternate path to enlightenment for people who (as one professor told us) may find it difficult to abandon worldly pain and passion because those things can also yield such beauty and comfort. He summed it up as: “Life is suffering — and yet.”

I think about that all the time: “And yet.” Such hedging, to me, is good religion and also the key to a successful marriage. In the course of being together forever, you come across so many “and yets,” only some of them involving domestic air travel.


I love this person, and yet she’s such a mess. And yet when I’m sick, he’s not very nurturing. And yet we don’t want the same number of children. And yet I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be single again.

The longer you are with someone, the more big and little “and yets” rack up. You love this person. Of course you plan to be with him or her forever. And yet forever can begin to seem like a long time. Breaking up and starting fresh, which everyone around you seems to be doing, can begin to look like a wonderful and altogether logical proposition.

For good reason, this is a typical (if not overblown) reading of marriage in Christian circles, to pop of the bubble of “Happily Ever After.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a minister say something similar — “you’ll wake up angry at the person lying next to you,” or “marriage will show you the worst in yourself.” These proverbs may sound melodramatic, but they are true; I for one have learned them well. In the current romantic landscape of self-fulfillment and choice, these kinds of hazard signs equalize our tendency for self-delusion. We want to believe that our commitment can withstand the ages, that, with the right one, our love will reign eternal. Our anthropology begs to differ.

But it is also true, as Ada Calhoun continues, that the marriage itself is a beautiful sacrament of a lasting haven of love. Not the two fickle people involved, but the marriage. In other words, the marriage itself is an “and yet” that works in spite of all the slings and arrows of two sinful lives. In a world of suffering, it is an embodiment of God’s “and yet” to sinners. Calhoun, believe it or not, likens it to Jesus’ institution of St. Peter.

But “and yet” works the other way, too. Even during the darkest moments of my own marriage, I have had these nagging exceptions. And yet, we still make each other laugh. And yet, he is still my person. And yet, I still love him.

And so you don’t break up, and you outlast some more of your friends’ marriages. “The way to stay married,” my mother says, “is not to get divorced.”

“My parents were too poor to get divorced,” a friend told me that very day in Minneapolis as we walked through the book fair. “And so they stayed married and then it seemed too late, and now they’re glad.”

Those are the things I think about when yet another person I used to think of as being part of a happily married couple messages a friend of mine on Tinder.

And this is where it gets really good.

elmalak-elbahary_06_Peter_Deny_02One thing I love about marriage (and I love a lot of things about marriage) is that you can have a bad day or even a bad few years, full of doubt and fights and confusion and storming out of the house. But as long as you don’t get divorced, you are no less married than couples who never have a hint of trouble (I am told such people exist).

You can be bad at a religion and still be 100 percent that religion. Just because you take the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t make you suddenly a non-Christian. You can be a sinner. In fact, I think it’s good theology that no matter how hard you try, you are sure to be a sinner, just as you are sure to be lousy, at least sometimes, at being married. There is perfection only in death.

It is easy for people who have never tried to do anything as strange and difficult as being married to say marriage doesn’t matter, or to condemn those who fail at it, or to mock those who even try. But there is so much beauty in the trying, and in the failing, and in the trying again. Peter renounced Jesus three times before the cock crowed. And yet, he was the rock upon whom Christ built his church.

At weddings, I do not contradict my beaming newlywed friends when they talk about how they will gracefully succeed where nearly everyone in human history has floundered. I only wish I could tell them they will suffer occasionally in this marriage — and not only sitcom-grade squabbles, but possibly even dark-night-of-the-soul despair.

That doesn’t mean they are doomed to divorce, just that it’s unlikely they will be each other’s best friend every single minute forever. And that while it’s good to aim high, it’s quite probable they will let each other down many times in ways both petty and profound that in this blissful moment they can’t even fathom.

But I would go on to say (had I not by that point been thrown out of the banquet hall): Epic failure is part of being human, and it’s definitely part of being married. It’s part of what being alive means, occasionally screwing up in expensive ways. And that’s part of what marriage means, sometimes hating this other person but staying together because you promised you would. And then, days or weeks later, waking up and loving him again, loving him still.


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14 responses to “In a World of Suffering, the “And Yet””

  1. Debi says:


  2. mary says:

    another good article. When i divorced my first husband(yes there were two and I was kinda hoping for three, yikes!) i told my mother in law i wanted to be happy. She replied with “who is happy” and I thought “are you crazy?(she was…lol). But now I understand!!! She was right!!! jeez…………..God uses all thing! I am glad that I can rest in Him and know.

  3. Brooks says:

    This bittersweet “and yet” reminds me of another place I heard that forgiving phrase, in the opening chapter of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, “…I had heard it [the middle movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto] lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet…”

  4. David Zahl says:

    Holy moly.

  5. Ian says:

    Amazing, Ethan. “And yet-” somehow links up both “now” and “not yet.” God is good.

  6. Ginger says:

    This is great! Thanks for posting.

  7. Clay says:

    Forty years into my marriage I can attest to every blunt truth revealed in this article. The smartest thing I ever did was not divorce my sweetest friend.

  8. Marianne says:

    Being aware ahead of time of the “and yets”, both positive and negative, help get through these times. A great and true article, as I have also experienced all of these. God is good.

  9. Noelle says:

    When I was reading the original article earlier this week, I found myself thinking “this belongs on the mbird blog.” Great minds think alike 🙂

  10. Michael Cooper says:

    Enduring marriages can be based on mutually lowered expectations and the idea that life, including marriage, is a mixed bag. But happy marriages are based on mutual forgiveness in the face of mutual weakness. There is a big difference between the two.

  11. Luke says:

    This is so true. Thanks for this!

  12. Phil Wold says:

    Thanks Ethan, I have shared this with a number of friends. Nice
    A comment reflecting on this” “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a minister say something similar — “you’ll wake up angry at the person lying next to you,” or “marriage will show you the worst in yourself.” These proverbs may sound melodramatic, but they are true; I for one have learned them well.”
    These proverbs don’t seem to me so much melodramatic, as prosaic.
    The issue at hand isn’t that there is sin and brokenness – “and yet.”
    The problem is that this brokenness brings us up against the hurt and pain that sin causes.
    We all know that by sad experience.
    What needs to be proclaimed; is that there is forgiveness. And forgiveness is more effective than optimism and positive thinking at healing that hurt.

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