We Americans are a people both fascinated and horrified by the notion of commitment. Note the most common sitcom plots, the predictable trajectories of our celebrity marriages, even the myth of the American hero striking out, away from the familiar, toward an unknown future. What is it about commitment that is so frightening, yet so compelling? Commitment scares us because the truth does. At least Wendell Berry suggests something like that:
“Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you -- and marriage, time, life, history, and the world -- will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.
Forms join us to time, to the consequences and fruitions of our passing. The Zen student, the poet, the husband, the wife -- none knows with certainty what he or she is staying for, but all know the likelihood that they will be staying 'awhile': to find out what they are staying for. And it is the faith of all of these disciplines that they will not stay to find that they should not have stayed.
That faith has nothing to do with what is usually called optimism. As the traditional marriage ceremony insists, not everything that we stay to find out will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought.”
I am not so much interested in this as a statement about marriage as I am in it as a statement about how we ought to live. It feels radical, certainly polemical in a society that values unrestricted independence. What a contrarian notion: commitment -- not wanderlust -- begets discovery, and discovery, even when sorrow or pain follow, is a movement toward what is real and right.
Consider his rather plain line buried in a dependent clause: “that the truth is good to know.” It’s an obvious point, one assumed on its surface. He might have left it out; it doesn’t appear necessary to the argument -- until you realize that it is the argument.
Truth as an unqualified good: We would all readily assent to this, but how often do we live at counter purpose to it? How often do we avoid, reject, run from the very things -- be it another person, a place, a vocation, a community, an institution -- that reveal to us some terrible truth? We turn away from what is difficult or painful to acknowledge, yes, about other people, but more often, about ourselves.
Marriage is Berry’s trope here, but apply it to any of our life’s commitments: an emotionally needy friend, an addicted sibling, a stifling job, an unexciting town, a lackluster congregation. What will we discover by continuing to show up? What will we learn about ourselves, what will we come to know? And do we have the nerve to do this learning, to live into this knowing? Even when it's ugly? Especially when it's ugly?
Joanna B. Campbell is an innovation consultant living in Ann Arbor, MI. She attends St. Peter's Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit.