Thursday, 30 May 2013

Why I married your daughter?

Why did I marry? Because there is nothing lonelier than loneliness? Now that's a thought worth frothing over. Imagine being alone with and by yourself. Talking to yourself. Having yourself as company. Laughing at your own jokes. Laughing alone. Sharing the punchlines with no one else but yourself (how do you even keep the punchline from yourself?) Loneliness makes for bad company; if ever it were company in the first place.

But then, if the fear of loneliness was why I married, wouldn't I have sacrificed freedom at the altar of institutionalized companionship? Wouldn't I be a fool to forgo the paradise that is freedom for a penitentiary that is marriage? Why would I want to tie myself to someone for life even if I had once, on a much contrived and grander occasion, before an audience of kin and friends, declared my lifetime devotion in an oath to her?

Don't I know that I will get bored in due course when due course takes its course? How can mere words, however celebrated and solemn, bind two lifetimes together? Where is the justice in that? Has pragmatism taken a long leave of absence? Has basic common sense escaped from the prison of marital insanity for good? How can mere words lock two unsuspecting young lives in an iron-clad commitment that demands more than what mere words can ever hope to achieve?

So, why did I marry? Why did I go through all that trouble just to reap a lifetime of uncertainty, tolerance, compromises, embarrassments, disappointments, heartaches, dejection, struggles, denial, disillusionment, and even betrayal?

Alas, seen in this light, or the lack of it, marriage is indeed a dastardly enterprise that those entrapped by it have much to lament about. I am an unwitting victim of this marital house-trap. Or am I? Here is where I modulate my tone a little. If ever I could fast-forward to the epilogue of this letter, this is what I would conclude: "Marriage has the best of intentions but the worst of expectations." Let me elaborate.

For me, the wedding night is a big blind date for what is to come thereafter. It is blind not to its company but to its prospect. While we may marry the familiar, the future of marriage is much less so. Nobody knows how this ordained union will turn out. And herein lies the cause of our misplaced optimism. The flaw therefore lies not with marriage but our expectations of it. The reality of marriage suffers from false advertisement at its very start. And what a start! What a celebration where no expenses were spared!

Of course there is nothing wrong with a salubrious dose of idealism at the altar. But when that idealism meets with day-to-day reality, we run the risk of being blindsided by the darnest things of daily living that adds up to make or break the union. In other words, when we keep our heads in the sky, we are blinded to the realities on the ground. And these realities will change over time.

The partner whom you thought you knew will become less familiar as the days go by. The changes will become even more pronounced when career stress, children and financial needs make their unbidden appearances. All these changes will conspire to burst our bubbles of idealism and we will soon become disillusioned and discouraged.

I think Stanley Hauerwas puts it best, "We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being (the enormous thing it is) means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is...learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married."

This stranger danger is no exaggeration. After marriage, your spouse will surprise you. I clumsily call it the failure of "organ transplant." Remember the genesis tale of God taking Adam's rib to form Eve? And how the two are deemed joined as one upon marriage? (an a la "organ transplant"). Well, the metaphor I see is not one of immediate donor compatibility but at most times, a mismatch. And this mismatch widens when the endearing couple go through the growing pains together over the years.

So, why did I marry then? Why do I bother if freedom lost does not make up for company gained? Why do I bother if idealism goes up in smoke when it crashes onto the grounds of reality? And why is it that this is the third time I am asking myself the same question just to be sidetracked each time by the many reasons why one shouldn't get married in the first place?

I guess the high beam is on me now. I am promptly cornered. I just want to save the best for last. If you really want to know why I married 13 years ago, and will still do it again today, and the days ahead, let me start on the high crest of idealism.

Considering the usual proposal a prospective groom makes to his future bride, mine was slightly different. About 16 years ago, I did not go on my knees to propose to Anna, not then and not yet (I eventually did in the middle of the bridge connecting Sentosa and Harbour front). However, I did propose but it was  to her parents first.

We were into our sixth year of courtship and I drafted a 50-page booklet entitled, "Can I marry your daughter, Pastor (sister Rose)?" I no doubt impressed my future parents-in-law with that booklet, which contained the following reasons why I should be the chosen one to sweep their only daughter off her feet:

"1)We have a deep, pervasive sense of compassion for each other.

2) We are not only a couple, but also good friends.

3)We are emotionally ready to forsake the benefits of singlehood 

4)We do not place too much emphasis on physical compatibility (me: yah, how convenient!).

5)We do have similar expectations (me: similar as chalk and cheese).

6)We are a spiritual match (me: more like spiritual match-sticks!).

7)We are emotionally different but compatible (me: yah, just like I am pretty ugly I guess)."

Talk about irrational emotional exuberance! Now, looking back, and reading those reasons with the benefit of hindsight, I guess the apple of reality fell far from the idealism tree and it is still rolling after being smacked by one of those powerful tiger wood's shots.

Levity aside, I am wiser now and if I could turn back time, I may write it this way (take note, this is 16 years later and maybe I should change the title to "Why I still want to be married to your daughter"):-

"Dad, mum, I love Anna and she loves me too. We still really do. She's no angel and god knows, I am no saint either. On that level, we can surely relate. Strangely, that is also our common plate. Our lives together were anything but smooth. If anything, we are like two sandpapers, rubbing each other daily, releasing more heat than light. We still quarrel; we still fight. And sometimes things don’t go so right.

As for the seven reasons in my booklet on why I should marry your daughter, they say it's the bait that hides the hook. So, thanks for taking the bait from this cradle-snatching crook (Anna was only 17 when I dated her). However, not to be outdone by me, you guys have given me a peerless gift or a wonderful catch. Your daughter came with this warning label: "Be careful, she’ll change you." And indeed she has. She had me; she's my trap. I am transformed by her beyond the 7 reasons above and that's a fact.

I hope I am not being corny but Anna has satisfied me in ways no one can. This satisfaction goes beyond the physical. It reaches far deeper. It is a gift that I am still unwrapping. It is a gift I will treasure, forever. In exchange, I will give up my freedom for her because without her, this so called freedom I'll gladly defer (but of course, I still want to keep some privacy for sure).

So, I have made my choice many years ago. I am a married man and I now know what that means. It means far more than not being lonesome. It means that I can love someone who will love me back and that's awesome. It means that when I have little reason to go further, Anna is reason enough to go on even surer. It means that through the years, Anna and I have shared and developed this indissoluble intimacy that only goes to make her even more special and indispensable to me.

Finally, it means that this marriage is worth fighting for, worth standing up for, and it is not specifically just for the kids. If for any reason at all, it is this: To imagine a life without Anna is to imagine a life that is hardly worth a second gander.

Dad and Mum, from sole-mate at the altar, Anna, your daughter, has become my soulmate immortal. No doubt I married her for love (an ideal). But I will stay on with her to love (an action). And I will pass on one day still in love (a legacy).

Thanks again for your only daughter. And from your only son in law, happy 39th anniversary, blessing and all!"

So, the above is why I married. I hope I’ve answered it the best way I know how. To me, marriage is like an idealism child consistently being disciplined by the whip of reality. And god knows I have the butt stripes to prove it. But I am better for it. I am changed for the good. This is also why, if given a second chance, I would do it all over again. Cheerz.

Friday, 24 May 2013

My Obsession with Breasts

My fascination with the female breasts at first glance is no different from any male adult of all ages. I know most men cannot get enough of it because of the most superficial of reasons. John Steinback once commented, “A visitor of another species might judge that the seat of procreation lay in the mammaries.” The seduction is obvious and any true blooded man not the least pleasantly distracted by the sight of those pendulous, bouncing and soft bosoms must have their contact lenses recalibrated.

Even on a subconscious level, without consciously making it conspicuous, the female breast still turn heads. Social experiments were carried out to show that waitresses with larger breasts generally get bigger tips. In another experiment, female subjects were made to pad up their chest to the equivalent of bra-sizes A-cup to C-cup. Thereafter, they were put in different scenarios to test whether size matters. One of the scenarios was in a dance hall with the usual social mix of males and females. The subjects were asked not to make eye contact with the young men. As the night proceeded, the one spotting size A-cup was asked to dance thirteen times. The one with B-cup was asked nineteen times and the one with C-cup garnered fourty four requests. Maybe it was an exceptionally horny night?

The other scenario was that of hitchhiking. The lady wearing size A-cup managed to get the attention of fifteen men. When the bust size was increased to B-cup, twenty men stopped their cars. And finally, the grand size of C-cup had twenty four men stepping on the brakes. This attraction or distraction depending on your level of piousness was given a closer examination when a young anthropologist by the name of Barnaby used an eye-tracking machine to monitor the part of the female body that drew the most male attention. When volunteers were placed on the machine and made to watch images of ladies with varying bust sizes, Barnaby noted the following about the volunteers,  “He starts at the breasts, then looks at the face, then pubic region, midriff, face, breasts, face, breasts. Each time the eye rests longer on the breasts.” So, the writing is clearly on the wall. Breasts impressed, whether we are interested or not.

In fact, this fascination with the breasts has recently reached bizzare proportions. A local male security guard by the name of Kurt (27 years old) had in April 2013 undergone an operation in Thailand to grow breasts. He spent S$4,100.00 for the procedure to increase his chest to size C-cup. He then uploaded his new breast implants on the net with 10,000 views. Kurt told the papers that “his flat chest gave him low confidence.” He further commented, “Ever since I was a kid, I have always imagined what it would like one day if I had breasts.” What is most eye-popping in the interview for me was his ambitious plans for his chest next year. He said, “I intend to go back in a year to increase my bust size to a G-cup. I don’t just want to have breasts. I want to have big breasts.”  Wow, in kurt's case, size not only matters, it deeply unsettles.

I think this is the part of the letter that I come clean with my intention about my obsession with the anatomical twin peaks. This obsession is not so much with the breasts per se. Neither with the size. But it is with its amazing purpose from an evolutionary point of view. Ever wonder why women have those hard-to-resist double knockers? Most scientists will tell you that it is a prelude to sexual reproduction. They will tell you that nature has singled out breasts as a sexual signal to attract the opposite sex to reproduce. This is to ensure the survival and propagation of our species.

In a male-dominated world, this borders on being chauvinistic. Desmond Morris wrote, “Human developed large rounded and firm breasts as a way to shift the male interests towards the front and encourage face-to-face bonding.”  Well, if it is as simple and straightforward as that, I would have left it at that and retire my pen for good. But in this case, I think there is more than meets the roving eye.

Recently I bought a book entitled Breast by a whimsical author Florence Williams and the book changed how I view breasts completely. My respect for them in fact grew by leaps and bounce (pun intended). From an evolutionary standpoint, breasts came about by a lucky break. After the great extinction 250 million years ago, possibly caused by a meteor clashing onto the earth, few creatures survived. Amongst those who survived were primarily mammalian-like with what seemed like kangaroo pouches acting as incubators for their eggs or hatchlings. Imagine Australian kangaroos hopping around with their young ones in their front pouches.

However, here's the catch. These eggs had leathery shells which were porous and they lost moisture fast. This is bad news for the mothers since a drying spot is a breeding ground for harmful bacteria. To fight this external threat, the maternal skin gland in the pouch evolved to secrete out protective antibodies like lysol. With this instinctual development, it doesn't take long for this secreted fluid to become nutrients for the baby. And therein lies the evolution of the breasts or mammalian glands and the origin of the human milk. I know there are still gaps in this theory but it provides the most credible explanation todate.

So, I am halfway through my journey to extol the often unseen virtues of the breasts as opposed to the often exposed aspects of them. And here comes the magical second part: the talking breast.

I have three children. The youngest is only 2 plus. And if men have a fascination with breasts, for whatever lamest reasons, my youngest daughter Joy cannot live without them. Hers is an obsession both with the milk it produces and the feel it induces. Joy chugs down breast milk like a drunken Irish would binge on a full barrel of beer. And whilst at it, she would reach out for the idling other for a firm grip; thereby giving the illusion that she's pumping it up for more. As I stood by, disgruntled and deprived, and watch her inconsiderate monopoly of the mammaries, my mind wondered about the sustenanace coming out from those twin barrels of diary farm. This is where Williams' wonderful book filled in the gap for me.

Human milk is a wonder of nature. It adapts and produces well-timed and well-mixed nutrients that food scientists are now trying to synthesize in the lab to be added in infants' food. Here's how good breast milk is. If babies were breastfed for six months, one in five childhood deaths could be prevented. No joke. And human milk is ideal for fighting infection. It is also effective in inhibiting the transmission of, ready for this, HIV. You see, the cells in breast milk are macrophage (white blood cells), which "disables viruses, fungi and bacteria." In addition, the milk contains ingredients with funny names like oligosaccharides and lactoferrin compound, found in tears and saliva, and they have antioxidant and anti-infection properties. Lastly, it comes as a pleasant surprise that babies who are fed breast milk don't have poop that stinks to high heavens. Now, enough of dirty talk.

In the book, Williams also wrote about the drawbacks of breast milk due to environmental degradation and the mother's diet. You'll have to read those chapters for a more balanced view of things. However, considering all things, human milk still triumphs over formula milk at the moment. And my point here is to extol the wonders of the breast and everything that revolves around it, milk and all. In other words, I am trying to redirect our focus on them away from the fleshly and superficial. This brings me to the talking breast I mentioned earlier and I am definitely not talking about physical seduction. It is in fact a work of inner beauty often hidden from the general view.

Do you know that the breast is able to detect the sex of the infant even during pregnancy? There are hormones (placental lactogens) that tell the breast the sexual identity of the baby in the womb. The aim of this is to allow the breast to "build up the structure it will need for making milk" in readiness for birth. Basically, the nutritional needs of boys and girls differ and the breast requires advance notice of this to pump herself up for it.
In addition, once the baby is born, the breast is able to regulate the baby's appetites.

Here's how it works. To entice the baby to drink, the breast releases a cannabis-like compound (endocannabinoids) to get the baby "hooked". Then, to prevent the baby from gorging too much and get overfed, the breast will stop the feeding by giving appropriate and timely feedback to the mother. The breast also communicates with the cells in the bone to direct the bone to produce just the right amount of calcium for the baby. Fat chance of formula milk ever doing those utterly impressive "middleman functions" methinks. And mind you, this is not all that the breast does.

According to the book, when the breast detects an infection brewing in the baby, she signals the immune system to increase the production of lactoferrin and other relevant antibodies in the milk. It kind of reminds me of a mobile Florence Nightingale working on double shifts. If the baby is born prematurely, the amazing breast will play her usual anticipatory role to up the content of "protein and caloric density for a tiny tummy." Finally, the breast will monitor the age of the baby and when the baby hits one year old, the milk will contain "more fat and cholesterol to match the baby's energy needs." Wow, honestly, I now have more reasons to look at the breasts (I mean my wife's of course) with unreserved admiration.

Imagine the unspoken complexity of those life-sustaining frontline twin nurturers. Isn't it now plainfully obvious that we, men or women alike, cannot live without the breasts? Isn't this the main reason why breasts evolve over time and not because it is to serve as some sexual entrapment for reproduction, which of course is no less important but is secondary compared to what we now know about its awesome function? Don't we all owe it to those god-endowed assets for our survival at the dawn of our birth to our independent, weaning off age? In fact, our gratitude for them goes beyond this.

When I think about the unbreakable bond between a mother and a child, I stand in awe of the matchmaking function of the breast. Imagine the initial crucial few months or years of breastfeeding and the incredibly close, or intimate contact, between the mother and her child. Picture the constant attention, the social cues, the mutual communication and the giggles and smiles exchanged, when the mother is breastfeeding her baby. Doesn't all these mutually reinforce their love for each other and in return, provides the social, and not just physical, development for the baby as she grows up? And we have the breasts to thank for because this is a journey we all once took. 

For the above reasons, when I recently heard about what the actress and activist Angelina Jolie did, that is, to undergo a preventive double mastectomy, because she carried the defective genes (BRCA1), I truly felt for her. My heart goes out. In her article, she wrote, “I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear that they will lose me to breast cancer. It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mummy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can.” What caught my attention is the next line, “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

Indeed, what defines beauty is not so much what appears to us as beautiful. No doubt Angeline Jolie is physically attractive by any standards of this world. But that is not what defines her. Essentially, her surgery did not make her less of a woman because the essence of it is in her character as revealed in her own words, “Life comes with many challenges. The one that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.” Ultimately, the beauty of character shines through.

The truth is, there is generally more to beauty than meets the eye. But we often overlook or dismiss true beauty in the physical ugliness that surrounds us daily. We tend to forget that what is beautiful need not necessarily be good. But what is good is always beautiful. Tom Wolfe puts it this way, “At the very core of fasionable society exists a monstrous vulgarity: The habit of judging human beings by standards having no necessary relation to their character.” I am afraid this so called “monstrous vulgarity” is a form of life-denying ugliness that robs true beauty from the beauty of the apparent.

It is said that if you watch a person looking in a mirror,  you will see a person trying to please himself. And that is unfortunately how most of us see the world. It is a big mirror reflecting only the well groomed image of ourselves. But what we project to the world is but an image, an appearance, that is both superficial and transient. Alas, the beauty that is virtue and character cannot be captured in a mirror.  And no matter how we try to please ourselves by polishing up our appearances, our efforts are no more effective than trying to nail jello to a wall.  It just will not stick.

So, going back to my obsession with breasts, it is essentially an obsession that goes far deeper than the image of them as object of sexual desire and reproduction. Obviously the beauty of the breast goes beyond the physical. More relevantly, it is how they have evolved to nourish the bond between a mother and her child, and how they remain faithful to the end in protecting both of them from unwarranted harm, that fills my days with sleepless wonderment. No doubt, they will still be an attraction to me, or a distraction depending on your level of personal honesty, as I am only human. But at least from now onwards, when I discreetly share with another that I admire them, I know what I am talking about. Cheerz.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The insufferable life

I think Dawkins is blindsided by life when he said, “We are going to die and that makes us the lucky ones.” Either that, or he is laboring under a numbing spell of what I would call an optimism of panglossian proportions.

But before I elaborate further, allow me to give credit where credit is due. The popular prophet of the godless does have a point, a good one in fact. I recall a quote that says that the greatest privilege is to be alive, to be who you are, and to thank the cosmic stars for your successful birth. Indeed, I have made it. I have won the genetic lottery of life. I am born. Hooray!

Mind you, I did not just have a dream of being born. It is no illusion. I came through. I was not a potential, a hope, a mirage; I am kinetically alive, I have squeezed out. I have struggled through the narrow claws of death, the choking birth canal that was meant to strangle me, my first welcoming assassin before birth. But I beat it. I beat the insurmontable odds to be alive. I dogde its bullets. I came resurrected. I beat the greatest conspiracy of all time, that is, life’s conniving plan to end me, stillborn, to abort me from the record of human history. How about a standing ovation anyone?

But then, after it all, what’s next? How do I live hence? What makes life’s first victory so called an enduring one, sustained to its end by something or someone, beyond the kerfuffle of the first promising start? Alas, if there is such as this that Dawkins call the tragedy of missing the last train of life, to be forever stranded between the stations of life and death, an existence of non-existence, then, is there such as this, that is, to live an insufferable life that merely exists to exist and nothing more; nothing beyond what the shadows in the teleological cave have to offer? Can we live mistaking the form for the substance, the shadow for reality, the hope for the real thing? 

This is what I meant by being blindsided by life. Putting it in another way, for me, living is only living if it is living for something beyond the living. So there's more to living than living itself. Phew...

Or does life grant us this exemption, to spare us the agony of living beyond the immediate for fear that to do so we would have to abdicate, to step down from the seat of self-deification? If so, is this what life’s all about, to innoculate us from the tyrannical probing of the metaphysical so that we would not get our hallowed regalia wet?

At this juncture, I am reminded of one of Nietzsche’s poems about his own spiritual estrangement, “I know not what I love, I have neither peace nor rest, I know not what I believe, what life am I living, why?” While Nietzsche’s quest for the meaning of life is wholly admirable, if not deeply inspiring, it is the end that is hauntingly tragic.

Here’s the biting irony of an amazingly fecund intellectual life as told by one his biographers. One day, Nietzsche was taking “one of his daily strolls when he came upon a coachman beating his horse. Horrified by the brutal sight, he lunged to throw his arms around the neck of the horse and collapsed on the pavement. He lost consciousness.” He suffered three years of complete madness after that. This is the same wildly enamored philosopher who penned these words, “We are entering upon the age of Anarchy: which is at the same time the age of the most intellectual and freest individuals. Immense mental force is being put in motion. The age of geniuses: hitherto delayed by custom, morality, etc.”

Are we really living in the age of geniuses? Is this how the age of enlightenment look like, that is, a Nietzschean age of the “most intellectual and freest individuals” unchained from custom and morality? Should we then like Nietzsche start the “creation of new tables of values of our own” and remind ourselves that our primal objective must be to “become those that we are, the new, the singular, the incomparable, self-lawgivers, self-creators.” Surely, the likes of Dawkins will find Nietzsche’s brand of atheism (or antifoundationalism) extreme, if not crazy. But herein lies my point.

Just as never having been born is tragic, isn’t living for the sake of living and nothing beyond equally tragic? Now I do deeply respect Dawkins’ “immense mental force” that has set the world ablaze with his brand of atheism 101, and I am sure he does accord the same respect to those who choose to see things differently from him. And in this regard, our paths diverged.

You see, I can imagine myself riding on the Dawkins’ stallion and spreading his gospel of godlessness with the fealty of a morning newspaper delivery boy. But I am afraid I would not have the exacting tenacity of a dimunitive  jockey to go far with it. In other words, I am afraid to live the insufferable life the way I see it as one that is no different from the stunt that the atheist author Philip Pullman wished he had pulled on CS Lewis. The feisty author so loathed CS Lewis that he once suggested that he was “tempted to dig him up and throw stones at him.

Honestly, and bearing it all here, I have this peculiar loathing of God (during those crazy times). I somehow share Pullman’s wish. I wish to "dig God up and throw stones at him" (figuratively of course). But the irony that Pullman and I shared is the same irony that Nietzsche had against the object of his ire, Jesus. In our sheer denial, and in our action and passion in pursuit of our rejection of the divine, we betray the one sentiment that undergirds all sentiments. It is the desire to know Him and to understand Him. We turn away from God in order to turn to Him. We disguise curiosity with hatred, masquerade interest with aversion, and hide longing with disgust. This goes beyond the love/hate quibbles of lovers; it is between the Creator and the object of His passion; it is an intimacy of the distant.

I know many out there will be dying to cast stones at me, dead or alive, for putting up such perverted spin on the lifeworks of Pullman and Nietzsche. Their supporters would say that it is so biased, so one-sided, so typical of a cheap parlor polemical trick of a fundamentalist redneck Christian. Although I concede the possibility that I may be guilty of being overpresumptuous, and if so, I apologise for it. However, I will not disavow our repressed craving to capture or be caught by something or someone beyond the daily humdrum of our life. 

As CS Lewis once remarked that nobody is ultimately able to suppress an author who is obstinately pleasurable. In the same way, at the risk of over-reaching notwithstanding, nobody in my view, especially those who professed otherwise, is ultimately able to suppress a divine mystery that is so obstinately pleasurable. In fact, for some like Nietzsche, this pleasure consumed them all their life.

I think at this point it is timely to consider this warning made by Nietzsche’s psychologist and a monist, Paul Carus, “he who rejects truth cuts himself loose from the fountain-head of the waters of life. He may deify selfhood, but his self will die of its own self-apotheosis. His divinity is not a true God-incarnation, it is a mere assumption and self-exaltaion of a pretender.” Inspired by this quote, I see the larger question as this: Have we been living a life of a pretender, straddling between two belief systems, both at loggerheads, helplessly mired in a suspended state of cognitive dissonance, trying desperately to distinguish one and to alienate the other, keeping both separate and apart, but despite all our efforts of uncompromising sincerity, we remain torn between them, unable to fully commit, unable to still the rough waters of indecision, because our allegiance is split between them, worse still, we discovered at the end and to our horror that we have been fighting from the wrong side of the fence? (And mind you, this works both ways).

So, going back to Dawkins’ view of the privilege of living, I  quietly admire his dogged determination to wipe religion, in particular institutionalized religion, off the face of this globe. I guess he considers this life mission as one of the sublime pleasures of living. But then, my fear is this: When the mystery of mysteries has finally been eradicated or “solved”, will we then end the parole of living and begin our terminal sentence of what I'd call the insufferable life. Cheerz.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Your ideal life partner.

This question is worth exploring: Will God find me a perfect mate? Or an ideal one?

Being a life-changing decision, every serious christian I know eagerly craves for divine endorsement of their choice of a life partner. It is like making a bee-line for God at the front and hoping to secure his autograph on the picture of your desired soulmate clutched tightly in your sweaty palm.

In fact, a friend of mine once listed, with uncompromising sincerity and almost as of right, more than 30 qualities she wished for in her future husband. I can imagine God eavesdropping and muttering, "Is she talking about men of the pre-fall or post-fall era?"

The truth is, and with much relief, we will never find a perfect mate - because the one and only good catch had risen two thousand years ago. What is therefore left on earth are “works in progress”. This is a fact most head-in-the-clouds spousal wannabes find difficult to accept. I call it the idealism trap.

Many of us do not marry into perfection. We don’t even settle for second best. We marry into imperfections and it is multiplied manifold when two imperfect lives are joined. We therefore have to work on our relationship and we do so by managing our expectations. That is common sense I know. But when you are caught up in the dead space of blind passion, common sense is the oxygen that is often lacking.

This brings me to what I have recently read about a lovely couple whose first name would sound off alarm bells in the religious circle. Ready? Here are the names. Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma Wedgewood.

I know Charles Darwin is a controversial figure. But if we put aside his theory of evolution and just focus on his love for Emma, we will find a man no different from most of us. At this juncture, it should be noted that Charles did not at any time publicly professed to be an atheist. In one of his letters in 1879, he wrote that at his most extreme fluctuations, he was never an atheist. He penned, "I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."

My source of this beautiful marriage is from a book entitled "Charles and Emma – the Darwins’ Leap of Faith" by Deborah Heiligman. It is a heartwarming account of how Charles and Emma overcame personal differences to build a love that flourished for a lifetime.

Here are the quick stats. They married on 29 January 1839 and their marriage lasted for more than forty years when Charles passed away in 1882 and Emma in 1896. By any conventional standards, this is a very long marriage and a very loving one. What's so admirable about their marriage is that they were far from being “peas in the same pod”. If anything, the two pods were chasm apart.

You see, Emma, was a staunch Christian. She attended Church regularly and made sure her children attended with her. Her favorite passage in the Bible was in John thirteen when Jesus bade farewell to his disciples by washing their feet. It was an act of great love, devotion and humility that touched Emma deeply.

However, thanks to his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species, Charles was the direct opposite. While his family attended church, he would take long walks in the park. Of course, Charles did not start out with such crippling doubts. He had in fact attended Cambridge to study theology. But along the way, in his famous Beagle voyages, he struggled with his faith and converted to a die-hard empiricist.

You would expect such fundamental differences to have threatened an otherwise blissful marital union. But on the contrary, their love grew by leaps and bounds. Reading about their lives together, you'd notice the tension between them with Emma praying for Charles to experience a change of mind and Charles trying hard to avoid the subject because of his deep respect for her.

Out of this mutual deep respect, and despite her devotion to Christianity, Emma wrote to Charles, "Don't think that it is not my affair and that it does not much signify to me. Everything that concerns you concerns me and I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever." Charles actually cried when he read that letter and his commitment to both his theory of natural selection and his love for Emma torn him apart on many occasions.  He annotated in her letter these heartfelt words, "When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cryed over this. CD."

If anything, despite her faith, all of Charles’ books, including the Origin of Species, were edited by Emma. She “commented, critiqued and amended them.” She even corrected his grammar and spellings, which was to her atrocious. She rewrote awkward sentences and talked it through with him so that Charles could write them in a more lucid manner.

Imagine this irony in the eyes of a Christian fundamentalist: A firm believer in the Bible helping Charles Darwin to write a book that directly or indirectly discredits it. But, however wide their differences, their love for each other took enduring precedence.

In fact, it thrived because of it. And it even thrived notwithstanding the death of three of their ten children. Two of them died just after birth and the most heartbreaking one was their third child, Annie.

Annie died at ten. Her death took a lot away from the Darwins and they missed her dearly. Charles and Emma never really fully recovered from Annie’s painful death. But they sought solace in the arms of each other and their love became the unshakeable refuge during such times of grief. Poignantly, Emma copied this poem by Hartley Coleridge as a fitting tribute: "She pass'd away, like morning dew. Before the sun was high; So brief her time, she scarcely knew. The meaning of a sigh."

One of their marital secrets is that they communicated with each other regularly. They shared everything, holding nothing back. They shared their joy, their pain and their hopes. Their romance ensued as Charles waxed lyrical in many of his love correspondences to her. These heartfelt letters kept their love alive, fresh and exciting.

In one letter, Charles wrote to Emma, “I wish you knew how I value you; and what an inexpressible blessing it is to have one whom one can always trust, one always the same, always ready to give comfort, sympathy and the best advice. God bless you, my dear, you are too good for me.

In his autobiography, Charles told his children that their mother is his greatest blessing and continued, “I marvel at my good fortune, that she, so infinitely my superior in every single moral quality consented to be my wife…She has been my wise adviser and cheerful comforter…She has earned my love and admiration of every soul near her.”

Indeed, what wondrous love can one find; a love that devotes unconditionally, a love that gives and not takes, a love that flourishes in differences, and a love that defies all to stay together for a lifetime. Sir Francis Darwin, Charles' son, once described his father's love as this, "In her presence he found his happiness, and through her, his life."

Truly, we can learn a lot from such marital devotion for it is said, “The easiest kind of with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”

Hands down, the hardest part of a relationship is to devote to one and to love her so deeply, consistently and completely that your life cannot be complete without her. This kind of love takes a lifetime and it lasts a lifetime. Cheerz.