Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

This morning I woke from a dream of grief to see the early light coming through my window. The pain of a lost relationship had receded from my daily life. Habits and calendars and patterns of movement shifted.

But in my dream, I still wept. I woke feeling disjointed, as these tears seemed to stain the life I am opening myself to. How am I supposed to live and love and be open to the future when what I have lost still comes to me in dreams?

I let myself sit and watch the freezing rain and listen to the hiss of passing cars. I should simply get on with things, the way my neighbors were busily getting on with another day. I should reject my grief and take up the joy of the morning and move on. Right?

“Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” Romans 12:15.

Of course not. My grief is not a threat to my joy. The presence of grief does not mark the absence of joy. I am one who rejoices and weeps, all in one morning. Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans are calling me to be present with my grief as much as my joy. I find that the more present I am to my grief, the more ready I am for joy. My grief does not betray my joy. My joy does not betray my grief.

And my neighbors sliding through slush and snow and getting on with their days? They are rejoicing and weeping, too. When I can be present to the grief and joy that are tangled in my heart, I can go to others from the heart, from my mingled heart. I can meet their grief from my place of grief, and I can meet their joy from my place of joy. And they are one place.

 

The Return of Job

by Anna Kamienska

Job didn’t die
didn’t throw himself under a train
didn’t croak in a vacant lot
the chimney didn’t spew him out
despair didn’t finish him off
he arose from everything
from misery dirt
scabs loneliness

How much more authentic a dead Job would be
even after death shaking his fist at the God of pain
But Job survived
washed his body of blood sweat pus
and lay down in his house again
New friends were gathering
a new life was breathing new love into his mouth
new children were growing up with soft hair
for Job to touch with his hands
new sheep donkeys oxen were bellowing
shaking new shackles in the stable
kneeling on straw

But happy Job didn’t have the strength to be happy
afraid he’d betray happiness by a second happiness
afraid he’d betray life by a second life
Wouldn’t it be better for you Job
to remain dirt since you are dirt
The pustules washed off your hands and face
ate through your heart and liver
You will die Job
Wouldn’t it be better for you
to die with the others
in the same pain and mourning
than to depart from this new happiness
You walk in the dark
wrapped in darkness
among new people
useless as a pang of conscience
You suffered through pain
now suffer through happiness

And Job whispered stubbornly Lord Lord

 
 
 
 
 
 
“Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven” is the title of an album by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Artwork by Will Schaff.

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Let the dead bury the dead


I go to church most weeks and I’m not always sure why. Sometimes I go because I’ve been asked to do something specific like read a poem or help coordinate the evening. Other times I go because I want to see people and share a meal and resist the isolating effects of the city and my psyche. Often I go because my church is a beautiful community and I want to help that community thrive. But in all these reasons there is something deeper that calls me, and I’m rarely sure what that is. It’s by going that I find out.

I know why I went this week.

This week we read from the Gospel of Matthew and heard Jesus admonish those who would follow him to do so directly, and to let the dead bury the dead.

And then, during a time of reflection after the sermon, my pastor put the question to us, to me:

“What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

Not “Have you experienced the death of something?”

Not “What do you need to let go of, what do you need to let die?”

Not “What isn’t really a death, but a beginning for new life?”

Not “What death do you need to accept?”

Rather, “What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

It was the kind of question that struck me at an intuitive level before I knew how to articulate my response. What struck me first was that the question didn’t linger on whether there were dead things in my life. No time for hemming and hawing about what’s not dead yet. The question confronted me: “There are corpses in your life. We’re starting with that truth.”

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

There was no question that death had not shown mercy. It wasn’t up to me to let anything die. Death had done its work and now was the time for me to do mine.

We were given sheets of paper to write down our responses, and all the dead in my life came tumbling out onto the page. My sense of failing others when my marriage failed. My repeatedly crushed hopes for affirmation from my father. The ridiculous expectations I continue to burden myself with because I am a stereotypical first-born. My unkindness to myself for this ridiculousness. My unkindness to others because of my unkindness to myself. All the neatly stacked corpses.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

I’ve tried to bury the dead for years, but they keep rising from the grave. Dead sorrows can’t be drowned. At some point, I began dragging the dead around with me as if they were some sort of badge of honor, to show how “real” and “honest” and “deeply human” I was. I accepted these deaths boldly and wasn’t that kind of bad-ass of me? I was so hardcore.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

It seems to me now that I needed the dead to prove I was living. But as long as my focus was on the dead, I wasn’t actually taking the risks and exposing myself to the vulnerability of living, let alone the hazards of following the call I heard in Christ’s words. You can’t risk death until you’ve fully embraced life.

I didn’t need to deny the dead, I didn’t need to accept the dead. I didn’t need to get closure. Instead, I needed to let the dead remain unresolved, to let the dead bury the dead.

In his collection of essays titled “The Examined Life,” psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes against the notion of closure. Contra the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, he writes: “My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.”

Not closure, then, but openness. Following where Christ is leading me, even if I’m not sure where that is or exactly why I’m following. Trusting that in seeking, I’ll find what I need to keep going.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

An Important Failure: Simone Weil, Suffering, and the Obscenity of Explanation

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Mark Tansey “Discarding the Frame”

Writing in the New Yorker a couple years ago, Aleksandar Hemon offered a harrowing account of the loss of his nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to a vicious form of cancer. Hemon describes the  “unimaginable and incomprehensible” place of abandonment that he and his wife found themselves in, alienated from the rest of the world as if they were occupants of an aquarium – visible, yet “living and breathing in entirely different environments” than those around them. Compounding their pain was the “vacuous, hackneyed language,” and “that supreme platitude: God,” which others offered as ways of finding meaning. Hemon and his wife held to each other and rejected these efforts, while unable themselves to “construct a story that would help [them] comprehend what was happening.”

the despicable religious fallacy that suffering is ennobling

At first blush, the hard, almost stoic vision of God and redemptive suffering that Simone Weil offers would seem to be almost obscene in light of the suffering Hemon describes. After all, Hemon explicitly rejects as “despicable religious fallacy” the notion that “suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

My reading of Weil suggests that by rejecting God and all accounts that try and bring meaning to the suffering Hemon endures and bears witness to, Hemon clears out all the imaginary constructions that would fill the void, as Weil calls it. The religious expressions Hemon is offered (including those that come in secular garb), are what Weil calls the “imaginary divinity,” which has been “given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.” For Weil, Hemon’s rejection of consolation is precisely the act that creates the space for true faith. The atheism he expresses rids his heart of an idolotrous divinty that exists to meet his desires: the survival of his child, or the availability of meaning in the face of her suffering and death.

when Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none

For Weil, “to pray is like a death,” and perhaps the reverse is also true for her: death is like prayer. Hemon puts to death all consolation for his pain. He puts to death that part of his own Self that would seek cure. He doesn’t reject a specific religious account, he rejects all accounts, categorically. In this, Hemon is like the God that Job encounters in the whirlwind. When Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none. God, the One we look to as we seek meaning in the world, refuses to play the role. God refuses to be an idol. Job responds to God’s refusal with silence, much as Hemon and his wife respond to their friends’ claims that “words fail” by keeping secret the fact that words in fact do not fail, that Hemon’s suffering can be described in excruciating detail.

Christ, too, encounters God’s silence, which Weil describes as God’s absence. Yet unlike Job and Hemon, who keep the secret, Christ on the cross cries out, naming God’s absence, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s atheism is in an existential register – God has abandoned him to die – and yet Christ addresses this God as God, as if God could hear his cry. Christ prays to God, and for him, as for Weil, “to pray is like a death.”

redemptive suffering produces the absence of God

What, then, of Weil’s notion of redemptive suffering? Is this the blasphemous notion that Hemon is rejecting? For Weil, “Redemptive suffering … produces the absence of God, … [it] is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.” It would seem that Hemon has seen only an abundance of evil, what he calls “a dark universe of pain.” And yet in that pain, he finds himself closer to his wife than he has ever been to anyone, and he is consumed by “Isabel’s present, torturous but still beautiful life.”

Hemon could reject the idea that Isabel’s broken body could sustain a beautiful life. He could allow his sorrow to make him as blind as fear has made his chattering friends. Yet it is perhaps because he has rejected consolation and faced God’s absence that he is able to encounter the life that struggles before him.

Weil claims that “He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence,” and Hemon seems to feel God’s absence. After Isabel dies, Hemon feels her absence. For Weil, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.” For Hemon, “her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

in that ventrical wilderness, he loves

Hemon’s rejection of comprehension leaves his heart stripped bare, and in that ventrical wilderness, he loves. He loves his wife, he loves his daughters, he loves those who fail in their efforts to comfort him. Hemon’s willingness to confront catastrophe is the same strength that allows him to affirm his three-year-old’s blossoming life.

It is not clear whether Hemon rejects every explanation because each fails in the face of reality, or if he rejects comprehension as such. To bear witness to suffering may entail rejecting adequate explanations, as they diminish the suffering. It is important, then to note the failures of our gods, but perhaps it is more important that our gods fail.

Baby Jesus Hand Grenade

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Yesterday, I preached my second sermon at St. Lydia’s, this time based on Mark 13:24-37, in which Jesus offers an apocalyptic vision:

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light, 
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 ‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’ 

Leon Ferrari presents us with a richly ambiguous image in his piece, “Western-Christian Civilization”.

Are we to understand this figure as one who suffers?

Do we identify this broken body with the bodies broken by death-dealing forces?

Ferrari may be holding up a sacred mirror to reveal the image of God in those we destroy.

But this is not all we can see in this piece.

Do we not also see the figure of Christ mounted on this warplane precisely as a bomb to be deployed on our enemies?

Ferrari refuses to relieve us of this painful tension in his piece.

What has any of this got to do with Advent?

Theologian John Caputo has quipped that Advent, meaning arrival or incoming, can be taken in the military sense, “Incoming! Hit the deck!”

Annie Dillard has famously observed that if we knew what power we were invoking, we “should all be wearing crash helments” in church.

But instead of donning crash helmets to prepare ourselves for our encounters with the divine,

we put on battle helmets and deploy the divine,

claiming God’s favor, as we crush our global competitors in war and commerce,

in the name of Western-Christian civilization.

Yet if the figure of Christ Crucified can be represented as a bomb,

perhaps Advent celebrates a time when God lobbed a hand grenade into the world –

and what could be more disruptive than the arrival of a human being full of demands?

If ordinary infants undo our tidy worlds,

how much more a Baby Jesus Hand Grenade?

Yet the undoing this bomb-throwing God brings is of another order

than the destruction wrought by the death-dealing forces that compete for control of the world.

This God sends a little apocalyptic bomb to undo the world itself.

This is an undoing that is more total than anything humanity has ever wrought

and yet this is what makes this disruption the condition of the possibility of new life.

As death-dealers, we have only tried to control the world, in various ways;

what Christ does is to change it.

Remember that this God annihilated the world once already with a flood, and swore to Noah never to do so again.

What Baby Jesus Hand Grenade threatens to do is to upend our world so completely that we will never see and experience it the same way again.

To undo our sense of ourselves,

to eliminate our resources for meaning, be they cultural, political, religious, or otherwise,

to undo all the ways we give meaning to our death-dealing.

All the ways we use God to justify the destruction of God’s image in the world.

In the verses preceding our text this week, Jesus describes all the earthly and human ways we destroy each other: deception, betrayal, hatred, and the idolatry of nation and of violence.

All the ways that we destroy in order to control.

And then our reading picks up where Jesus invokes an image from the apocalyptic, prophetic, book of Daniel,

“The Son of Man coming in the clouds”.

Then Jesus brings us back “down to earth”, if you will, with an image of a fig tree.

A tree whose tenderness points to the coming of summer, a time of fertility, growth, and new life. And then, just so we don’t miss how earth-bound his vision is,

Jesus tells his companions that they will witness this apocalypse,

even though the time of its unfolding is wrapped in mystery,

which is why he says, “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Jesus’s vision here in the Gospel of Mark is apocalyptic.

An apocalypse is an unveiling.

Another word we use for this is revelation – to reveal – which means to un-veil

(although a lot of discussion of apocalypse seems to Re-veil, to make everything more obscure, rather than to un-veil!)

And where will this un-veiling take place?

Here, among us, it would seem.

Jesus starts with describing the wretched condition of the earth,

then describes the Son of Man coming to that earth,

and then brings us down to earth, where this apocalypse will unfold.

Something new is incoming, but make no mistake,

we are not being swept up to the clouds the Son of Man is riding,

he is coming to us, to bring this apocalypse into our midst,

in the context of the world we are bent on destroying.

This apocalypse will not take the form of destroying the world,

but undoing it, by undoing us.

This is the Baby Jesus Hand Grenade of Love that undoes the world.

I want you to take just a moment now and think of love.

Think of an experience you’ve had of love: love of family, love of friends, romantic love.

Recall someone who has loved you or whom you have loved.

Recall what it is like to love,

it may be a happy memory or a painful one.

Ok, now, keeping that memory in mind,

I want us to think about what it means to be undone.

When the prophet Isaiah encountered God, when God was revealed to him,

Isaiah cried out,”Woe to me! I am undone!”

Judith Butler writes about what it is to be undone.

She says, “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of the other.”

Now, I asked you to recall an experience of love,

to remember someone you love or have loved,

because there is a deeply erotic sense of what it means to be undone.

Christ is talking about an intimate undoing of our world and ourselves,

of how we understand ourselves and our world,

and I recognize something deeply romantic in this apocalypse.

I want to be clear that being undone has nothing to do with being destroyed.

Violence produces destruction, but love produces undoing.

So think about how the experience of being in love,

or of falling out of love,

changes the way you experience the world.

I know that for me, my beliefs about the meaning and goodness of the world seem pale in the absence of love,

and that a hopeless situation can be redeemed by the experience of love.

In my experience, love changes the way I understand and relate to the world,

changes how I act,

disrupts my sleep.

I can remember nights made beautiful by staying awake all night with someone I love.

Keeping awake.

This is Christ’s call here, that we keep awake,

alive to the world and to what is being revealed in it through love.

What Christ is unveiling here runs counter to our hateful, selfish destruction of the world.

What Christ is unveiling here is a love that undoes the world,

that undoes us,

that doesn’t leave us the same,

a love that comes in the form of a body shared with others.

So I believe the call in this apocalypse is for us to keep awake and do the same.

Martin Luther wrote that, “As our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.”

Our neighbor bears the image of God,

is the face of God in the world,

and the image of God will survive the apocalypse

wrought by the weakness of sweet baby Jesus and the weakness of Christ Crucified.

Our death-dealing world will not fare as well.

So as we celebrate this incoming of God,

we had better be sure we are ready to be taken to pieces by this event,

and have our world so shattered

that we refuse to accept any longer a system in which we fight for control of a world in which Christ is dropped like a bomb on our enemies. We must keep awake and look for the incoming love of Christ.

Divorce Isn’t For You

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A recent blog post on marriage (Marriage Isn’t For You) has been making the rounds recently. I found the post to be a nauseatingly trite treatment of a difficult subject. I want to look at how damaging this kind of thinking can be when presented in such simplistic terms, but before I do that, I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.

I want to look at how the author is making an interesting case for divorce.

Let’s say that I take the author’s advice when I marry. If “you marry to make someone else happy” as the author instructs us, and if I am unable to meet this criteria (a fool’s errand if there ever were one!), then does this criteria not require that I divorce my unhappy spouse? Even if I am happy in the marriage? In this case, no matter how happy I am in my marriage, my ethical responsibility is to divorce if I cannot make my spouse happy. If I were to remain married, say out of a sense of duty or because of my vows, then it would be clear that the happiness of my spouse is not my criteria.

At such a crisis point, I either need to drop the pretense of being in the marriage “only for the Other”, and continue the marriage under more honest terms, or I must divorce my spouse due to my failure to have what the author calls a “true marriage.”

A third option is to remain in the marriage with the original criteria in mind, but without the naiveté that such criteria can be met. After enduring the reality of an extended marriage, I may realize how naive it was to believe that making my partner happy would be a consistently attainable goal. Reflecting on the difficulty of actually-existing marriage, I may nuance the criteria (especially since a strict adherence to the criteria may demand divorce). In this instance, the initial naiveté is lost, though the orientation toward the Other remains largely the same: I desire to make you happy, and will continue to pursue this desire in the absence of its satisfaction. I will continue to seek your happiness even though I do not see it arriving yet.

 If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love?

This approach seems to match the pace of actually-existing marriage better than an expectation that I will immediately be able to make my partner happy. Yet if the mistake in the first instance is impatience (“I have not made you happy, so I must either divorce you or stop pretending it is possible to make you happy”), is not the possible mistake in this third option the danger of an abundance of patience offered in the name of virtue? If I remain steadfastly committed to producing the happiness of my spouse, and yet this happiness never seems to arrive, am I really acting in love? What if my spouse’s continued unhappiness is the result of marriage to me, despite my noble intentions and martyr-like commitment? What if I am the chief obstacle to my spouse achieving even modest, intermittent happiness? Can my commitment to remain married coincide with my commitment to produce my spouse’s happiness? Or do I need to consider the possibility that divorce for the sake of my spouse may be the most loving act possible?

What is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?

It appears that an exclusive emphasis on the happiness (or needs or desires) of the Other can produce the opposite of the claimed goal. Just as actually-existing Communism and Capitalism produce results that are at odds with the lofty ideals these systems claim to serve, so too can a slavish adherence to the exclusive “love” of the Other produce results that do not match the lofty ideals invoked. With the recognition of the disjuncture between ideal and reality in Communist and Capitalist practice, the real critical work of asking what is actually driving those systems begins. If Communists don’t really have the concerns of working people in mind, what are they actually trying to accomplish? If Capitalism doesn’t actually lead to greater freedom, what is the Capitalists actual goal? Likewise, if I claim to be committed to the happiness of my spouse, but don’t actually produce this happiness, what is the actual function of my emphatic claim that all I want is to make the Other happy?

The language of extreme love masks an extreme hatred.

Several possibilities come to mind. One is the desire to avoid my impotence. If I am only interested in making you happy, and you are not happy, then perhaps by stating my ethical purity of my intent, I am able to subtly suggest that the fault lies with you, you for whom I have sacrificed everything! In this case, such a proclamation of love covers a proclamation of hatred. We find this love/hate dichotomy operating in certain forms of Christianity. Here, one is told that God loves sinners so much that He sent His only Son to die on their behalf as the ultimate act of love. If, however, you are not convinced by this, then you can go to Hell. Literally. This theology uses the language of extreme love to mask an extreme hatred.

An extreme offer masks an extreme demand.

Another possible account of the disjuncture between my claim to seek the Other’s happiness and the Other’s actual experience of unhappiness is that in making my claim, I am able to both claim my ethical purity while also levying a radical demand of the Other. If true love claims to demand nothing for the Self, but to be only “for the Other”, then can the Other offer love without having to meet exactly this extreme criteria? In this case, the offer of selflessness for the sake of the Other is at its root a demand of selflessness from the Other. “This is what true love is, and if you truly love me, you will love me in this way. Whether I love you in this way or not.” Here, an extreme offer masks an extreme demand.

An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness.

There is a different approach to the difficulties of love and marriage. Instead of an exclusive emphasis on the Other, there can be a focus on mutuality. In a mutually loving relationship, it is not necessary that both partners be in identical states at all times. What is important is that over time, the relationship is good for “us”. I may choose to be unhappy for a time because that allows for us to be healthy over the long term. Likewise, I may accept my partner’s unhappiness for a time for the same reason. Instead of a neurotic obsession with making my partner happy (and there is real horror in being forced into happiness!), an emphasis on the overall health of the relationship extends my concern from an immediate problem concentrated in one person, to a longer-term concern extended across both members of the relationship. An obsession with the Other makes one partner in the relationship “the problem” when there is unhappiness (and There Will Be Unhappiness). A mutual relationship unweights this emphasis on the individuals in the relationship, allowing for breathing room, creativity, and engagement with the struggle to love, to be loved, and to love mutually.

In the same way that Communists and Capitalists destroy people in the name of liberating those same people, so too can we destroy the one we love in the name of love. If we are in a genuinely mutual relationship, then we can never act unilaterally on the behalf of the Other. Rather, we act in mutual partnership with the Other for the sake of us. The Biblical notion of “two becoming one” is helpful here. It is not “two becoming two who love each Other to the exclusion of Self,” but two who become one, and in that oneness, love the Other when they love the Self, and love the Self when they love the Other. This is not a one that becomes a singularity, an undifferentiated one in which both partners are always in the same state (of mind, emotion, or what have you). This is a oneness in which both elements, both people, are mutually-constituting parts of the whole. Like the towers that together compose a suspension bridge, there is no “I” without “You”, and no “You” without “I”. If this is the case, then there is no validity to the notion of doing for “You” without doing for “Me”, of loving “You” without loving “Me.” Mutuality does not claim to love the Other to the exclusion of the Self, and does not make the implicit demand that the Other love in such a fashion.

Marriage isn’t for you.

Divorce isn’t for you.

They’re for us.

*I recognize that marriage is a complicated and problematic social institution. I use the term here as short-hand for a loving relationship.