As Lent approaches I find myself thinking about what to “give up.” Finding a suitable penance is not always easy. I run through the usual things:
3. Evening cocktail.
None of them seem all that difficult to let go of, really. Then I start to think of my other indulgences:
1. Watching a movie or two on the couch after work every day
2. Binge-watching an entire season of a TV show on a weekend
3. Taking the late train during the week and getting to the office at 10:00.
It occurs to me that I haven’t done any of those things for quite a long time. In fact, I’ve not done those things very often in the last year-and-a-half.
Oh, I’ve been married for a year-and-a-half.
Right about now you’re probably rolling your eyes. This is not another rant by a man missing his bachelor days. I don’t really miss those days. I love being married. I love my life, and every day with my wife means the world to me.
And yet I can tell you that marriage is a sacrifice. I can feel your eyes rolling again. “Duh” is probably an appropriate response when someone tells you “marriage is sacrifice.”
I knew marriage was going to be sacrifice, but I didn’t really know what form that sacrifice would take.
Before I was married, I relished making big, dramatic sacrifices. It made me feel like a man. The woman you’re courting suddenly has an emergency? Drop everything and give up a day to be by her side and help her through it! Even if it’s just a broken down car or cleaning her apartment top to bottom because she’s moving. Something is broken, so you fix it for her. Something heavy needs lifting, so you carry it to the ends of the earth if need be. Those are things men love to do when they are pursuing a woman’s heart. Heck, I still love to do those things. Men are hardwired to be heroic, and sometimes that heroism comes in the form of pure physical effort—even if it’s just shoveling snow when you’d rather sleep in.
That’s not the kind of sacrifice marriage is made of. I’m talking about changing the way you live day-to-day, in very mundane ways. Putting your appetites or indulgences aside regularly and focusing on the day-to-day routines of being a partner. Doing things that bring you no immediate or apparent benefit, and doing them when you don’t feel like it. Often. Maybe daily.
Maybe you find yourself on your homeward commute after a horrendous day and suddenly you are rapt as you experience a spontaneous image of yourself on the couch with a pizza box opened before you watching Expendables 2 (special edition). It’s just going to be you, a big screen TV, Stallone and co., lots of explosions and pepperoni. It seems like heaven.
When you get home your wife reminds you that tonight you have to finish up that paperwork that the mortgage company is asking for. You still have a week and you know it doesn’t have to be done right then; but you know that it would take a lot of stress away from her if it was done right now. Or maybe she’s just had an even worse day than yours, and she could really just use your shoulder, as well as your ear, for the next two hours while she hashes out work issues and irritations that you really don’t understand. Maybe you don’t even find them all that big. But she does.
These are not major sacrifices, but they can come up often and regularly, and they don’t become more enjoyable as time goes by. That’s what makes them more difficult than the big gestures you make while courting.
Before I was married I might have given up a whole day to do something tiring for my fiancée. But after that I would take a guilt-free day of rest, and I was as good as new. My fiancée was out of a jam, I was the hero, and I had a good work out to boot. Everyone was happy. In marriage you face daily routines that can be tiring, and there is no end in sight. You’re looking at years of routines that will wear you down. That’s why you have to change how you live. You have not added someone to your life, you have bonded to someone and now your life must change.
The reason change can be difficult is because we are conditioned to think of ourselves as having separate needs from our spouses. But a marriage isn’t truly about two persons and their needs. It’s about the needs of a new creation. Two people are now one, and when you do something for your spouse, you’re doing something for your marriage. There is no independence in marriage.
As I said, these are not major, painful, knee-wobbling sacrifices. These are the small, wearisome things that pop up over and over that remind you that you are not living a carefree life. Yes, you still have your own pastimes, interests, and indulgences. I still like to sit through a double feature of car chases and gun battles. And frankly, I think I’m more of a hair shirt for my wife than she is for me. But there is a wonderful feeling beneath everything we do that we’re doing it together. Each of us knows that no matter how tough things get, the other person will be there. We also know that no matter how tedious a necessary routine may become, the other person will be going through it with us.
Thinking of two people as one is a start, but not the ultimate goal. I know (though I do not yet act on the knowledge) that our true mission is putting Christ at the center.
I think one of the best penances for Lent is to give up your time and offer your service to someone else. Not only does it allow you to help someone else, it is a wonderful exercise to prepare you for the sacrifice of marriage (or any vocation, really). It is the foundation of a Catholic vocation.