As many of you know, one of the most popular category of books is “Biography” The evidence for this is the amount of shelf space devoted to them – whether that be in a bookstore or in a public library – shelf after shelf after shelf filled with stories about the lives of real people. Some are about people who lived quite a long time ago. Others are about people from our own generation. But while every life is unique, there are certain commonalities that exist among many people who have books written about them. One in particular really stands out – ambition. As you well know, many biographies are about people who achieved much, in one area or another. Actors. Scientists. Politicians. Explorers. Kings and queens and industrialists and conquerors and inventors and dictators – you name it. Many of these books are about people who knew exactly what they wanted – and did everything in their power to get it.
And in some cases or maybe in many cases the path to realizing their dreams was not a path filled only with kindness and honesty and sincerity and generosity. No, in many cases the path to success was filled with the opposite. And what that often meant was that many people along the way got used, people along the way got hurt, people along the way got defrauded, people along the way got stepped on. Maybe a few of these ambitious people meant to act that way all along, meant to use others for their own gain without batting an eye. But my guess is that, for most of these “success stories”, it didn’t start out that way. It just became the easiest way to achieve what they wanted to achieve, became a kind of bad habit that became sort of invisible to the person involved. In other words, after a while it just became “who they were”, with the prize they were seeking being all they paid attention to. The people they hurt along the way, well – they were just a means to an end.
In today’s readings we hear some profound words regarding marriage – that sacred bond that unites men and women not simply in a practical sense, but in a holy sense, in a mystical sense. The words in these passages can be both inspiring and challenging, comforting and worrisome, a real possibility and a seemingly impossible pursuit. Those of you who are married know what I am talking about, because you strive to live it out each and every day. You understand the joys and the sorrows, the bliss AND the drudgery, the “everything is wonderful” moments and the times when you almost feel like strangers. And some of you have also experienced the pain and disappointment that comes whenever a marriage has fallen apart, whenever two people find themselves facing not only the thought that “enough is enough”, but find themselves embracing the real-life consequences of getting to that point. Relationships are hard, and I want to believe that marriage might be the most difficult of all. And the reason is pretty simple. No other relationship demands as much from us, no other relationship costs as much, no other relationship invites us (or maybe even forces us) to resist the urge to give in to our own selfishness – that unhealthy voice within, that keeps lying to us and telling us that we should look out for ourselves above all else.
A healthy marriage is the exact opposite of that. A healthy marriage is one in which neither partner uses each other for his or her own benefit, neither partner has picked the other exclusively for what he or she can “bring to the table”, what he or she can do to make them happy. Rather, the best marriages seem to be the ones in which each partner spends his or her time wondering how they can make their spouse’s life better,how they can help their spouse on the journey before them, how they can love their spouse even during the times when that love is not being returned.
In other words, the healthiest marriages are not ones in which people continually think, “What can I GET out of this person?” but rather continually ask the questions, “What can I GIVE to this person? Who can I BE for this person, in this moment, in this situation, on this day, and for always?” And while we don’t always act this way, we know deep down that a spouse can’t be (and should never be) a means to an end. Of course, there isn’t just a temptation to act selfishly in romantic relationships. The temptation exists in all of our relationships, in varying degrees. We befriend people
if they might be a potential customer for the product we are selling. We pick partners who will let us call the shots. We make sure to be extra friendly with the neighbor who has season tickets to our favorite sports team. We pretend to agree with every opinion of our boss so he or she likes us better. I hope you get the picture. These are just seemingly trivial examples, but many of us litter our lives with relationships just like these – and then we wonder why we don’t have any “real” friends, don’t have any people we can count on to be there for us in five, ten, or twenty years down the road.
It’s not easy building relationships that are truly other-centered, that are God- centered, that are all about the opportunities we have to be kind and generous and compassionate with someone else. Yet, that is what we are called to be, who we are meant to be. And the amazing thing is, when we make others’ lives better, our lives become better too. Put it simply – OTHERS need our love and WE need people to love. And so, let’s treat all our relationships not as tools to be used for our own gain, but rather as the beautiful opportunities they are, opportunities for our God to become visible in a world desperate for precisely that.
It was a busy morning, about 8:30 when an elderly gentleman in his 80’s arrived at the clinic to have stitches removed from his thumb. He said he was in a hurry as he had an appointment at 9:00 am. The nurse in attendance asked him to take his seat and since she was free she took time to evaluate his wound. The medico would not be free for another hour and the man was constantly checking his watch. On exam, it was well healed, so she talked to one of the doctors, got the needed supplies to remove his sutures, and redress his wound. While taking care of his wound, she asked him if he had another doctor’s appointment that morning, as he was in such a hurry. The gentleman just said that he needed to go to the nursing home to eat breakfast with his wife. While inquiring he told her that she had been there for a while and that she was a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. The nurse asked if she would be upset if he was a bit late. He replied that she no longer knew who he was, that she had not recognized him for the past five years. She was surprised and asked him why he was in a hurry. He smiled as he patted her hand and said, ‘She doesn’t know me, but I still know who she is.’ The nurse had to hold back her tears as he left, and thought, ‘That is the kind of love I want in my life.’