Well, I survived. The summer of weddings is officially over. And though I’ve still got one more wedding to attend in October it will be nothing like the ones I’ve been to thus far. No more three-day events, no more tux rentals and no more best man speeches (though I will say we had another great reaction from the crowd with this last one and I am so, so proud of Dave). And at the close of this very challenging period I can’t help but reflect.
Without getting too personal let me just say that it’s incredibly difficult to go to a flood of weddings when you yourself are unmarried and wishing you weren’t. Granted, I wasn’t trying to survive these dateless and that seems even harder, so gratitude where gratitude is due.
It’s strange what weddings bring out in people. I, being unmarried but happily committed, end up thinking about what I would want in my own wedding. People who are married reminisce about their own nuptials and compare and contrast what was good about the wedding they’re at and what they liked better about their wedding. Single folk just try and enjoy the party and pray that they won’t be harassed by too many folk wondering when they’ll finally meet Mr. or Ms. Right themselves. My point is: everyone’s thinking about weddings.
It’s one of the most conforming experiences I’ve encountered in adult life and it’s so impossible not to get sucked into it. And to be perfectly honest let me just come right out and say that for someone who likes to consider herself as being unique and different I totally failed to stay above peer pressure this summer. I had my freak outs and my poor sweetie had to have a lot of conversations with me to try to calm me down and remind me of that. (“Do you really want to get married just because everyone else is?”)
It’s got me thinking a lot about how much time I spend, in general, comparing myself and my life to others. And I think that some of the insights I’ve gained are worthwhile. (Even if they’re the same lessons I’ve been trying so hard to learn since I started this whole crazy journey.) Here they are:
Society, at least here in this country, is designed to acknowledge only the big milestones. Graduations, housewarmings, marriages, births, deaths and maybe a milestone birthday or anniversary- but that’s about it. You figure out how to finally balance your checkbook after years of perpetually overdrawing your account and people will look at you sideways if you throw a party for it. You make some huge breakthrough in therapy that allows you to not have a panic attack when driving through a tunnel and people will be confused if you brag about it. You reach some giant epiphany regarding yourself after some really tough life challenges and people will refer to you as a crazy hippie or some such dismissal if you try to talk to them about it. There are no celebrations for those individual, unique events.
And yet, those are a heck of a lot more important in the grand scheme of things then the big milestones. Why? Because they are unique, they are yours. There aren’t commercials and websites and how-to guides for those things. Not everyone has them because they’re just yours. They make you you.
I have to wonder if I’m just too American to really grasp the value of the culturally significant milestones. Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by so much false romance and epic storytelling around individuality. Maybe in other cultures where conforming is actually a valuable and respectful action there’s a much more gentle attitude towards shared events. I’m sure I would see things very differently if I were from, let’s say, the Gansu province of China.
But I’m not so I can’t really imagine how they see the world. I only know how I see it and from my viewpoint it’s littered with weddings and baby showers and the like. And that’s why conformity is so hard to escape.
Because if you reach one of those milestones everyone will approve of it. Not just the people you’re inviting to the event, but everyone. No boss ever questioned why their employee was requesting two weeks off for their honeymoon. You get a free pass about a variety of odd behaviors if you explain that you’re a new parent and subsequently super stressed. People expect you to go a little nuts when preparing for any big event like that. There’s acceptance.
But for the things that only you go through, people don’t understand. You get a “Good for you” for a therapeutic breakthrough rather than a “That’s wonderful.” People assume that they don’t know what it’s like so they don’t try to. And it can be rather lonely in that way.
Plus, without the culturally significant milestones, how do you know you’re doing the “right thing”? I watched a TED talk not too long ago where someone spoke about how the more alternative lifestyles are accepted the harder it becomes for people to choose. When there’s only one way of doing things you have a goal in mind and a clear, distinguishable way of knowing you’ve reached it. Graduate, buy a house, get married, have a baby, send out Christmas cards and show off pictures of your kids little league games- everyone understands these things. But the paths less traveled? People don’t know how to evaluate those, they don’t know how to measure them. So there’s no “atta boy”s coming your way and you have to know for yourself that you’re doing the right thing. Well, I’m gonna come right out and say it: that is NOT easy to do.
To forge your own path, to measure your own worth, to really not care what other people think of you- that is NOT easy. We get rewarded for conforming. We get stories and whispers and urban legends for walking our own path. Like the great artists- mental illness and tragedy is so common for them many people actually associate that with creativity. But those people didn’t seem too happy to me. All that individuality didn’t afford them any contentment. And as many people talked about them and their epically tragic lives I don’t think many people really knew them.
But then again, maybe that’s really what marriage is supposed to be all about. Beneath the flowers and cake and parties; beneath the favors and formal wear and beneath the stares of strangers who technically only see it from the outside it’s really about something rather personal. It’s about pledging to bear witness to the life of someone else. To be there for not just the big events, but the tiny victories and tragedies alike. To cheer for their accomplishments, comfort them in their freak-outs, fight with them in their battles and stand with them in their storms. As much as the event itself may fall into a million different conventions the life that comes after is still unique, and you’re vowing to share it with someone.
Perhaps all my attitude about it this summer is simply because I’m still just one of those people seeing it from the outside. And perhaps that’s why, even after all of this, I still want to go through it myself.
Because when it comes down to it, I’ve already got a partner. We already share the victories and tragedies, we struggle through the challenges together and we cheer for each other when we succeed. I’m already living the life I want to live with my mate. And someday, in our own time- when it’s right for our story- we’ll have our friends and family celebrate it with us. Not conforming, just agreeing that a wedding is a nice way to mark the significance of our story. And without rushing it, I look forward to seeing it from the inside.