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The Sacrament of Not Being the Most Important Person in the Room

[Note from Drew Miller: Meet my honorary brother, Andrew Russell. His perspective has brought me life, laughter, and loving correction. I am grateful to introduce him to you. He originally wrote this for his own blog, The Contrarian Collective.]

A few weeks ago, my wife and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary—an obvious time for reflection on our growth, individually and collectively, over the past year. This proves to be very difficult, of course. We aren’t always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always have the best long-term memories. And I, for one, harbor a certain fear of looking back on my past. The reviewing of my shortcomings and failures—many of which have been longtime companions on my life’s journey—is always accompanied by the temptation to use these failures as a measuring stick for my value as a person.

But we must have the courage to look back, to look within. We must remember our life stories and share them with those alongside us, and with those who will walk on after we have lost the strength to walk any farther. After all, we Christians are the spiritual descendants of the Jews, a people whose sacred writings are filled with exhortations to remember what the Lord has done for them. The Ten Commandments begin, “I am the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2, NRSV). The Sabbath day is not only a day of rest, but a day of remembrance (Deuteronomy 5:15). By remembering what God had done for and amongst them in the past, the people of Israel were able to more clearly recognize what God was doing for and amongst them in the present, and what he would likely do in the future. And so it is with us. We are all, like the ancient Israelites, living within a story. And it is impossible to understand where we are now in the progression of that story without being aware of the motifs established on previous pages.

In looking back at my own experience these last twelve months, I am filled with gratitude, not only for the times in which I succeeded, but also for those in which I was forced to reconsider my instincts. Marriage is not only an immensely fulfilling relationship that provides you with a partner for all that life throws at you; it is also a sort of figural classroom, a place where we learn important lessons about what it means to be a human being and to live in a community. In this classroom, the stakes could not be higher. We learn these lessons because we have to learn them, because we now realize that the health and happiness of others depends upon our learning them. We are no longer accountable only to ourselves. In fact, if we think about it, we realize that we never were. This was the first lesson I had to learn.

Stephen Sondheim wrote a masterpiece of a musical called Company, which debuted on Broadway in 1970. The main character, Bobby, is a single New Yorker in his mid-thirties who cannot, for the life of him, figure out why he has never gotten married. The final song of the play, “Being Alive,” encapsulates his transformation from selfish bachelor to a man truly ready to settle down. In the opening line, he begins his reflections on marriage by asking, “What do you get?”:

Someone to hold you too close. Someone to hurt you too deep. Someone to sit in your chair, To ruin your sleep.

Someone to need you too much. Someone to know you too well. Someone to pull you up short, And put you through hell.

Someone you have to let in, Someone whose feelings you spare, Someone who, like it or not, Will want you to share A little, a lot.

Someone to crowd you with love. Someone to force you to care. Someone to make you come through, Who’ll always be there, As frightened as you, Of being alive.

You get someone who is always there. Unlike many of us, Bobby has the wherewithal to realize what a terrifying notion this is. To marry is to agree to have your life invaded by another person. Your chair is no longer your chair; your bed is no longer your bed. Every aspect of life is shared with another person. (At this point, we may ask, how different is this from the way life is really supposed to be in the Christian community?) It is terribly inconvenient, because you no longer have any claim to being the most important person in the room.

The funny thing about the way God works, however, is that the richest blessings are always accompanied by the darkest sorrows. Grace is always traced with beautiful, blessed pain. To enter into covenant with God, Abram and Sarai had to leave their home and everyone they loved. Had her husband not died, Ruth would never have found her new home in Naomi and, ultimately, Boaz. To reunite with his beloved creatures, God had to experience their sufferings and the consequences of their sins, and when we partake of the holy Eucharist, we only receive the benefits of the grace found there by participating in the agony of the crucifixion. Love never exists independently of suffering. This is what makes it so meaningful.

By the end of the song, Bobby agrees, crying out for this kind of love:

Somebody hold me too close. Somebody hurt me too deep. Somebody sit in my chair, And ruin my sleep, And make me aware Of being alive.

Somebody need me too much. Somebody know me too well. Somebody pull me up short, And put me through hell, And give me support For being alive. Make me alive. Make me alive.

Make me confused. Mock me with praise. Let me be used. Vary my days.

But alone Is alone, Not alive.

Somebody crowd me with love. Somebody force me to care. Somebody let me come through. I’ll always be there, As frightened as you, To help us survive Being alive.

This is what I have learned this year. To be alive is to have your life interrupted by others. To be married is to consent to sacred inconvenience. It is the privilege of recognizing that my wife’s needs are just as important as mine are. It is the sacrament of coming home after a long day of work and scrubbing dried yogurt from the bowl she used at breakfast. It is the blessing of losing the argument over whether or not we should adopt a cat, and the gift of hanging decorations on the wall that I would never have chosen for myself. Each of these is an opportunity to grow in love, the kind of love that God has within himself and created us to enjoy and to pass on. I learned that “What do you get?” is the wrong question to ask. Those of us who ask it, if we think about it, will realize that to ask it means that we are living for ourselves. To ask it is to be ultimately alone. And, as Sondheim teaches us, alone is alone—not alive.

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