Rue Anne Hass
Recently I had the wonderful privilege of being the officiant for a wedding. I took this as an opportunity to ponder the metaphors and unconscious expectations that guide our thinking and actions around marriage and partnership. I have done a lot of intense searching in this area over the years in my own life, and lately in my work I have encountered many people who are re-evaluating relationship.
Historically the best wisdom our culture has had to offer us about marriage is that “you get married and live happily ever after.” Many sources suggest that the actual word “marriage” means in its root “the ownership of a wife by the husband.” It is clear that more and more of us are now seeking a new model.
We grow up as children with fairytale models like Snow White and Cinderella. It is a familiar story: A beautiful, smart, competent, sensitive and loving young woman (or the positive feminine in anyone) is rendered helpless. She is put to sleep or kept in virtual slavery by someone who represents the old rules, an unfulfilled potential turned in on itself that emerges as negative energy.
The young woman is rescued by a handsome, strong, courageous man of honor and integrity (or the positive masculine in anyone), who is disenchanted with the old limited vision. He seeks to win through to a new sense of purpose, a new way of doing things. Central to the story is the wisdom of a magical elder, like a wizard or a fairy godmother, whose actions make it possible for each of the partners to overcome the obstacles in their path. The solution involves the inner awakening, in some way, of both the young man and the young woman.
The story is full of promise. And then it usually ends with the phrase “and they got married and lived happily ever after.” So we grew up thinking that this is the model. Get married — ride off into the sunset — live happily ever after.
No instructions! We aren’t told HOW to live happily ever after. And when we look around at all the people who are trying very hard to fulfill the promise of the fairy tale, there seems to be lots of evidence that it is not easy to “live happily ever after until death do us part.” We blame the partner for not living up to our dream of him or her, for not doing or being what we thought they would or should be and do.
Our own sources of wisdom — religious figures, books, teachers — do admit that it is hard to achieve a happy relationship that is ongoing, but at the same time they make it sound easy. Just be committed, they say, don’t stray. Just stay in love, don’t lose the romance. But how to do this? It’s like when you are worried and anxious and someone says, “Just don’t worry so much.” We all know what is wrong with that advice.
I got to thinking about this. Maybe the phrase is a kind of koan — and we have misinterpreted it. We thought that it was the act of getting married that made it possible to “live happily ever after.”
What if we put a comma in there? “Live happily, ever after.”
For me, “live happily, ever after” takes the pressure off of expecting the relationship to give me all that I need and want in my life. Then it is about finding ways to maintain a strong sense of an independent self. It is about continually learning how to love the other unconditionally. It is about each of us accepting and being accepted for who we are. It is about learning how the inner connection between two people can join in building and supporting the larger family of the community.
It is interesting that there is now a new and award-winning version of the Cinderella tale available for young girls to read. In it, the heroine Ella is given the “gift” of obedience at birth by a fairy, and the story tells how she learns to break the unconscious magic spell that had been laid upon her and to trust her own inner sense of what is right.
So part of “How do we learn to live happily?” might be “How can we re-enchant relationship?” The wisest, best relationship magic I know is contained in the presupposition that behind every action, emotion or comment is a positive intention. Inside there is something good trying to get out. It may be covered over and distorted by fears and misinformation so that it is hard to see or sense. But it is my belief that it is always there. Always. Being able to touch into the positive intention in another person, and respond to the positive intention rather than the behavior, is the best magic spell I know for living happily, ever after.
For me, healing is not about “getting rid” of the pain. It is about learning to develop a state
of mind and being that can hold the storm on the surface of the ocean at the same time as it holds the powerful stillness deep down. Having both at the same time. Having a choice about where to put our attention.
It reminds me of a story. It is not a fairy tale, it is a true human tale, and no less magical for that. (which is not to say that fairy tales aren’t true….)
In 1957 in Bangkok, a group of monks from a monastery had to relocate their massive, ten and a half foot tall, 2.5 ton clay Buddha from their temple to a new location to make way for a new highway being built through the city. They used a crane to lift the idol, but it began to crack, and then rain began to fall. The head monk was concerned about damage to the sacred Buddha, and he decided to lower the statue down to the ground and cover it with a large canvas tarp to protect it from the rain.
Later that evening, the monk went to check on the Buddha. He shined a flashlight under the tarp, and noticed a gleam reflected through a crack in the clay. Wondering about what he saw, he got a chisel and hammer, and began to chip away at the clay. The gleam turned out to be gold, and many hours later the monk found himself face to face with an extraordinary, huge solid gold Buddha.
Historians believe that several hundred years before this, the Burmese army was about to invade Thailand, then called Siam. The monks covered their precious statue with an 8 inch layer of clay to disguise its value. Very likely the Burmese slaughtered all the Siamese monks, and the secret of the statue’s golden essence remained intact until that day in 1957.
We are all like the golden Buddha, in some way. We are covered with a protective layer, often so well covered that we have forgotten how to remember our true value.
How priceless we are. A loving relationship is one of the very best ways of mirroring back to another person the golden self within him or her.
I had a wonderful magical experience of this when my husband and I first came together. I was working at home on a writing project, and he was doing construction work. He would head out the door in the morning, and frequently turn back to give me one last hug and kiss. One day when he did this, and left again, as I turned away from the door I caught sight of my face in the mirror hanging by the door. I was startled to see my face radiant, glowing from within, as if it were suffused with light. It was the first time I had seen myself like this, and it changed my life. True magic is a doorway into the sacred.
It is interesting that when we are about to marry, our future spouse is known as our “intended.” To intend is to “hold something within, as a guide.” It is a sacred act to hold another person in love.
Doing this is only possible when we can first give this gift to ourselves.
The poet Galway Kinnell said it so beautifully in his poem called “St. Francis and the Sow”:
stands for all things even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers of self blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch,
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self blessing.
For me, this poem reflects spiritual wisdom and magic at its very best. I think of the work I do as developing a co-creative partnership with people who want to learn better ways for living happily, ever after. Practical magic, you might say.