A Proposal Regarding Proposals

by Janet Mackenzie Smith

Mom: It’s a rhetorical question.
Me: What is?
Mom: ‘Speak now or forever hold your peace.’
Me: Well, it’s not a question, it’s a command…
Mom: Regardless, it’s culturally rhetorical.
Me: But, if it’s a truly great friend, won’t they listen to dissent, even respect the dissenter?
Mom: You overestimate the power of logic over emotion.

This is the conversation I had with my mother at least once a week for approximately three months. But I remained unconvinced. So, to one of my closest friends, a person considered to be family, I sent a letter detailing how his recent engagement made me uneasy. This act and the fallout made me realize that marriage proposals are strange, deeply mysterious, and more a matter of faith than anything else. And maybe a proposal should be thought of like a religious conversion?

James (not his real name) was my older brother’s high school friend. When I was 12, he adopted me as a little sister. Upon meeting me, James said, “She’s a pothead, right?” I was not a 12-year-old pothead, but I had perfected the dull-eyed, I-don’t-give-a-shit look. Upon getting to know James, I said, “His nerdiness gives me a headache.” By which I meant he made my brain experience growing pains in real-time by asking too many questions about things I didn’t know. And thus began one of those rare hetero boy-girl platonic friendships.

When James proposed to a woman he’d known for only a year, I experienced a variety of emotions, most of them about me. I was mad that James hadn’t consulted me about his decision to propose. And, good God, had I listened to this kid complain, cry, yelp and *insert variety of onomatopoeias* for years about the state of his heart and what it may or may not be telling him. (To be fair, he put in equal or probably more time listening to me complain about the same.) On the most basic level, I had the I-get-to-hear-about-the-bad-stuff-but-when-good-stuff-happens-you-don’t-care-what-I-think kind of anger.

But there were deeper grounds for my disquiet. First, I was at a loss as to how anyone could make the decision to marry in only one year of dating. Secondly (and more balefully), I was at a loss as to how anyone could make the decision to marry.

My letter said, in so many words, that it was too fast. Well, no, that’s not quite fair. “Letter” might not even be the proper word. I third-person narrated the story of James’s romantic life over the past few years to show him the emotional rollercoaster ride he’d been on lately. Maybe proximate emotions were overwhelming objectivity? To no one’s surprise but my own, this communiqué was not well received. Apart from disinviting me to the wedding, James has given me the silent treatment ever since.

Lesson number one? Don’t be a solipsistic idiot. No matter how close a friendship, keep your mouth shut when it comes to fiancées and marriage, always. (Apparently, everyone but me already knew this.) Another lesson? Marriage is really weird, especially when it comes to marriage between secular individuals in an increasingly secular society.

Marriage these days isn’t necessarily a spiritual commitment whose statute of limitations extends into the great beyond. Agnostics and atheists marry in churches (or other religious venues) and recite liturgy that declares their union to be sanctioned by and dependent on an institution not personally meaningful to them. And this oddness is accepted because there is no secular ceremony that offers the pomp and circumstance of religious marriage rituals. (And, not to be morbid, but same goes for funerals.)

Then, there’s the idea that it’s just not possible for two people to make an open-ended and unconditional earth-bound promise to one another. A person can’t prove that the decision to marry is logically legitimate because you can’t index countless hypotheticals. Logic should trump emotion, right?

James was like me. He’d argue both sides of an argument, not just as an arrogant display of intellectual dexterity, but also because he was never entirely sure of his opinion. How could a person like James (a person like me) be so certain of a marriage? And, given his uncharacteristic certainty, why hadn’t James taken my letter as a challenge and written a 3,000 word missive pinpointing the ways in which I was mistaken? (Because that’s how James would normally react to disagreement.)

What I’ve come to understand is that the decision to marry is inherently like a religious awakening. It’s not about certainty; it’s about taking a leap of faith. At its best, faith in the rightness of a marriage is just a thing that settles inside the guts of a person. It’s an instinct. It’s largely indescribable. (Or, that’s what people tell me.)

If James had had an other-worldly experience, subsequently undergone a spiritual metamorphosis and then made plans to live at an ashram for a year to contemplate the meaning of life (after reading Eat, Pray, Love?), I would not have asked him to subject that overtly spiritual awakening to the scrutiny of logic — though I would have made fun of him, because that’s how we do.

James didn’t explain his faith in his decision to be married because faith is not a thing that can be explained. I had no right to call his faith into question because faith can only be known by the person experiencing it.

While I don’t understand the faith of those who subscribe to traditional religion, I do accept and, more importantly, respect the fact that I don’t understand. And that’s where I needed to get with James’s proposal — a place where my inability to understand wasn’t a thing to be remedied.

Perhaps because of growing secularism or because of general religious diversity, we’re not in the habit of talking about decisions as spiritually mandated (except in Utah, where, if Big Love is to be believed, “I have a testimony, do you have a testimony?” is every other sentence). Still, even if those entering into a marriage are themselves not religious, marriage is like religion. It’s about faith. (But, maybe I’m just really slow on this particular subject and everybody knew this already too?)

Previously: Animality.

When Janet Mackenzie Smith was 15, she thought that she was the next Kant. Now, she is a paralegal with a superfluous master’s degree, $90K in student loans and an excess of bitterness. Her forthcoming book is called Generation Special, unless her agent renames it.