Jean Paul Sartre, a Frenchman who suffered under Nazi oppression, reflected on behalf of the French after World War II, “Never were we freer than under the German occupation.”
Sartre is right, in a sense. Never was opposition more justified, never was hatred and bitterness and an aggressive sense of self so excused, than staring into the barrel of a Nazi’s MP44 rifle.
For Sartre, one of the few meaningful goals a person can take up in “life” is to rid himself of what he called “acts of bad faith”—these are excuses, lies we tell ourselves in order to escape responsibility for our own existential anxiety.
It may seem an unlikely metaphor, but marriage is a bit like Nazi occupation. Think about it. Restricted civil liberties. A curfew. Stripped of my firearms. Issued new government papers. Expectations for rigid social compliance.
Of course, there are also many important ways that marriage is not like Nazi occupation, and one that’s typically undeniable—it’s entered into freely. In that sense, it’s more like Germany’s invasion of Poland—a public, nervous nod at the cruel undoing of personal privacy.
The Freedom of Excuses
For me—and, I can’t say this enough times: for me—marriage is not like Nazi occupation in all of the other important ways. I love it. I love the intimate moments, the cuddling-and-Netflix, the sex, the wine, the living together, the new apartment—it all feels like a very Matthew-McConaughey-happy-ending.
In fact, my marriage has so far been the peak of all my experiences. I’ve never wanted anything more than marriage. It represented to me a stability and guarantee that no other relationship could match. And I still believe that it does.
But, the shadowy side of Sartre’s comment darkens my doorway.
For Sartre, being dominated by a malicious military force was about as good an excuse anyone could give for not taking responsibility for your own internal anxieties. In theory, if Nazi occupation lasted forever, that would be a legitimate reason never to face the fact that your life is meaningless, empty, absurd.
So, I wonder, if oppression is the ultimate excuse not to stare into the abyss of my own emptiness, then personal fulfillment must be an open door to introspection—satisfaction is the bald, naked picture of my own responsibility.
Since I have married, I’ve woken up in my bed three times in a cold sweat, screaming at the top of my lungs. Why? I’ve never done that before.
Is it because I’ve been trapped by another person? No. It’s because I’m out of excuses.
The mess is mine.
Marriage has always been my dream, and now I have it. I’ve always been able to say, “I’m sad because I’m single and lonely.” “I’m anxious because I don’t know if I’ll ever find lasting love.” “I’m drinking myself to sleep because the reality of my singleness is unbearable.” But . . . what about now?
Now, singleness is no longer my scapegoat. I’m on the hook for my own anxiety. I’m looking down into the canyon of my own insufficiency, with no one to blame but myself. I’m on the hook for my own depression. Marriage has cornered me with its own goodness so that I have no one to blame for all the bad in my life except for me.
Marriage has stolen all my excuses for everything.
Now I weep—screaming in my sleep, no less—because I yearn for that “freedom.” My new oppression of fulfillment is always rebelling against my inner sense that the world unfairly deprived me of love. I grieve my singleness—not because I miss anything good about it, but because all its badness gave me a qualifying card to the Victim Olympics.
Accepting an Internal Resistance
Now, I’ve awakened in the soil of responsibility—firmly set in the ground of personal ownership. Now I need new strategies for facing the senselessness of pain in life.
Perhaps these are reflections of a newlywed whose body has not adjusted to the rhythms of commitment’s security. Or, perhaps these reflections are rooted in the naïveté of a romantic. No matter what anyone says, each of us is dealing with an n = 1 empirical study when it comes to our own emotions—we can only know ourselves and take ownership for our pain as best we can—tempting as it is to retreat into justifiable strategies of blame from a season of deprivation.
To lament is to take justified grievance. In singleness, my pain was my freedom, my excuse. In marriage, my fulfillment is my bond—and I desire it still, even as the French desired their liberation through resistance.
In lamenting my singleness I grieve a time when my field of resistance was external to me. Now, I must fight something inside me—a demon, a habit, an impersonal force . . . something. I lament my lost arsenal of excuses that stood in my defense in a time that I have freely left behind.
I knew “cleaving” had its difficulties. Nobody told me the “leaving” was such a collision with my own self. I can taste my own existential blood in my mouth. Whether the grief of newfound responsibility for my own anxiety is a deathblow to my “self” as I know it, or the first blow in Round Two of my own self-making, I think, is up to me.