On Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006, Maxim Kniazkov, writer/contributor to the Yahoo! Web site, reported the following: “It is by no means dead, but for the first time, a new survey has shown that traditional marriage has ceased to be the preferred living arrangement in the majority of U.S. households. The shift, reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in its 2005 American Community Survey, could herald a sea of change in every facet of American life--from family law to national politics and its current emphasis on family values. The findings indicated that marriage did not figure in nearly 55.8 million American family households, or 50.2 percent.”
I looked at that paragraph and simply stared at the page. What does that say about us as a society, as individuals, about how disposable the staples of the life we once knew have become? In the 1982 movie Best Friends, with Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn, Burt’s character asks her to marry him but she refuses, at first claiming that they are best friends now, and they shouldn’t ruin it with marriage. He explains that anyone can live together, but to be truly a couple, one wants the whole world to know that they are permanently linked. “Marriage makes that statement,” he says. He’s talking about commitment.
Oh, there’s that word again, commitment. In the 24 years that have passed since that film came out, what has happened to that word? Well, we now know that the Department of Labor finds that the average American makes four to six career changes and 12 to 15 job changes in his/her lifetime. Since the majority of families now have both individuals working, that means 30 job changes between them. I don’t know about you, but I find that any job change or routine change in my house brings about a great deal of commotion and adjustment. In fact, it is an oversimplification to say that there is no residual effect on the children in such circumstances, yet often the kids are the least of the parents’ concern because self-satisfaction is the only factor considered. Let’s recall the famous line of wisdom from Bridges of Madison County, where the simple farmer’s wife falls in love with an unattached photographer who asks her to run away with him and abandon her family. Her response makes such sense and rings so true about the commitment one makes in marriage. She says, “Robert, please. You don't understand, no one does. When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children, in one way her life begins but in another way it stops. You build a life of details. You become a mother, a wife, and you stop and stay steady so that your children can move. And when they leave, they take your life of details with them. And then you're expected to move again, only you don't remember what moves you because no one has asked in so long. Not even yourself.”
Do you see the beauty in that point? Commitment requires sacrifice, and that’s what, in my opinion, very few are willing to do anymore. Sacrifice is noble and an expression of character; then you can be someone your children and your peers look up to. But in modern society, if you commit, you might not be able to do some of the things you want to do. God forbid you give up your weekly golf game or evening out with the girls or football Sunday with the guys. What kind of pleasure can you get out of doing homework with the kids or attending a school play or coaching Little League, when it’s not for you? How about the kind of pleasure a person gets out of making good on his/her promises?
The fact is that not so long ago, marriage was a covenant between you and your mate and God. You three had this little club, and the pact was, “We will do this together, and when one is not strong, the other will pitch in and do more.” That little deal could see you through anything, and many times it was the strength of enduring difficulties that made your marriage and commitment even stronger. Have we all grown so indifferent that we don’t recall hearing the tales of sacrifice from our grandparents, whose love and respect grew for each other year after year because one of them “always found a way to feed the family” or the other one “always made sure we got to church on Sunday” or one of them “always waited to eat until all the children had eaten”?
Did you notice the recurrence of the word always? I challenge you to come up with anything that today’s adult vows he/she will always do. Do you think maybe this world is skidding off track now and then because everyone is trying to do it alone? Huh? Maybe we can connect those dots. Marriage has lost its footing because people have lost their purpose. C’mon guys, this isn’t that complicated.
Remember Kevin Costner as Elliott Ness in The Untouchables? As he digs into his lunch bag, he finds a note his wife has left him. He reads it, smiles, and says to the rookie cop next to him, “It’s good to be married, isn’t it?” Remember young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II when his friend points out the girl he is in love with. “Look at her, Vito,” he says. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Vito responds, “For you, she is beautiful; for me, I have my wife.” Do you think it is a coincidence that both those films refer to earlier times? I don’t. The honor and sanctity of marriage and commitment spoke volumes about the character of a family.
Both my grandparents were married until death, and each endured the Depression among many other challenges. My mom’s father, Pasquale, was an iceman in the summer and a coalman in the winter. When modern heating and cooling put him out of business, he went to barber college and learned a trade at 42. He cut his last head about a week before he died at 83. My dad’s father, Henry, worked in the steel mills until his retirement that included opening a poolroom that he had been saving for his whole life. They worked their bodies hard to make ends meet, and when they came home, their wives had a bountiful meal on the table and happy children who loved and respected the hardworking man that Dad was.
I recall both my parents remembering that their fathers would walk in the house, one covered in coal dust, the other in foundry dust, and they would go straight to the bathroom, wash up, put on a clean white pressed shirt and then come down for dinner. My friends, if you don’t see the beauty in that, you are blind.
Last year my son had Grandparents Day at school. In his class seven grandparents were there. Four of them were his. The men wore ties and the grandmas brought cookies for the whole class. Sam’s buttons were bursting with pride, and more than a few of his buddies told him how lucky he was. Sam already knew.
Here’s the formula. At the root of all that is good, there is family. At the root of all family that is strong, there is commitment. At the root of commitment is sacrifice, and that sacrifice is a way of life that must be taught. If we continue to lead and live in such a sloppy, self-centered manner, how can we expect our children to make the world a better place? When the family is whole and strong, this country can move mountains.
I quote John Kennedy in regards to the urgency of rectifying this recent state of marriage in our country: “The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. Lyautey replied, 'In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!'”
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org