Quotes and Lessons from Carl Sagan’s Billions & Billions

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Celebrated astrophysicist, cosmologist, astronomer, astrobiologist, Pulitzer-winning writer, and world-renowned scientific genius Carl Sagan was a man that wore a multitude of hats. And boy, how he wore each hat so well! Beyond being a highly lauded scientist, he was a pop culture icon that brought the most complex of scientific ideas into the everyday consciousness of the everyman.

In Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, Sagan condenses a plethora of scientific learnings and juxtaposes them with his views on humanity’s role in preserving the Earth and all its lifeforms. To quote the great scientist,

“We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves…”

He teaches this essential lesson through a series of essays (and transcribed speeches) dealing with various and seemingly disparate topics. Some of the topics tackled in his essays include the power of exponential notation and growth, man’s quick but ultimately limited progress in exploring the mysteries of the universe, the importance of morality, the great debate on abortion, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, how man is destroying the world through global warming, and the razor-sharp and double-edged sword that comes with technological growth.

Now, if that last sentence reads like a mouthful, that’s only because the book itself is overflowing with information that spans, not just the scientific plane, but the moral, the political, and the philosophical arenas of thought as well. Mind-blowing is one of the quickest terms that come to mind when I think of Billions and Billions, but it is a word that still feels greatly lacking. I’ve been awestruck by truly great text before, by works like A Room of One’s Own, An Unquiet Mind, and Existentialism is a Humanism. But this is the first time I’ve been both awestruck and struck dumb by one book.

Carl Sagan was truly a man that was larger than life, and much of his learnings (both personal and academic) have been poured out into the essays in Billions and Billions. I feel that any attempt from my end to come up with a standard review for this book will only come out clumsy and wanting. So, in lieu of an actual review, let me instead present to you a list of my favorite quotes and lessons from Billions and Billions. (Sagan’s quotes are in italics.)

Read and enjoy.

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Playing Favorites: Rediscovering A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

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Author: Madeleine L’Engle
First Published: 1963
Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Literature
Awards: Newberry Medal, Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and the Sequoyah Book Award
**A Wrinkle in Time is the first book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet Series**

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” – Marcel Proust

For the bookish child, there is at least one book that will ignite his/her lifelong passion for literature. This favorite book will speak to the child at the most fundamental level. In moments of crisis, it will lend him/her the strength of its protagonists. Between its covers lies a safe space where the child will feel understood and less alone. In some cases, the book may even open up a world of possibilities beyond what the imagination readily offers. It will be a solace to the child, an escape from the rigors and prison-like confines of real life.

In my case, my favorite childhood book is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. It was a book that served all the aforementioned purposes and more. Its protagonist, Meg Murry, with her social awkwardness, her struggles with conformity, and inability to fit in, reflected the same issues I had growing up. See, like Meg, I was a socially awkward kid. I was eager to please and painfully shy, which as I learned in adulthood is a terrible combo as far as developing your self-worth is concerned. Books, for me, provided the companionship I craved and a much-needed haven where I could be myself—oddities, queer habits, quirks, and all that.  Hey, I even liked Math and was pretty good at it, pre-algebra too, at least.

I remember the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time. I was about 9. It must have been a borrowed copy too, because I was extra-careful not to bend the spine. In lieu of dog ears, I’d slip scraps of paper between its leaves. Now, did I borrow it from the library? Did I borrow it from a friend? The memory is a tricky thing. Some details in life stand out starkly, but I suppose the details that do, do so because of how they made you feel—at least for me. I’ve always been pants at memorization.

Anyhow, in case you haven’t read Wrinkle, I’ve included a lengthy summary of its plot below. Summaries and synopsis are weak spots of mine, so I hope I can do Wrinkle some justice.

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry’s adventure starts with that ominous, if overused, first line. At the start of the book, the reader is introduced to the Murrys via Meg’s viewpoint. We learn that Meg is the eldest of the Murry children. Her mother is a beautiful and brilliant scientist with doctorate degrees in Biology and Bacteriology, while her father is a top-level government physicist. Mr. Murry mysteriously disappeared over a year ago while he was working on a top-secret government assignment involving fifth-dimensional space travel (a.k.a tesseract).

On top of missing her father and worrying about her mother, Meg is also riddled with insecurities. She considers herself the oddball and the disappointment in the family. Despite her high IQ, she is struggling in school and is unable to make friends. She is shown to be a loving and loyal daughter, albeit prone to moments of violence and volatility particularly when it comes to protecting her loved ones. Her three younger brothers include the ‘perfectly normal’ twins, Sandy and Dennys (aged 10), and her baby brother, Charles Wallace (aged 5).

Like Meg, outside the family, Charles Wallace is also shown to be very misunderstood. He is often referred to as her ‘dumb baby brother,’ mainly because despite his large vocabulary, he refuses to speak when other people are around. The reader also learns early on that Charles Wallace has telepathic abilities, which he uses almost exclusively to read Meg’s and their mother’s minds.

The plot really starts moving a few pages in when the Murrys admit a late night visitor into their house. Meg somewhat correctly assumes that it is the tramp she’s been hearing about—the one that stole their neighbor’s sheets. But Charles recognizes the visitor and introduces her to his mother and sister as Mrs. Whatsit. He claims to have met Mrs. Whatsit, along with her two companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, while he was out walking the family dog.

Now, Mrs. Whatsit may appear to be a tramp, but she’s actually a telepathic celestial being that knows far more about the universe than any of earth’s greatest minds. Testament to Mrs. Murry’s stellar character, she offers Mrs. Whatsit shelter from the raging storm, but Mrs. Whatsit insists on going her way.

“Wild nights are my glory,” Mrs. Whatsit said. “I just got caught in a down draft and blown off course.”

As she makes her way out of the Murry’s house, she tells Mrs. Murry that “there is such a thing as a tesseract.” Although the words initially mean nothing to both the children and the reader, they catch Mrs. Murry off-guard, leaving her upset and deep in thought. She later tells Meg that the tesseract is a concept that she and Meg’s father had been studying before his disappearance.

                “But you’re good at basketball and things,” Meg protested. “You’re good in school. Everybody likes you.”

“For all the most unimportant means,” Calvin said. “There hasn’t been anybody, anybody in the world I could talk to. Sure, I can function on the same level as everybody else, I can hold myself down, but it isn’t me.”

The next afternoon, Charles Wallace invites Meg for a walk and leads her to Mrs. Whatsit’s house. There, they meet Calvin O’Keefe—a kid two years above Meg’s grade. Calvin is a golden boy—a member of the basketball team and extraordinarily smart, to boot. But what really sets Calvin apart from his peers is his almost psychic intuitiveness about things. Throughout the book, he takes on the role of Meg’s protector and, spoiler alert, love interest. He accompanies Meg and Charles when they meet Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which—completing the book’s three Mrs. W’s.

The Mrs. W’s explain to the children that they know where Mr. Murry is and that the children are the only ones who can save him. They tell the children that Mr. Murry is being held captive by the Dark Thing, this malicious shadow that is the root of all evil in the universe. IT is a malevolent force that is threatening to engulf the entire universe in IT’s darkness. Despite the Dark Thing’s power, they assure the children that IT can be defeated—and is in fact being defeated time and again by good. On Earth, these heroes include the likes of Jesus, Einstein, and Da Vinci to name a few.

Using fifth-dimensional travel, or tesseract (illustrated in the diagram below), the Mrs. W’s whisk the children off into a grand adventure through space.

tesseract

(an illustration of how traveling through tesseract works.)

Their fight against IT culminates on the planet of Camazotz—a place, much like earth, with inhabitants that are much like humans. The inhabitants of the entire planet have been brainwashed by IT, an oversized, disembodied brain that forces everyone into conformity through IT’s hypnotic and rhythmic pulsing. Like a puppet master, IT possesses anyone who succumbs to IT’s power, including Camazotz puppet leader, the Man With Red Eyes. Through The Man With Red Eyes, IT tells the children:

“For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet. I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.”

To save Mr. Murry, the children must steel themselves against IT’s powers of mind control. During one of their standoffs, Meg utters my favorite lines from A Wrinkle in Time. She realizes that multiplication tables and nursery rhymes are too rote, so she launches into an impassioned narration of the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident!” she shouted, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.”

“No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all.”

-Meg deflecting IT’s attempts to slither into her mind

(Note: I’m sure you can guess how the novel ends, but I’ll leave some of the hows to your imagination.)

On Themes and the Value of Persistence

Now, before we proceed to the more personal part of my review, here are some interesting facts about this award-winning novel.

A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by at least 26 publishers before being snatched up by the American publishing company, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG).

Madeleine L’Engle may have finished writing Wrinkle at lightning speed in 1960, but finding a publisher for the novel turned out to be a slow and agonizing uphill battle that lasted three long years. According to L’Engle, she received no less than 26 rejection slips before the manuscript was picked up by John C. Farrar of FSG. L’Engle had submitted Wrinkle to Farrar at the insistence of one of her mother’s guests at a family tea party.

Wrinkle may actually be a political piece that mirrored America’s anti-Totalitarian sentiments.

In Anna Quindlen’s essay, “An Appreciation,” which appears as the introduction to the current issue of A Wrinkle in Time, the Pulitzer-winning journalist reflects on how the dark dictatorship of Camazotz echoed 1960s America’s fear of communism.

This sentiment is confirmed by what may be the ‘lost pages’ of A Wrinkle in Time. According to an article from Oregon Live, L’Engle’s granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis discovered three pages that were cut from the original manuscript. In one of the pages, Mr. Murry warns Meg about the dangers of totalitarianism, mentioning the names of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Castro, and Krushchev.

It is a book about the war between Good and Evil, the dangers of Conformity, and the importance of challenging the status quo for the good of all.

Throughout Wrinkle, we find countless allusions to God and his greatness. Whether it be from the heavenly songs of the celestial beings of Uriel or the quotes of the Mrs. Ws, the book is peppered with passages from the Bible. Now, I can’t comment about the rest of the time quintet—as I am actually yet to find and read them—but I can say that Wrinkle does show the depth of Madeleine L’Engle’s faith. The fact that the main theme of the book has to do with the good/light defeating evil/darkness can already be seen as a nod to her Christian background.

But the beauty of the book, particularly for the non-religious, is how it includes vastly universal themes that we all can identify with. Take, for example, the issue of conformity. In a world that is mistrustful of what is different or unknown, acceptance and security are hinged on a person’s ability to abide by the dictates of society.

You are allowed to be ‘different,’ so long as you’re not too ‘different.’ And this is a lesson that’s ingrained in us from childhood. I believe the phrase is “beaten into submission.” A strange child is seen as no better than a miscreant or a future hoodlum.

Naturally, what a lot of these conformity coaches don’t see is that a different viewpoint is necessary for change. And to better the status quo, citizens must have the capacity for critical and independent thinking. To thwart individuality is akin to thwarting progress. And sameness or blind acquiescence may offer the advantage of easy rule and surface-level order, but ultimately, these two ‘pros’ will only benefit the lucky few. And I’ve gone didactic on you. Apologies for that, dear reader.

On to the Rest of the Review

Reading A Wrinkle in Time at the cusp of prepubescence taught me countless life lessons. The book reaffirmed what I knew about the importance of family, love, and faith. But perhaps the best lesson of all was the importance of being yourself—regardless of who, what, or how you are. At 9 years of age, I learned that even socially awkward children (or adults) had the capacity to become the heroes of their own lives. Sure, we won’t all get the chance to save the world or experience interstellar travel, but we can make a difference in the lives of those around us by choosing to do what is good and brave instead of settling for what is easy and convenient.

Now, it’s been about two decades since I last revisited A Wrinkle in Time. I decided to reread this old favorite so I could give it a proper, and dare I say it, unbiased review. The way I saw it, twenty years was more than enough time to shake off sentimentality in favor of impartiality. I wanted to see if Wrinkle could still impart the same sense of magic it had offered me some 22 years ago—and obviously, I wasn’t disappointed.

Wrinkle is a book for people of all ages. It may be my favorite childhood book, but it also takes its place on my shelf of all-time literary greats.

 

Rating: 5/5

Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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Ten Popular Names with Odd and Unexpected Definitions behind Them

Today, the world celebrates “Learn What Your Name Means Day.” Inspired by this really interesting not-quite-holiday, I set out to find the definition behind my first name—Kristel Marie.

Except, being naturally curious, I didn’t really stop with my name. Instead, I fell down this rabbit hole of entertaining but time-consuming and potentially useless name binge that led me to a large list of popular names with very bizarre meanings behind them. Here are ten of my favorites.

Kennedy – While according to some sources, Kennedy is the English cognate of the Gaelic name, Cinnéidigh, which translates to helmeted chief, other sources claim that the name means ugly or misshapen head.

MacLeod – According to multiple sources, Wikipedia included, the Scottish last name MacLeod means Son of Leod, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. Except Leod allegedly also means ugly man. Put two and two together and MacLeod would translate to “son of the ugly man.” Yikes. Beautiful name with a not-too-flattering definition behind it.

Cecilia – This lovely English first name is said to be derived from its masculine cousin, Cecil. Cecil, in turn, comes from the Latin word coccus, which means blind.

Mallory – The French name Mallory is said to mean bad luck or ill-fated.

Calvin – The male first name Calvin is said to be derived from the French last name Cauvin, which means the little bald one.

Claudia – I’ve always loved the French baby name Claudia. This beautiful name is based on the male name Claud—from the Latin word Claudium, which means lame.

Byron – Lord Byron may have been the ultimate seducer, but his last name comes from the Old English word byre, which means barn for cows.

Gideon – The Hebrew baby name Gideon is said to mean the destroyer with a stump for a hand.

Portia – Portia may have been the lead in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” but according to some sources, the name also comes from the Latin word Porcia, which means hog or swine.

Leah – The baby name Leah has two possible meanings. In the Semitic nation, Chaldea, the name Leah meant ruler or mistress. But the Hebrew name is also said to have come from the Hebrew word le’ah, which means weary.

P.S. In case you’re interested, these are the (possibly) legit definitions for Kristel and Marie:

Apparently, Kristel is either (a) a derivative of the Greek word Christianos, meaning “follower of Christ,” or (b) a 19th century name from the word Crystal, which is a type of transparent quartz. As for Marie, according to BabyNameWizard.com, the name is a French derivative of the biblical name, Mary—as in the Mother of God. But aside from this, Marie could also mean a myriad of other things, including “the sea of bitterness or sorrow,” “rebellion,” “the mistress of the sea,” and the “wished-for child.”

Sources:

http://www.ranker.com/list/funny-baby-name-meanings/anabel-conner

http://babynames.allparenting.com/babynames/Ideas/Baby_names_with_weird_meanings/

http://lifestyle.one/closer/family-money/family/worst-baby-name-bad-meaning-girl-boy/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/31/bad-baby-names_n_3366655.html

In Preparation for Spring Cleaning: The KonMari Tidying Order

Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about how a messy workplace affects a person’s creativity and productivity. While I’d like to think that the messy state of my life and my possessions is simply the manifestation of my, gulp, creative mind, 31 years of transforming living spaces into pig sties has taught me what productivity experts have been saying and rhyming for the last decade—MESS really does create STRESS.

I can’t begin to count and recount the multitude of anxiety attacks I’ve suffered over “losing” key items like my keys, my wallet, other people’s paychecks, and even a land title/car registration or two-wenty. I once ‘lost’ my mobile phone only to find it ringing in the fridge.

Now, I know, these things happen to the best of us. The unprecedented success of Mari Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is testament to how millions of people see the disorganized state of their affairs as a setback when it comes to their pursuit of productivity and happiness. Many of us perceive tidying as the hallelujah solution to most, if not all of our problems.

So, with spring, (and consequently, the period for Spring Cleaning), just around the corner, I thought it best to impart some of finest lessons I’ve learned from Mari Kondo’s ‘life-changing’ book—particularly the KonMari Tidying Order. I’m hoping that this will help you get a head start on your annual spring cleaning project too.

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The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part 2)

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Here’s the continuation to my post on the most romantic poems of all time. Again, in no particular order, another ten love poems guaranteed to make you a little weak in the knees.

To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

I prize thy love more than the whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

This short poem from Anne Bradstreet reads like a beautiful and passionate love letter. The poet talks about the intense happiness one can derive from being with the person one loves. The persona also claims that her esteem for her husband is eternal—for it is the type of love that can never be surpassed. It is his love alone that can satisfy her. She also expresses tremendous gratitude to her husband for this life-changing and immortal love.

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.

In my previous post, I had included Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This time around, we have an entry from her husband, Robert Browning. Meeting at Night speaks of a rendezvous between lovers. More accurately, it talks about the persona’s journey to his lover’s place and the excitement they feel upon seeing each other.

At the start of the poem, the persona describes what he sees and experiences without disclosing his intended destination. It is only in the last two sentences that we realize it is a joyful and somewhat secret reunion between him and his loved one (tap of the pane, quick sharp scratch).

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Here’s a small confession from this reader—I can’t quite decide if this ‘love poem’ is sweet or not, but what I know is that its persona is persistent. To His Coy Mistress, a poem published posthumously in 1681, is one of the most well-known poems from Andrew Marvell. In it, the persona is in pursuit of his ‘coy mistress.’ He starts the poem declaring the breadth and depth of his love for her and then attempts to convince her to give in to his seduction by presenting the rather harsh imagery of death. He asks her to love him before it’s too late for both of them. Sweet or not, this poem earns high points for its morbid persistence.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

More sad than sweet, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe explores the theme of a love that continues even after death. The poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman, is believed to have been inspired by Poe’s own loss. His wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, was just 24 years old when she succumbed to a bout of consumption.

In the poem, the persona remembers and relives the loss of his beloved. They had been in love as children, and had maintained a love so strong that even the angels were envious of their happiness. The angels then sent down a wind that chilled and killed the beautiful Annabel Lee. Despite her death, the persona insists that their love remains strong; for nothing could ever sever his soul from the soul of Annabel Lee.

A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luv thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

A Red, Red Rose was written by Robert Burns in 1794. Despite actually being a song and not a poem, its lyrics and consistent publication in literary sites has landed it a place in my top 20 love poems list. With its charming imagery of red roses in June and rocks melting in the sun, the poem depicts the sweetness of true and lasting love.

I Loved You First: but Afterwards Your Love by Christina Rossetti

For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine’;
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:

In I loved you first: but afterwards your love, Christina Rossetti writes about the oneness that comes with being in a relationship with the right person. The persona addresses her lover directly, confessing that while she may have loved him first, it was his love that outsoared hers. But ultimately, there is no need for “weights and measures,” for as Rossetti puts it:

Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’;
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

 A Glimpse by Walt Whitman

…And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
Seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

True to its name, A Glimpse by Walt Whitman reads like a beautiful scene from your favorite romance novel. Just one moment of sheer happiness and contentment as the rest of the world continues its hustle and bustle, its flurry of movement. One scene of love immortalized in time.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sonnet 18, alternatively titled as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is perhaps the most well-loved of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In the poem, the persona addresses his lover and compares his beloved to a lovely summer’s day. But ultimately, he points out that his dearest is fairer and more everlasting than the short season, beautiful as summertime may be. His words also prove prophetic when he claims that his beloved will be immortalized through this text, as both Shakespeare and Sonnet 18 have become a permanent fixtures in the ever-evolving literary landscape.

That I Did Always Love by Emily Dickinson

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough—

Fact: Emily Dickinson is one of the finest (and most eccentric) poets to have walked the earth. Also a fact: with her unique use of syntax and capitalizations, her poems are shrouded in an esoteric curtain that begs to be lifted. Well, perhaps more than a curtain, each work is an onion that begs to be peeled layer by layer. Now, the beauty of That I Did Always Love is its rawness and straightforwardness.

Through this poem, she proves to her beloved that she has always loved him. She tells him, almost directly between her em dashes, that what gives life meaning is love, and that should he doubt her love for him then she would feel nothing but immense suffering.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

 And finally, rounding up this list is Love after Love by Sir Derek Walcott. Dare I say it? This is probably my favorite love poem of all—for it is a love poem for one’s self. In this poem, the persona talks to the reader directly and reminds the reader that when everyone else is gone, there is one other person that deserves your love—yourself.

It is easy enough to forget oneself when in love. We give and we give and we empty ourselves in the hopes of reciprocity. But in the midst of a whirlwind or a soft and lingering love affair, it is important to once in a while, “Sit. [and] Feast on your life.”

(See Part I of The Most Romantic Poems of All Time)

Secrets to a Happy and Lasting Marriage

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February 17, 2017. Today, the world celebrates Random Acts of Kindness Day, and while I’m all for practicing this non-official holiday, the date takes on a more significant meaning within the walls of our family home. Forty-two years ago, my parents made a vow to stay committed to each other for the rest of their lives—and so far (and so, forevermore), they’ve made good on that promise.

Theirs is a marriage that has been tested by my father’s illness and the rigors of raising four children, and with every test they’ve come across, they have emerged stronger than ever. Now, that is the type of commitment that every couple should aspire for. To commemorate this very special day, I’ve decided to write about marriage—specifically, the secrets to a lasting and happy marriage.

So, with that in mind, what are the secrets to a happy union? I suppose that that’s the million dollar question. In a world where most romantic relationships crumble and a trip down the aisle is no longer much of a guarantee for ‘forever,’ how does one begin to build the foundation for a strong and healthy marriage? Before I go about trying to answer that question, let me back those statements with statistics.

Staying is the New Shame

A few months ago, while on a TED trip on YouTube, I came across a very interesting talk by the renowned Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel. Although her talk was mostly about rethinking infidelity in the marriage context, she did touch on a myriad of factors why relationships tend to fail.

According to Perel, prior to marriage becoming the natural ‘next step’ after two people fall in love, marriage was more of an ‘economic enterprise.’ It was an agreement between two families for their betterment and a way for a man to ensure that his wife’s children were his. It was a way of making sure that his children were the ones who will inherit the cows, the land, etc.

Marrying for love, on the other hand, is a rather recent phenomenon. And yet, if nowadays, we get to choose the person we marry, why are so many couples still splitting up? In the context of infidelity, this is what Perel has to say:

But then we have another paradox that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor, but we also have never been more inclined to stray. And not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where “I deserve to be happy.” And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

And indeed, divorce has become the go-to option for many couples when their marriages hit a series of snags. And, quite frankly, I’m not against divorce so long as it really is what’s best for the couple. But, here is the caveat. Divorce may be the best cure for a rotten marriage, true. However, isn’t prevention still better than any cure? The truth is, the average number of divorces worldwide may have dropped since the 1980s, but it’s still pretty high.

 

According to Divorce.com, a website that claims to be “Your best resource before, during, and after a divorce,” there are a number of countries where divorce rates per capita exceed 50% of the married population. The top five countries in their list include Belarus (68%), the Russian Federation (65%), Sweden (64%), Latvia (63%), and Ukraine (63%). The United Kingdom sits at 10th place (53%) and the United States is at 12th place (49%). The site also has a disclaimer about the difficulties of being absolutely accurate with their figures, so let’s try another round of statistics.

This time, it’s from an article from The Telegraph called “The Haven for Honeymooners Where Everyone Gets Divorced.” According to the September 2016 article, the Maldives has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for being the divorce capital of the world. We’re looking at 10.97 divorces per year for every 1,000 people in the country. According to the UN, the average Maldivian woman would have had three divorces by the time she’s 30—talk about a major quarter-life crisis.Also making it to the top five countries with the highest annual divorces per 1,000 inhabitants are Russia (4.5), Aruba (4.4), Belarus (4.1), Latvia (3.6), and the United States (3.6)

Supposing that the actual number of divorces per head in the aforementioned countries are slightly lower than reported, when placed in the context of how a lot of these marriages are ‘love matches,’ these figures remain rather unsettling.

Now, more than ever, it feels imperative that couples know the secrets that will inoculate their unions against the possibility of ruin. This brings us to the article’s original question: What makes for a happy and lasting marriage?

The eminent French philosopher Michel de Montaigne has a humorous answer to the question. According to Montaigne:

“A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.”        

Now, the statement may be funny, but if it were true, the vast majority of the world’s couples are screwed. Let’s try again.

Is it LOVE?

Love, it seems, would be the logical answer to the question, right?

The Oxford Living Dictionary defines love as “a strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for someone,” and “a great interest and pleasure in something.” Now, that sounds about right; after all, the sexual attraction bit is what would differentiate husband/wife from friend or relative.

Another definition for the word love, particularly in the realm of sports, is “a score of zero; or nil.” That sounds about right too. Because as the great thinkers Sartre, Pierre Reverdy, and Jean Cocteau have pointed out:

“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.”

Cue Natalie Portman’s epic scene in the film Closer, where her character, Alice, tells Jude Law’s character, Dan: “Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it, I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.”

The film came out right about the time I was taking my Theology 131 class called “Marriage, Family Life, and Human Sexuality.” Although the rest of the semester is pretty much a blur now, I do remember one particular lecture from my professor. He talked about the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone.

The feeling of being ‘in love’ is not something you can control. It’s the honeymoon phase of the relationship—the part where desire (or hormones) is present. And quite frankly, as anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship will tell you, this phase is temporary. It’s one you can rekindle multiple times in your relationship, but it’s not always present, nor is it always necessary.

Real, lasting love is a decision you make every day. See, you may not always be in love with your partner, but so long as you love him/her—and to love is still very much an action word as it is a noun—then there’s hope for ‘so long as you both shall live.’

I believe that the main secret to a lasting relationship lies in the constant practice of that action word called ‘love,’ and the following are the factors that make love in a marriage possible.

RESPECT

Respect is a fundamental part of loving someone. While it’s true that you can respect people you don’t necessarily love or even like, (your boss, your teacher, an actor/actress, a politician, etc.), it’s impossible to love someone without having a modicum of respect for that person.

Now, I’ve read a number of articles, that I won’t put here out of respect for their authors, detailing the importance of respecting one’s husband—his authority, choices, and decisions—and while I agree with these authors in some ways, I do believe that respect is a two-way street. It is just as important for a husband to respect his partner, and I’m not backing down on this.

FRIENDSHIP OR COMPANIONSHIP

“The first time you marry for love, the second for money, and the third for companionship.” – Jackie Kennedy

I’m not going to knock Jackie Kennedy’s statement—there is some truth to it after all. But I, for one, believe in marrying for love and companionship the first time. It will save you the heartbreak and the wallet drain of two divorces. This is a sentiment that Franz Schubert and Friedrich Nietzsche appear to be in agreement with. To quote them both:

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” – Franz Schubert

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

CONTENTMENT

This is advice better said in the Huffington Post article called “America’s ‘Longest Married Couple’ Wants to Give You Love Advice.” The article features a 2016 interview with John and Ann Betar, a couple who have been married for 83 wonderful years.

The couple had eloped in 1932, when Ann was just 17 years old, and John was just 21. Ann’s family had wanted her to marry an older man, so the couple decided to run off and build a beautiful life together. According to John, the secret to their long marriage is contentment.

“We struggled in the beginning, but, luckily, we were content with what we had. It’s just important to be content with what you have.”

Now, that’s pretty sound advice, wouldn’t you agree?

KINDNESS AND GENEROSITY (PARTICULARLY, GENEROSITY OF INTENT)

In 2014, The Atlantic released an interview with esteemed psychologists John and Julie Gottman. The couple has been studying other marrieds for four decades in a bid to determine what makes relationships last and what factors contribute to their decay.

According to the Gottmans’ research, kindness is the glue that keeps couples together. It is in practicing kindness that we are able to make our partners feel our love. Now, it is easy to be kind to your partner when everything is going well; but kindness is most needed not during these periods of happiness but during the down times, during periods of fighting and brewing contempt.

As Julie Gottman puts it, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and that’s the kinder path.”

This is also where generosity (of intent) comes in. When your partner does or says something that is hurtful to you, it is important to give your partner some ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Instead of immediately assuming the malevolence of an act, try to find its root. Beyond seeking to be understood, also seek to understand.

GRATITUDE

Last, but not least, there is the importance of expressing love through gratitude. In 2012, an article from Psychology Today discussed the role of appreciation and gratitude in maintaining relationships. It talked about a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley psychologist Amie Gordon. The study, which was featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved asking 50 couples to write in appreciation journals.

The results of the study showed that couples who practiced reciprocal appreciation were more likely to stay together in the following months. They also exhibited stronger ties with each other. So, it’s true. Showing love through appreciation really does help create a loving and nourishing environment for couples.

Now, I’m sure that this list of ‘secrets’ is far from complete, but I do believe that practicing these tips can help secure a lasting, healthy, and happy marriage. At the very least, true love is always worth the shot, right?