A good friend of mine and I have often argued about the tradition of marriage, and whether it is a necessary or even useful external display of an internal commitment to another person. After all, beyond tax-discounts, what use is there in spending thousands of dollars to get "married," when one ought to have this level of commitment without any piece of paper or formal title declaring it to anyone beyond the two involved? While it may seem that this is an overly scientific and utilitarian way to look at marital union, in my experience an objective approach to a cultural norm often gets to the heart of the matter: finding what is truly fundamental to a certain idea by poking and prodding away at what is simply associated with it. I call this Jenga-blocking.
Objectivity is not an opposing force to sentimentality, but rather is an investigative eye towards discovering the true foundations of what we treasure as humans. Rational thought is a tool which may serve us well, as long as we do not allow ourselves to become a servant to it, instead. (That can lead us to some pretty silly conclusions, like eliminating world hunger through cannibalism, cooking up the hungriest people in order to feed the hungry people. A brain working without a heart can be pretty stupid.) With an objective eye wielded correctly, however, we can see well enough to prod at the structure of an idea, step-by-step separating what is associated with a cultural norm from what is truly fundamental to it.
Along the way of thinking about marriage, I began to investigate relationships, dating, and that strange "in-between" phase that no one quite knows what to do with. I was under the impression that I had never been in a relationship before, until another friend pointed out to me that most of the labels we assign to a particular person we interact with doesn't actually define our relationship to that person.
"Every relationship of any sort is continuous," he said, using a mathematical term for a line which has no gaps or sharp steps. A slide is continuous, an elevator is continuous; a staircase is not, because you must take separate (discrete) steps.
"Except for marriage, there is no title or label that has any inherent meaning, more than what we pretend to attribute to it. Marriage is the only discrete step that really counts for anything."
From this perspective, maybe I've been in multiple relationships and only failed to recognize or label them. I began to ask myself, what is it about marriage that makes it so different, so distinct from any other relationship? What is it about the act of marriage, the promise made publicly, that is so important? No single physical, emotional, or intellectual element seemed to point to the true foundation of what makes a couple "married" to one another, beyond the public statement itself. For every thing I could think of that might be thought of as the true core of what makes a couple "married," I could think of examples of married couples who did not have that element and yet were still considered to be married. Yet, when I have asked people who are married what marriage is, they are not able to explain it. (This, of course, does not bother them. They can go on being married without knowing what that means just fine, the same way I am ignorant of how this laptop works, but that does not prevent me from continuing to use it, and considering it a marvelous invention.)
From there, like Alice, I've tunneled even further down the rabbit-hole, and as I sift through all of the information I've accrued from the last year, with the constant trickle of more, I begin to wonder why we have such a need for definitions and distinctions for the abstract and undefinable. We use words like measuring sticks, but the non-Euclidean reality we experience never seems to match up -- this is an inequality writers know all too well. The best we can do is design our measuring sticks, our words, according to the thing we are attempting to measure: we make metaphors, those longitudes and latitudes we use to draw parallels that converge.