Tonight I will officiate at my second wedding in a week. I like weddings, but I always struggle with what to say. At baptisms, the parents in the front pews listen even though they’re often tussling with older siblings of the one in white. At funerals, people listen intently. Their stare—both skeptical and desperate—says: Is there anything you can say, Mister, that will push back the dread of death? Anything?
Weddings are another story. Maybe people in the back rows can listen, but the front pews are reserved for exhausted people light headed with adrenaline. I know. I’ve been in the front pew twice.
And even if people had ears, the real message almost isn’t appropriate for the occasion (in all its glory). The best and only word for brides and grooms is, hold on. Hold on, because conflict is coming. The classic vows—“for better, for worse”—are so ritualized we can’t really hear what they’re saying. Which is: worse is coming. But here is the stunner: what that means is not, “worse is coming but if you’re tough enough you can get back to better,” but, “worse is coming and then you will know what love really is.” Someone once asked Scott Peck what was the purpose of marriage. Peck replied, “to experience conflict.”
Our natural response to conflict is binary. Either we win or we skedaddle. This can only produce immature people, people with huge egos and shallow souls, people incapable of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. And that, says Peck, is why our ancestors practically in caves invented marriage. They knew it was, for most human beings, the only circle that could force us to endure conflict without winning or running.
You can’t exactly say that at a wedding. So we make the bride and groom say those words, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” and if we’re Jews we make them break a glass. One day their illusions will be taken away and they may just remember. One day, when conflict comes and they can’t escape—or won’t—they will know how good it feels to embrace simply what is and who is, in all its beauty and brokenness, and they will weep to be loved so in return.
The key to this incredibly deep human and spiritual triumph is embarrassingly simple. All you must do is hold on.