Even in a time of tremendous cultural flux, when many of the historical reasons for marriage have become outdated, there are still people getting married. One might wonder why, given the advantages of staying single in today’s world. Children are very expensive, unlike in the past when they worked on their parents’ farm. Having a family restricts the career opportunities available to modern parents, both because of the time involved in caring for children and because of the expectation that a responsible parent should bring home a steady paycheck, rather than being free to take chances and follow passions when building a career. Marriage has economic pitfalls even for childless couples, who may not want to pursue promising job opportunities in other cities because it would be hard for the tag-along spouse to find a good position. And there’s always the risk of divorce, which can be messy both emotionally and financially, even when a couple has no children.

Some people simply dismiss the whole idea of marriage as an antiquated relic of primitive times, which continues to exist only because traditional society has conditioned us to want it. But I think those who opt for marriage often do so based on the perception that it is a promise of stability in a rapidly changing world. Even when we don’t feel confident about navigating the huge cultural shifts going on around us, marriage (if all goes well) gives us a constant, predictable home environment. The family unit becomes a micro-culture with its own comforting traditions and rituals.

I recently had a dream that dealt with these themes. Although dream interpretation based on cultural archetypes mostly fell out of fashion along with psychoanalysis a few decades ago, it can sometimes prove interesting. In this particular dream, I was assembling a four-poster bed by putting on the posts. After that, I was on a dock at the river, putting oars in a boat (a double scull) that my husband and I had rowed over the summer.

In dream interpretation, the number four can represent symmetry and stability. Both pairs of oars must be rowed in a synchronized motion to make forward progress along a river, which is a symbol often interpreted to mean the river of life. Losing one’s grip on the oar handles, or bumping an oar into a submerged log or other hazard, can easily cause a scull to tip over—it’s a very narrow boat that needs the oars for balance.

When not in use, oars are stored separately from the boat. They must be put into the oarlocks each time the boat is rowed, and the rowers must carefully check to make sure the oars are fastened securely. This can be seen as an assembly process, much as the four-poster bed in my dream had to be assembled. Both a double scull and a bed are places where a couple would be. So I would interpret the dream as referring to the stability provided by marriage, which requires careful assembly.

Of course, not everyone looks upon marriage as a source of stability. Some take a very different view and consider marriage a luxury reserved for those who already are financially stable. Even though today’s families are much smaller than in the past and women usually work outside the home, raising children in the modern world can be very costly. With so much uncertainty in the global economy, some young adults feel that they should wait until they have well-established careers and substantial savings before they even consider marriage. Depending on the extent of their financial anxiety, they may never reach a point where they feel comfortable with it.

There’s no disputing the fact that it is stressful to get married and start a family while living paycheck to paycheck. But it’s important to keep things in perspective, rather than letting financial anxiety take over one’s life to the extent that everything seems too much of a risk. Way back when our ancestors were raising their families in tiny villages, they had very few material possessions, and their lives were far more perilous than ours. Children often died in infancy, women often died in childbirth, and men often died in war. Still, our ancestors did their best to cope with whatever happened to come their way. Because nothing in their society ever seemed to change much, they didn’t have our worries about living in an unstable world.

Unlike our ancestors, we can’t reasonably expect to lead simple and unchanging lives. Some degree of anxiety about the unknown is inevitable. We deal with it by seeking stability in our relationships, our finances, our daily habits and rituals, and whatever else we may feel gives us more control over our environment. Choices that work well for some people, such as marriage, are not necessarily going to suit others. And with all the options available in today’s society, it may take some time to discover what works and what doesn’t. In any event, when pursuing our goals, I believe it’s helpful to keep in mind both that we have more personal power than we may realize and that, as we go through life, some assembly is required.

October 13, 2013 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Every culture has its folk sayings that help people to get through their days. We rely on them to give our problems a familiar, manageable feeling. Don’t worry about the small stuff, we’re often told. Life’s too short for that.

Back when our ancestors’ lives were indeed short and perilous, this was a very useful way to remind people not to get overly dramatic about small annoyances or disagreements. Why complain today when you might easily die tomorrow from an outbreak of plague, find yourself in the path of an invading army putting your village to the torch, or get eaten by a hungry lion or bear when you went out to gather firewood?

In today’s more civilized world, however, we are far more likely to die of some lingering old-age ailment than of plague or warfare. Our communities have lost many of the close ties that once came from defending against shared perils. It’s hard to imagine what the future will look like, or how we’ll deal with it. Although modern-day humans no longer have to worry about our children dying of smallpox or being captured by an enemy raiding party and sold as slaves, there’s plenty of space in our minds for lesser anxieties to take up residence. Workplace worries, family spats, and political disputes get blown way out of proportion. Perhaps we try to tell ourselves life’s too short for that—but it isn’t. Not anymore.

The primitive parts of our brains still are hard-wired to be on the lookout for anything that might want to eat us. Far below the level of conscious thought, we search for patterns in whatever surrounds us. If it doesn’t all fit neatly together into something recognizable, then we get anxious. Mix that primitive reaction with the massive complexity of today’s society, and it’s no wonder modern humans have sky-high stress levels. Subconsciously, we feel as if there might be unseen predators crouching nearby at any moment, poised to spring. Because we know there really aren’t any, we find other ways to explain our fears. Maybe that lurking enemy becomes our neighbor who votes for a different political party.

How can we convince ourselves that these anxieties are just small stuff and that we’re not in fact on the brink of catastrophe? “Life is short” doesn’t seem to be useful advice in the context of reassuring ourselves that there are no monsters under society’s bed. Such advice might instead make us worry more because it reinforces the subconscious feeling that we could get killed at any moment by something we never even saw coming.

The main challenge for modern humans is learning to deal with change and complexity. So I believe we could use a new folk saying to suit today’s circumstances: Life’s too long for worrying. When we get hung up on our grudges and fears, we might easily wake up one morning 40 years later and realize how much time and energy we wasted obsessing about small problems that could have been solved long ago, if we hadn’t convinced ourselves they were gigantic obstacles.

Although the complexity of our world may often leave us feeling anxious, it also gives us many opportunities to make positive changes. We have a vast array of choices that were unimaginable even a generation ago, and we’ll have exponentially more choices as time passes and technology continues to improve. Having so many options may cause us to feel overwhelmed; but because we have such long lives, we can accomplish very ambitious goals without doing everything at once. All it really takes is finding one way to do something constructive each day. Over time the small changes add up, and we discover that we’ve created far more than we might have imagined.