This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.
Funny how an article in The New York Times about the impending “insect apocalypse” could lead to a rumination about love, sex, and survival.
Perusing the article with equal parts fascination and trepidation—if indeed we are destined to eradicate the chirping of crickets, the croaks of frogs, and the pesky stings of mosquitoes, then we are facing a tragedy that would surely have a catastrophic impact on life as we know it—I stopped for a moment halfway through when I came across this passage:
“… It is impossible to maintain a fixed perspective, as Heraclitus observed 2,500 years ago: It is not the same river, but we are also not the same people.
“A 1995 study by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houston experienced pollution summed up our blindness this way: ‘With each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.’ In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, the marine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, which is often called ‘shifting baseline syndrome.’ The fish got smaller and smaller, to the point where the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored. But the smiles on the fisherman’s faces stayed the same size. The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”
It occurred to me that this “shifting baseline syndrome,” applied just as well to marriage and relationships. Not all marriages and not all relationships, of course. Just the stagnant and moribund ones that should have ended a long time ago. We are not the same people but we grow accustomed to the fall. We settle for less, and convince ourselves that less is actually agreeable, comfortable and safe, never mind that our hearts—and perhaps even our souls—become calcified, so resigned we are to being bound to our partners by familiarity, legality, financial security, children, and sometimes sheer laziness to correct the situation, not to mention a fear that can be crippling. And it is a basic need, our need for connection and nurturing on all the aspects that matter to us and our survival as individuals—be it emotional, sexual, intellectual—so that we are kept alive and healthy within a relationship without being asphyxiated, or worse, numbed into acceptance of a dissatisfying, dysfunctional situation.
For many people, I suppose, it is terrifying to rock the boat, because the ripples such an action would cause within a marriage might turn into a tsunami for society at large. So we shift the baselines each time. And like marital Walter Mitty’s, we meekly accept our situations during our waking hours, only to dream at night of being with someone we love and desire and cherish, and who loves, desires and cherishes us in return.
There is also the fear of being alone, which can be paralyzing. So we latch on to the one we already have, the one who’s already there, however unfulfilling that relationship may be because we mistakenly cling to the notion of commitment as being a promise to stick together no matter what.
There is nobility in honoring commitments, of course. But a commitment between people in a marriage or a civil partnership, I’ve come to realize, is more than mere legality or, in the eyes of some, a vow taken before God and sanctioned by the church. The commitment isn’t merely about staying together no matter what. It is about true partnership; in effect, helping the other person grow and not stagnate, while respecting him or her as an individual, keeping open and honest lines of communication, realistically addressing their needs without minimizing one’s own.
In desperately unfulfilling situations, particularly those in which one party is completely oblivious to the depths of the other person’s unhappiness, we try to tell ourselves that demanding “more” for oneself is downright selfish, going against the idea of “us” in favor of “I.”
But if we can’t ask our partners for what we need in a relationship—and that could be anything from sex once a week, to exercising together, to having dinner without the interference of smartphones, to sharing or a hobby, or to understanding one’s need for occasional solitude—what chance does the relationship have of emerging from the rut and deepening to the point of true fulfillment?
We also like to say that marriage is about compromise, and that we are willing to give in to certain things so as not to, once more, rock the boat. Compromise, however, can sometimes bring with it resentment. Again, it’s not so much about compromise as it is about communication. And sometimes, despite our best intentions, we simply are unable to communicate with our spouses, perhaps because the connection was illusory rather than real and lasting, or because we blindly subsumed ourselves in the belief that being married was about selflessness, so the other’s needs came before our own.
“Undoubtedly we should desire the happiness of those whom we love, but not as an alternative to our own,” said the great philosopher Betrand Russell, in his practical, compassionate and remarkably revolutionary 1906 guide to modern life, The Conquest of Happiness.
As he explained, “Conscious self-denial leaves a man self-absorbed and vividly aware of what he has sacrificed; in consequence it fails often of its immediate object and almost always of its ultimate purpose.”
Part of this self-denial comes from the belief that true connection does not exist. Sadly most of us go through life never once experiencing that kind of connection, and admittedly, it is rare. So much so that it seems more myth than possibility, and if and when it does come, yes, indeed it knocks us sideways, rocks our world and upends our lives, yet we choose to mistrust it, and even fear it, accustomed as we’ve grown “to the fall.” And once more, we shift the baselines, and continue to accept our lot under the guise of “commitment.”
In doing so, we also accept happiness as illusory, and allow fear to motivate us into inaction and keep us in a state of stagnation. As Russell also declared, “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.”
Is it ever too late? Is one ever too old to seek happiness and fulfillment, even if there may be a price to pay for wanting “more”? Perhaps the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke should have the last say:
“You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.”
I wonder if insects have such thoughts as they crash into windshields.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
For comments and questions, e-mail [email protected].
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.
Art by Marian Hukom
For the latest in culture, fashion, beauty, and celebrities, subscribe to our weekly newsletter here
What Taiwan’s loss in the referendum for same-sex marriage means to us
Why settlements take the longest to process during a divorce
What does it mean to be in a sexless marriage?
Our quirky relationship with menstruation and menopause