My wife Alice and I were married on an August morning in 1964 in a Presbyterian church just south of Richmond, Virginia. As our wedding reception drew to a close in the midday summer heat and we prepared to drive off to begin our married life in Austin, Texas, Alice’s mother took me aside and embraced me. Clearly speaking for Alice’s father as well as herself, she whispered in my ear, “We love you. We are happy that you and Alice have married. And now, you must both pass the test of intimacy.” As I hugged her back, I could only think to say, “Thank you.” We left a few moments later for the adventures to come, beginning with graduate study and our first home at the University of Texas, which neither of us had ever seen.
During our wedding ceremony and reception, time seemed to pass very quickly, but not in a blur. The faces and voices, the flowers and music, were crystal clear and sharp then, although almost all are dim memories now.
Almost all. Five interwoven memories from that little church remain vivid. I remember the feel of Alice’s hand in mine, and her face and her voice as we took our vows. I remember the moments with my mother and father. And I remember Alice’s mother’s words. In thirty-four years, I suppose a week has never passed that I have not thought of that quiet moment before we drove away, and Alice’s mother saying so softly but insistently to me, “And now, you must both pass the test of intimacy.”
The intimacy of lovemaking had been in my thoughts all morning, but I knew Alice’s mother meant much more than that. In making our vows, I had said “for better and for worse” with a particular deliberateness, because Alice and I had enjoyed a very happy courtship, largely uninterrupted by disappointment and without occasion for grief. I knew that in the course of our marriage, we would inevitably face adversity, and I meant to be clear that I understood our vows to hold, whatever might befall us.
I felt that my mother-in-law was confirming my resolve from her vantage of greater experience and maturity and in the light of our shared love for Alice. As Alice and I drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, on the first leg of our trip westward, I took her statement to mean that my wife and I would now — day by day, year by year — come to know each other, acquire expectations of and hopes for each other, learn each other’s ways, feel joy and endure suffering together, rely on each other, and love each other in far greater depth and openness than in the courtship of our youth.
She meant, I thought, that marriage made us intimates — each of us more devoted to the happiness of the other than to our own. As intimates, we had committed ourselves to each other’s love, throughout both the commonplace events of daily life and the extraordinary challenges, opportunities, heartaches, horrors, and tragedies to come. At that time it seemed correct — and has ever since — to think of the expectations of intimacy as a test of both love and duty.
My study of philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia had accustomed me to thinking in terms of love and duty, especially duty. My reading had introduced me to the Baconian ideal of friendship as an exceptionally desirable relation among “chosen equals,” whose encouragement and admonition tend to bring out the best in us. I was instructed by the Aristotelian account of friendships of pleasure, utility, and shared contemplative life. By the time Alice and I graduated from college in 1963, I believed, as I still do, that marriage at its best embraces the dimensions of profound and utterly candid friendship.
I was not persuaded then, nor have experience and study persuaded me since, that disclosure of the darker side of our individual natures inevitably destroys friendship and love. Neither do I believe that the remorseless destruction of our vitality by the passage of time — what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is” — inevitably corrodes love and duty in intimacy.
While I was falling in love with Alice, I studied philosophy, spurred by the memory of the horrific death of my father’s uncle, Jean Baptiste Dubois, in 1959. Uncle Johnnie — who seemed to me my own, rather than my father’s, uncle — was a southern Illinois coal miner who contracted tuberculosis while serving in the Navy during World War I. By 1959, he was dying of lung cancer. He was the first person I loved who suffered a difficult death.
On a bleak day during Johnnie’s last summer, and my seventeenth, my parents and I drove from Pennsylvania to Michigan to be with him. We found him stooped below his normal height of six feet, emaciated, virtually bedridden. He used what strength he had left to cough great, clotted strings of phlegm and blood from his throat and chest. They were nearly black, stained by the effects of coal mines and cigarettes. He spat over and over into a small, white cardboard box he held in both weakened hands. It looked like a take-out box from a Chinese restaurant. Many years passed before I could again eat food from such a box.
I was unable to keep looking at him, at his eyes, the bones in his arms, the cords in his neck, the dark spit on his lips and chin, so I walked aimlessly back and forth to look out of the room’s stained and filthy window. As I stood by that window for the third or fourth time, a pigeon landed on the balcony railing a few feet away. Almost immediately, a male pigeon landed and mounted the first bird in a violent, rapid coupling. Then, in a racket of wings I could hear through the window, both were gone. The harsh abruptness of it stunned me.
In the moments afterward, both the sounds and smells of death behind me and the violent coupling of the pigeons on the balcony seemed to me shockingly ugly. Those moments marked the beginning of the end of my innocent youth.
Most of all, I felt suddenly ashamed of my cowardice in walking to the window. I began to grasp that there is no walking away from suffering and heartache and death without walking away from the best in your own humanity. For the first time, I sensed that if I could not face the grimmest suffering of a person I loved, I would never be a friend worth having or a family member worth loving. I did not look away from Uncle Johnnie again. With greater maturity and experience, I have come to understand how frequently such intellectual awakenings spring from shame.
The idea of intimacy did not occur to me on that teenage day, let alone the idea of a test of intimacy, but there was a glimmer of what I would later come to think of as worthiness to be anyone’s intimate. Five years later, while Alice and I were still on the road to Charlottesville, images of Uncle Johnnie dying came to me unbidden. In that moment, the beginnings of a richer sense of “passing the test of intimacy” started to come alive for me. I felt a resonance between that grim day of Johnnie’s suffering and this joyful day of our marriage, an awareness that the ideals of intimacy were at stake in both.
I had no way of knowing then how brutally the prevailing social, cultural, and educational trends of the next thirty-four years would assault the ideals of intimacy. I had not yet encountered Giacomo Leopardi’s insight that “Fashion is the mother of death.” I did not yet recognize the incipient reductionism that would prod many Americans to embrace the fashionable but deadly belief that human beings are essentially “victims” of genetics and circumstance, rather than moral agents with a hand in their own destiny. I was blind to the coming decline of love and duty in the home, the school, the church, and throughout the terrain of public and private life. I saw no signs of the growing belief that as “victims” we are, all of us, essentially patients in need of therapy and protection from ourselves and one another, unsuited to any sort of test, including the test of intimacy.
The fashions that have become dominant in the years since my marriage belie the assumption that we live in an information age. We live in a sentimentalist age, an age in which lust for information is a trifle compared with the lust for self-gratifying and episodic feelings, for physical pleasures and self-aggrandizing esteem. The lust for information itself signals a preoccupation with immediate and easy satisfaction, far distant from and usually inimical to the love of wisdom. The brief attention span and limited concentration required for surfing the Web cannot prepare a person for serious, let alone intimate, conversation. The techniques of information gatherers — pollsters and narrow research specialists — require little or nothing of the powers of observation, discernment, inference, and analogy essential to understanding anything of consequence. Neither can the easy acquisition of data by such means prepare a person to use the highest educational technology of our time: the demanding, well-conceived book.
Mere sentimentality teaches us nothing about what we ought to feel, and when, and toward whom; instead, it obscures the durable feelings and intellectually rooted convictions indispensable to intimacy. Intimacy, because it is made possible only in and through love and duty, cannot be separated from constancy, patience, and sacrifice. Sentimentalism cannot afford any of these: They take reality too seriously.
Intimacy flies squarely in the face of sentimentalism; it becomes, with great effort, concentrated attention to the present, deliberate remembrance of things past, and anticipation of future consequences. Constancy in love and duty — the ideals of intimacy — cannot flourish in isolation from memory, because constancy of self cannot be separated from an abiding sense of the past that has shaped us. In intimacy, in love and duty, the past remains forever open — not as a source of guilt or self-pity, but rather as grist for reflection and for abiding purchase on the hopes and sorrows of those we love most dearly.
Instant intimacy is an oxymoron. An understanding of our most primary and overriding duties to our intimates rests on knowing who they are, who they understand themselves to be, and what matters to them. Intimacy always has a history. For this reason, nothing in our sentimentalist age shows more vividly its incompatibility with intimacy than loud and persistent demands for “closure” of the past.
The doctrine of closure is embedded in the fashionable proliferation of putative rights and entitlements. When something bad happens — a plane crash or a terrorist bombing — the survivors and families of the dead are living victims entitled to closure. The perpetrators must be caught and punished to satisfy this need. The position presupposes erroneously that when bad things happen, someone must be to blame. However, we are finite beings who live in a contingent world where some measure of the horrific and the tragic always remains beyond our control and remedy.
The doctrine of closure and the elevation of immediate gratification to the status of the highest good obscure such hard facts. Exclusive regard for the immediate present allows no place for fortitude, self-possession, patience, accountability, and equanimity. Loss of such virtues can be seen in the mass hysteria following the death of Princess Diana, in the attendant delusion that celebrities are closer to us than our own family and friends, and in related public contempt for anything resembling a stiff upper lip during heartache. In this soap-opera portrayal of human beings, if your heart is not on your sleeve, you must not have one. The doctrine is bound up with the claim that we have a right to closure — and others are duty-bound to satisfy that right, even when no one is to blame.
The same vision of rights, human nature, and human needs underlies the effort to legalize assisted suicide — the alleged right to die. Assisted suicide and death itself are, in a therapeutic conception of human beings, but forms of closure — an end to suffering. Most of the prevailing popular arguments against assisted suicide do not challenge the position in terms of traditional religious beliefs that say suffering may enable us to achieve wisdom, understanding, and grace, but instead are cast in terms of fear that legalization will lead to abuses: that people will be helped to kill themselves before it is really “necessary.” These arguments, conspicuously, have nothing to do with the most fundamental philosophical and religious questions about death, dying, and suffering. Neither have they anything to do with the question of how morally free beings should conduct themselves, and thereby instruct their children, when faced with death.
Advocates of this therapeutic conception of the human person purport to be concerned with the relation of mental life to external reality, but the practice and the language of psychotherapy frequently belie such assurances. The fashion now is not to speak of learning to live in a world that is forever diminished by a loved one’s absence, but rather of “coping with grief” through stages leading finally to closure of the past and escape from wrenching remembrance.
Words matter. The idea that it is our own grief with which we must cope elevates individual psychological states to the highest reality. Sentimentalism thus spawns solipsism. The quest for closure thwarts the possibility of intimacy and is an insult to human beings and our possibilities — as well as a gross underestimation of what we are and can achieve, a reckless diminution of our capacity to abide the past without sacrificing the present and the future, an affront to the struggles and sacrifices of people now dead through whom we have come to know ourselves.
In 1969, Alice and I had our first child, a daughter, named for my mother, Donna Marie. In 1971, our second daughter was born. We named her for Alice’s grandmother and sister, Winifred Lee. In 1980, I became president of the two campuses of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The four of us lived in Santa Fe during the 1982-83 academic year. In July, just before flying east to visit her grandparents, Donna caught bubonic plague while riding her horse in the New Mexico wilderness. Her illness was not diagnosed early enough to save her, and on August 2, 1983, she died.
Donna’s death was nearly beyond bearing, the dreams of a lifetime crushed by the jaws of a flea. Alice and I tried to think first of Lee, teaching her as the sorrowful weeks wore on that she had only to be herself — she did not have to take Donna’s place. In the days after Donna’s funeral and burial, I could not escape the refrain of the Civil War, “After Shiloh, the South never smiled.” After Donna, I thought, we may never smile, either.
I was wrong. Alice, Lee, and I were lovingly comforted by family and friends. We did not believe that only those who had lost a child could understand how we felt, and our intimates proved in their poignant understanding of loss and suffering that we were right. Neither were we persuaded, as acquaintances frequently urged, that there is nothing worse than the death of a child. Philosophers concern themselves with worst cases, and I knew that General Longstreet and his wife had lost all three of their children to scarlet fever in less than ten days. I counted my blessings that Alice and Lee were safe.
Time does not heal all things. My anguish for Donna’s death is no longer constant, as it was in 1983. But there are days when I feel it still, and that feeling is as intense as ever. This seems to me utterly appropriate. Donna lived, she died. Alice, Lee, and I are profoundly grateful for that good life, and for all that Donna was to us. We have no reason for “closure” of the past; certainly not for closure of Donna’s place in our lives. The magnitude of our heartache reflects the magnitude of our love. The world would indeed be bleak if human beings could not care so much.
When Alice and I said “for better and for worse,” when we embarked on the test of intimacy, we meant what we said. We understood that “all men are mortal”; and by 1983, I had taught the famous syllogism beginning with that premise countless times in logic classes. Donna’s death taught us of mortality and of suffering, of what “for worse” means, to a degree with which we had been unfamiliar. But even now, knowing as we do the perils of finitude and contingency, if we were still of an age to have children, we would not hesitate to bring them into the world.
It is a world in which human beings would be diminished if time healed all things, a world in which we would be less if we were incapable of living with reality and could do no more than cope with grief. Life between intimates is not reducible to coping with episodic sentiments, or to fearing either the past or the future. Love and duty do not shun continuity. They tend to inspire not mere coping, but aspiration to be and to do our best for and with one another.
Coming to understand and to live in intimacy can safeguard us from most of the folly of fashion and the fecklessness of sentimentalism. Intimacy provides a uniquely powerful motive for trying to think and speak truthfully, and avoiding clichés. The intimacy of marriage has taught me, for example, that it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes an adult who is capable of rising to the test of intimacy — the test of taking love and duty seriously, day after day. Intimacy and the accretion of shared concerns likewise teach that no day is merely “the first day in the rest of your life.” Where intimacy, love, and duty matter, every day dawns as the next day in the life you have been living all along.
Alice’s mother could not possibly have known, on the day Alice and I were married, the enduring significance her words would come to have in our lives. I cannot think of any other single sentence I have read or heard for which I feel greater gratitude: “And now, you must both pass the test of intimacy.”
This article originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of Crisis Magazine.