Humans are imperfect and transitory beings. Our moods, attachments and directions, often change. You don’t even need to scan the Ashley Madison ranks for that. You just need to go to your local craigslist “Lovely puppy, two years old, moving in with boyfriend who doesn’t want him. Free to a good home.” (The ones who try to get rid of their elderly pets? Those I want to shoot. We have gone through this six times now, seeing a cat down to that final spiral, trying to keep them as comfortable as possible and give them as much love as possible because it’s going to be a long time before we see them again — yeah, I do know what theologians say. I don’t believe them. Souls on the order of a human, no. Able to partake their humans redemption? I believe so. Otherwise Himself is not a gentleman — and OMG cleaning up stuff where they forget where the box is. We’re going through this with an 18 yo now, and when he goes we have two not very far behind. But they’re family members. More importantly, they’re bonded to you and your family. In this case, the vow is not spoken, but is there. Upending their little world at the end? Putting them in the hands of strangers who almost for sure won’t have our patience? People who do that are SCUM.)
I suspect that since long before civilization our associations and bonds were held together with vows, bonds, and a given word. Yeah, people will default on that — humans are imperfect — but it’s pretty clear who defaulted, and how to repair it, if the bonds, both ways, are clear.
We know from earliest recorded history that the “kings” (at about the level of tribal lords if that. Remember Ulysses, king of Ithaca, plowing his field with a team of oxen? Yeah. Not stuff you’d catch Louis XIV doing. Or for that matter Chaka Zulu. Those were more kings and chiefs as we understand them, but human groups used to be bands. Like that band of banditi led by Romulus and Remus, which took all the women from the nearby band and proceeded to spawn Romans) held their servants by fealty, oaths, often with the gods thrown in for good measure, in case you felt like defaulting.
Feudalism, which is a sophisticated form of government evolved from the tribal, was held together at every level by mutual bonds. The lord to the vassal, the vassal to the Lord, world without end.
In a world torn by invasions, where the Pax Romana had collapsed, the vows and given word were the architraves of society.
Did they get broken? Oh, holy hell, yes. Read up on the War of the Roses sometime. Humans are flawed and imperfect. But it held enough to build civilization on.
Did marriage vows, solemnized before priest and society get broken? Eh. Your generation — whichever one it is — didn’t invent sex or adultery. It’s been around always, and people are flawed. But it held enough that the married couple/family was the foundation of society. Good enough to raise the kids. Something to build on.
We haven’t gone to many weddings recently. It’s the age we’re in. There was a time in our late twenties when we went to several weddings a year, and it would probably have been a monthly activity if we hadn’t moved away from all our friends from high school and college. Right now, we’ve gone to a “second batch wedding” of a friend’s daughter. There have been others of people marrying late or whatever. Not a lot. They might ramp up, they might not. It’s not the eighties anymore.
But I’ve watched movies. Okay, pieces of movies, usually when my husband is watching something and I’m doing something else in the room. I am not precisely ADHD, but most movies don’t have interesting enough plots to keep me riveted. Even when I read, I’m usually doing something else like crocheting or (audio books) cleaning the house. If I didn’t have audio books, the house would never get cleaned. I bore easily and wonder off. But I have watched a lot of weddings, in a lot of media. Honestly it started with the year right after 9/11 when I mindlessly watched a lot of sitcoms because it was easier than thinking.
That’s where I first came across the concept of writing your own wedding vows. I thought “that’s weird” but assumed the same generation that thinks the height of originality is misspelling your kids’ names had decided they wanted the promises of lifelong love, support and fidelity to be more poetic or something.
And then I started seeing/hearing examples. And boy was I wrong.
Most wedding vows — at least real people’s we’ve heard — are rambling incoherent speeches that don’t even have any kind of promise in them. They usually start with “Ever since we met” pass on to reassurances of love, and if they are semi-decent, end with stuff like “I shall always love your independent spirit, and will do my best to support you.” The professional ones, which we hear in movies, are surprisingly not much better. The “Serious” ones are poetic and pretty, but if they remember to promise to always love, you’re ahead of the curve. The funny ones… I overheard one of those recently, will say things like “I promise to never blow my nose in the shower.” “I’ll keep your bicycle in good working order.”
Half the time when I hear these “wedding vows” I start yelling “That’s not a wedding.” “That’s not a marriage.”
I mean, I can promise to keep a friend’s bicycle in good working order (I could, if I knew how to) without it carrying anything else with it, much less love and lifelong fidelity. Even promising to always love someone is not a wedding vow, and it doesn’t make a marriage. I have tons of divorced friends where they and their exes still “love” the other despite having married someone else. There are many forms of love. How do you define love? How do you KNOW when you’re in breach.
And that’s where we come back again to “do you divorce the guy because he broke his ‘vow’ of not blowing his nose in the shower?”
You’re going to say I’m being silly. Sure, the wedding/marriage comes with assumed bonds. Everyone knows what being married means. You’re signing contracts that make you an economic team, etc. Sure.
But those are laws around what you’re doing. Those vows? That’s you putting the yoke on your shoulders, voluntarily. They’re putting your honor on the line. If you didn’t promise, personally promise, all that’s between you is a contract and contracts are broken and dissolved all the time. Sure, okay, you might have to pay some penalty, but it’s no big deal. It doesn’t break you.
I don’t know how far this lack of making good vows goes. I KNOW that medical classes are writing their own oaths and that Hippocrates would lose his mind if he heard it. Nothing about “first do no harm” but a lot of rambling incoherence on social justice and helping the helpless, and being voices for the voiceless.
I don’t know if this has reached county offices. I don’t know if engineers take oaths.
I do know that every profession, contract, bond, in which people are writing their own vows and oaths is rotten to the core.
What is the point of vows, if you’re going to write them to suit yourself and not to be difficult? “As long as we both shall love,” means absolutely nothing. As someone in a 33 year long marriage, how do you track love? How do you define love? Love as most newlyweds feel it is a chintzy thing. That elderly couple in the corner who never talks to each other, probably love each other more. The butterflies at his being near will eventually vanish. Does that mean you stopped loving and the marriage is invalid?
“Caring for the most disadvantaged” means nothing. Who are the most disadvantaged? How do you care for them? Gosh, gee, would it be better to put them out of their misery? It means nothing. It is bound by human interpretations of the moment, and humans are flawed beings.
I suspect, though I have no proof, that the rot is all the way through.
In a time of fast technological change, my life is bounded by principles, which derive from the oaths I took. My citizenship oath, my marriage vows, which included promises to look after the kids. All of that. Am I perfect at them? Dear heaven. I’m human.
But they’re sort of directional beacons, beyond my human understanding and vision. Even if I don’t feel like something, I promised, and there’s an eternal pointing light.
It makes life easier. It’s hard to be adrift when you have a compass.
They say that family is the cornerstone of society. If so we are doing it wrong. “Not blow your nose in the shower” is a hell of a promise to build society upon. Worse, each couple writes their own, so maybe the people next to you promised to dance under the moonlight every month.
There’s no predictability, no assumed certainty. There’s nothing to build upon.
Humans are creatures of the band and personal loyalty. When you lose that we’re just great apes with vaguely social instincts.
As we have proof daily.
Let’s turn ‘er around. Take your oaths and mean them, and do your best to keep them. It’s what’s difficult that’s most worth doing. It’s what’s stood the test of time that stands forever.
Follow the beacons shining in the night.