I was talking to my stepdaughter Jennifer recently when the topic swerved into relationship territory. “I want what Grandma and Grandpa have,” she said. “They’re 80 and they still hold hands on the beach. Every once in a while he calls her ‘babe,’ and they write the most beautiful notes to each other.”
Don’t we all? Her grandparents will celebrate their 60th anniversary this year. They have the air of a perfectly matured relationship marked by deep abiding love and respect. The memory of them walking hand in hand along the beach at Jeckyll Island last year captivates her, as it should. The photo she snapped so surreptitiously that day resides on my camera phone as well.
To her desire to seek that kind of long-term relationship, I say “huzzah!” But I’m going out on a limb here to also say, “Be careful what you wish for, exactly, because there’s no such thing as perfection.” Sorry. It simply doesn’t exist. We aspire toward it, we emulate it, we work for it, but we never truly reach it.
I hear it now: all the romantics in the room are sucking in their collective breath. But bear with me a moment, because I think there’s something significant here. It’s the journey, you know, not the result.
Jennifer’s grandparents’ relationship arrived at what, in this time, resembles perfection. But it was the journey that forged it – from the day they met to now – thanks to the love, commitment, effort, belief, dedication, and accountability each brought to their union. Our problem is that we only look at the results of that journey. When the years mellow into something so deep, so rich, and so succulent, we surmise only one thing: they were soul mates from the start, and it was meant to be. Cue the music. That belief is reinforced by every romance novel, every chick flick, every magazine, every advertisement.
If you notice, we actually assign the credit for a lasting and precious union to forces outside ourselves. Now, why is that? Maybe it’s because assigning credit to ourselves requires accountability and decades of conscious intent and hard work. It’s not instantaneous and it’s not eternal. It takes time, continuous investment, and energy. It can be intimidating and, deep down, we’re not sure we’re up to the task.
What we don’t really get (and what society largely ignores), is the fact that we are seeing a lifetime of adventure and complacency, of foibles and strengths, of anger and gratitudes, of commitment and accountability for what each offers to the task of creating something greater than its parts. No one is perfect when we decide to walk the same paths; we create our version of perfect from a lifetime of shared experiences, appreciation, and love. There’s a difference, and it can make or break our relationships.
So, instead, we find the cleanest, easiest way to talk the talk without having to walk the walk – we credit external, often mysterious, outside forces. When perfection never materializes … well, gosh, it really wasn’t our fault. Blame fate.
The funny thing is that it’s only when two people commit and bring all they have to the table that they stand a chance of having the kind of relationship Jennifer desires, the kind she sees in her grandparents. They may well become soul mates, but they don’t start out that way.
Society is an old romantic, though, and it trips us up and fools us with its bald-faced stories. Shame on us. We grow up believing in impossibly happily ever after, and we hunger, then, for the immediate gratification of love at first sight and of finding our soul mates. It must be true! Look at all the stories we’re told from the time we’re born. But in truth, it’s up to us to create that happily ever after. There is no Tinkerbell, no special pixie dust. It doesn’t just happen; we can’t attribute it to external circumstances or fate. We have to have a stake in the outcome, a sense of accountability for what we’re doing and the choices we make and the person we choose to love and walk beside on the journey. It’s sweat equity. That is how we move closer to perfection.
The disservice is that we buy into the myths, and while we wait for the perfect person to walk through the door, we risk becoming paralyzed by inaction. We’re afraid to deepen our relationships for fear someone better is just around the corner. “What if,” we think, and so we wait, either letting opportunities slip away or expending no effort to make something grow.
Not that we should latch onto the first thing that comes into view – that’s a symptom of not knowing yourself. We need to figure out exactly what we truly value and to ferret out the wants and natures and values of those we invite into our lives.
But to expect that perfect soul mate to one day miraculously appear? That vision risks blinding us to what’s true and right and good, sure in the knowledge that we created it ourselves and poured our sweat into its development. No, the perfect soul mate is a myth. The perfect relationship is made, not fated.
Jennifer’s grandparents grew into perfection – rather, into what passes as perfection in our imperfect world. They were the architects and builders. We actually do their lifetime of marriage a disservice to think otherwise. We may look at them, sigh, and think, “what a perfect couple; what a perfect marriage; what perfect soul mates.” In the end we must realize that it was built, brick by brick, day by day, experience by experience. It didn’t just magically appear.
So be careful. If you’re waiting for that perfect person, holding the door open because you just never know what will come sauntering through next, you could find yourself waiting a long time – even forever. Don’t squander the opportunity to craft a relationship as rich and deep and meaningful as Jennifer’s grandparents. Just be prepared to work at it.
“We are not creatures of circumstance; we are creators of circumstance.”
~ Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of the United Kingdom