Courtship by fire

Years ago, I had two friends who were married to each other. As a single person, it’s rare — and totally delightful — to be friends with both partners in a marriage. It wasn’t the usual setup, where I was a friend of one person and the other got thrown in as an extra. Each of these people was dear and special to me, as I was to each of them.

They had a remarkably stable relationship. They worked well together, both at the mundane things and in raising their daughter. And considering how hard it seems to be for any of us to begin, maintain and nurture a relationship, I felt the profoundest admiration for their mutual kindness and respect.

Once, I asked them how they did it. She laughed and said, “We had such a rough time getting together in the first place, it’s like we got all the bumps out before we actually decided to stick to one another.” Then she shared a lengthy saga that included misunderstandings, arguments, estrangements, a marriage and divorce, not to mention a couple of graduate degrees earned at far distant schools. All told, it was a grocery list of anger, resentment and sadness, making it easy to see why she described this rocking-and-rolling, up-and-down, crazy-making series of events as “rough” and “bumpy.” I call it courtship by fire.

I wonder if there’s some natural law ordaining that after we’ve made every possible mistake, we may come to a place where peace and cooperation are possible, and — if anyone’s still standing at that point — even love might win out? It seems a backward way of achieving peace, but that’s how it often happens. So why not just call it “being in the fire” and acknowledge that even though we’re working toward peace, we’re often living in a courtship by fire?

Take work, for instance — that co-worker you’ve just never really liked. Respected? Well, sort of. Tolerated? Yes, more or less. But nothing resembling actual personal liking. So you try to be pleasant; after all, that’s what your mom taught you. “Be nice to people you don’t like and they’ll be nice to you.” Or something like that. So you try and try. You speak first in the hall; you consciously sit next to them at meetings. You ask them how their holidays were. You let them go first at the copy machine. And all that happens is they never speak first, they bore you about their trip home at Christmas, and they get their work done before you — because they got their copying done first.

So you’ve tried and tried to find some path toward peace, and you’re right where you started. Then you hit on a novel thought: You’ll be civil but not give away your soul in the process. So you smile in the hall and keep walking; you sit where you’re comfortable in meetings. You don’t make aimless small talk with people you aren’t invested in. And you never, ever give up your place in line for the copy machine.

And what happens? You retrieve your own soul from trying things that just don’t work. You reel in your energies — and yourself — from this courtship by fire. And you sit firmly inside yourself without the rocking and rolling of trying a world of games that are getting you nowhere. Instead, you make peace with yourself and your feelings, and the courtship by fire is over (at least for the time being). You’ve tried a dozen things that haven’t worked and found a few that do. Courtship over; reality begins.

The same thing applies in relationships. You try some game playing, some projecting your feelings onto the other person. “I can’t be the one who’s scared, so you must be.” Or you play unavailable when you’re not. Or you give in to your neediness when what you need is to hang onto yourself and not cave in to your fears. In short, you try a dozen unhealthy little runarounds. Till finally, you’re so tired from all the games and overloaded from projecting your stuff onto others that you call a halt to the courtship by fire and — what a novelty! — just flat out speak your truth. You’ve tried every known blind alley and at last have found a straight way through. You may live happily ever after or you may be back to solo flight, but however it plays out, you’ve gone through a courtship by fire, made most of the possible mistakes — and come to some place of peace.

Think of the world. As that old protest song asks, “How many times must the cannonballs fly?” How many wars? How many dead? How many orphans? How many nights of terror? How long will nations court one another by fire before enough is enough and peace is not bought at such a devastating price?

We’ve all done it: individuals, families, tribes, corporations, nations. We’ve wandered in the wilderness for 40 years while managing to travel all of 40 miles. We’ve banged into brick walls when the gate stood wide open all the while. We’ve felt as if some evil genius were speaking through our mouths, saying every inappropriate thing we’ve ever thought and hoped would never come out. And at last, when the dust has settled and the fire burned low, there’s the way: the word to say, the way to go, the thing to do. It’s using up all the alternatives so the road not taken can be traveled. Amazing that any of us survive, really.

For my part, I’m hoping to cool down these courtships by fire. To walk through open doors rather than bruising myself on wood paneling. To step back and see how I might handle myself before I try every backward possibility. I figure it’ll take some thought. But I also figure I’ll have more time to think things through, since I won’t be squandering so much of my energy on wrong turns. We’ll see.

By the way, my two friends are still together — still doing a great job of partnering, still maintaining that surviving their own courtship by fire has produced, at last, a marriage of reasonable peace. It’s a great gift; and in this fiery world, we need all the hope we can get.

[Jane M. Curran is a chaplain with CarePartners Mountain Area Hospice in Asheville.]

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