The Stories We Tell
Isn’t this picture the best representation of the daily realities of marriage??!? A husband and wife, eyes locked intently and affectionately on one another, he in a perfectly tailored suit and she in a flowy fairy gown, walking hand-in-hand through an endless golden field of magical sunflowers that seem to all be looking expectantly toward the glowing couple, as if all of creation has stopped to hold its breath and watch this love story unfold. Married readers, isn’t this how you feel every hour of every day?!
Except no. That up there is a professionally posed and photographed and paid-for moment. That, my friends, is not a picture of marriage.
And yet it’s also not NOT a picture of marriage. When I look at this picture, I see love and beauty and dignity — things that marriage should represent. This couple will not always look that beautiful, and they will not always look at each other with that kind of affection, and sometimes they won’t look at each other at all, but the love and beauty and dignity seen in this picture are real things, things that should be honored.
Any time we look at photos, whether they are wedding photos or newborn photos or family photos or photos of children climbing trees or photos of delicious meals or remodeled living rooms, we can look at those pictures and feel discouraged that our life isn’t that charming. Or we can feel frustrated that someone is trying to portray their life as more charming than it is. Or we can feel jealous of the charming things they have.
OR, we can look at those pictures and instead of scrutinizing the possible intent of the people who posted them, we can see the truths they’re inadvertently sharing with us.
When someone posts something that makes their children or their home or their marriage look perfect, I know that none of those things are actually perfect, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a real and enduring sweetness in the idea of those things.
We had these amazing professional photos taken by a good friend of ours when our fourth son was just a few days old. Every image is precious beyond belief, sweet enough to take your breath away.
And yet we all know that babies can spend much of their time looking like this little guy on the left instead. (That’s a stock photo. I couldn’t find any photos of my baby crying, because he never does. Just kidding. I don’t have many photos of him crying because his crying makes me want to hide in a closet eating chocolate, not start snapping photos, and the one photo I have of him screaming I used in another recent blog post and didn’t want to seem redundant.) Is the first picture false? Is it only half of the story?? Some might look at it that way, but I think it’s something better than that. That first picture is a reminder of the sweet helpless innocence that we love about babies. It’s not like that 100% of the time — not by a long-shot — but an image like that arrests our attention and says “The days are hard and the nights are long, but this preciousness is real.”
A picture of a sleeping infant doesn’t tell us that life is easy; it reminds us that life is precious.
We know that day-in day-out marriage does not look like a fairy tale, even if the wedding photos do. But does that make the photos somehow false? Are we just setting ourselves up for disappointment?
I say no. There’s a choice involved, of course. You have the choice whether or not to look at your wedding photos five years down the road and feel depressed that you and your spouse aren’t always smiling and gorgeous and surrounded by people waving sparklers and toasting you. That’s a choice. But you also have the choice to look at those photos and see what marriage is meant to be. Not that marriage is a fairy tale, but that it is beautiful and right to love one another with a love that is pure and whole and unconditional. When you take a picture of a couple on their wedding day and it looks like a fairy tale, that’s not fiction but a snapshot of the best truth. Those images say “Marriage is good and love can last, the way this image lasts.”
Those pictures don’t tell us that love is easy; they tell us that love is good.
The author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, talks about the difference between how a child views the world and how an adult does, and how adults have lost their sense of wonder over things that are ordinary but miraculous. A one year old looks at an apple and thinks “This is amazing!” If you tell a three year old that the seeds inside that apple can grow into a new tree that produces apples of its own, they think “That is amazing!” Reality is amazing to a child because they are experiencing it for the first time, so the fact that an apple has tiny seeds that can go into the ground and grow into a tree that will ultimately bear thousands more apples is a wondrous truth. Adults have accepted the wondrous reality of the apple seed. Like our children and like our marriages, apple trees no longer instill us with wonder.
Chesterton says that fairy tales serve a purpose in an adult’s life, and that purpose is to remind us of the wonder of ordinary things. He says that in reading about a golden apple, we have one “wild moment” of remembering the beauty of a green apple. We need the magical idea of the golden apple to remind us of the magical truth of a green one. In the same way, we need the magical idea of the sweet sleeping baby and the happy glowing couple to remind us of the magical truths of our everyday babies and everyday marriages.
As we share images with others, we are telling stories. The stories we tell aren’t fiction though. The fairy tale wedding shot, the precious sleeping baby, the family in coordinating outfits holding hands as they walk through an orchard, they are our version of showing someone a golden apple, to give us that breathless moment that says “There’s goodness in this marriage, there’s sweetness in this baby, there’s warmth in this family, oh yes, I’d nearly forgotten.” It makes things we once knew to be true real again.
Stories and art, of all kinds, tell us what life could be, should be, can be. We have a choice when we look at photos, our own or others’. We can see what’s on the surface, we can judge or compare, or we can allow the fairy tale nature of what we see to remind us of the truest truths, that are true regardless of circumstances.
Life is precious, and love is good.
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