This Strange Arrangement

Mark Twain’s unique perspective on marriage

BY DAVID HOPKINS

Yesterday, I officiated my fifth wedding (Steven and Miranda, Wes and Amber, Shafer and Sasha, Wim and Brenda, now Willis and Elida). The wedding was at the Belmont Hotel. It was a beautiful day with the Dallas skyline as a backdrop.

For every ceremony, I try to write something original, something specific and personal to each couple. Here’s a portion of what I wrote for Willis and Elida’s wedding:

So what are we to make of marriage — this strange arrangement where two people love each other and make a public vow to stay true to each other? I’m not the kind of person to make bold pronouncements on what a marriage should look like. Every couple is wonderfully different and weird, and imperfect, and all deserving of happiness. While some would like to think there’s one correct path, I’m more comforted by the idea that you get the opportunity to define your own marriage. No one else should tell you how to be happy. You can find and blaze that path on your own.

I would however like to share some insight from my favorite writer.

On September 8, 1869, a few months before Samuel Clemens (better known as author Mark Twain) was to marry Olivia Langdon, he wrote her a letter. It’s a beautiful letter, sweet, tender, and uncharacteristically giddy for the usually sardonic Twain. I won’t read the whole letter. It’s rather long, but let me share my favorite passage. Of marriage, he said:

“It makes two fractional lives a whole; it gives two purposeless lives a work and doubles the strength of each to perform it; it gives two questioning natures a reason for living, and something to live for; it will give a new gladness to the sunshine, a new fragrance to the flowers, a new beauty to the earth, and a new mystery to life.”

To me, this is a marriage at its best. New gladness, new beauty, and new mystery.

Olivia was Samuel Clemens’s lifelong editor. She read and edited everything he wrote, from novels to short stories to public speeches. Let me give the most straightforward definition of an editor. An editor makes writers look good. They challenge you without changing you. They understand you and try to bring out your best. They believe in you, but they aren’t fooled by you. This may sound odd, but I hope in your marriage, you take up the task of editing each other. Gently encouraging and redirecting, without judgment and only with greatest hope for what each of you are capable of — both as individuals and as a team. Marriage should make us better people.

Olivia also opened Samuel’s mind to new ideas. Through her, he met abolitionists and activists for women’s rights and social equality. The warmth and humanity we see peeking through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is probably due to Olivia’s own influence on his life.

I wish the same thing for your marriage — that it would be filled with warmth and that you would allow each other to be changed.

One final observation I take from this letter. In it, Samuel Clemens says to his future wife:

“…we shall step together out into the broad world to tread its devious paths together till the journey of life is done and the great peace of eternity descends upon us like a benediction.”

A lifelong commitment is not a burden; it’s a gift. In this broad world, there are devious paths. There will be difficult times and no one should pretend otherwise. However, I believe when you look back, it will have been a journey worth taking. Almost seven billion people in the world, and you have the opportunity to share your life, your story, with one other person. What more can we ask for?

This article originally appeared on my blog, That David Hopkins.