The Stoic doctrine is essentially about reducing vulnerability. And it
starts off where Aristotle leaves off. Aristotle insists that happiness depends
to some degree on chance and prosperity. Though the primary component of
happiness is virtue — and that, a matter of one’s own discipline and effort —
realizing virtue in the world goes beyond one’s effort. Actions that succeed and
relationships that endure and are reciprocal depend upon more than one’s own
goodness. For the Stoics, this makes happiness far too dicey a matter. And so in
their revision, virtue, and virtue alone, is sufficient for happiness. Virtue
itself becomes purified, based on reason only, and shorn of ordinary emotions,
like fear and grief that cling to objects beyond our control.
When he and I first got serious about each other. I'd tell him he was stoic. While it's true that beside my passion and energy even a Big 10 cheerleader is, at times, bound to seem stoic, he struck me as the kind of guy who was unflappable. He took everything in stride, and when he spoke about emotional extremes, he did so in a measured and rational way. This way of life is completely foreign to me. I feel everything so deeply, sometimes more than I wish I did. (And today is probably not the best day for me to be writing about stoicism and vulnerability. There's nothing like launching yourself into the stratosphere to marry your favorite person in the world to dilate you emotionally, only to crash back to the rocky surface of the earth and deal with the complicated detritus of your everyday existence.) So watching this man deal with things in a way that I didn't understand was at times fascinating, frustrating, confusing and maybe even scary.
One of his best friends, Frank Crist, died not long into our relationship. It was a strange and tenuous time for me; I knew Frank, and was sorry to lose him, but we weren't close. I didn't know how to respond to my sweetheart in the midst of his grief. He had a number of people around him grieving deeply over the loss of such a good man and a gifted writer and teacher, and they held each other in the best way they knew how and nursed their wounds. People aren't always good at dealing with emotions that scare them, but they did what they could.
I don't know how or what he was feeling when he was with me, after having lost Frank. I know that he was feeling something. I remember the morning that he woke up in my bed from a dream, sure that Frank had said goodbye to him. I remember the quiet, and the stillness, the feelings that masqueraded as stoicism, and the lightly tapping fingertips with which we touched each other around that time, confirming our presence, gently touching to accommodate tenderness.
And people change each other, right? They say that women in relationship are always trying to change men, and so men are loath to commit because they want to be free to be themselves and women are bending over backward not to come off as rigid, tyrant shrews who want to nag or manipulate our men into being someone else.
So my man isn't any Iraqi or Afghan veteran. He's someone with more than his fair share of sorrow and pain, but also with some pretty amazing blessings and talents. (Who isn't?) I don't know if he would describe himself as stoic, or as vulnerable. I think I know that he gets to be more vulnerable with me than maybe with anyone else he knows.
What a gift that is, to have someone in your life that you can be so vulnerable with. It isn't something that each of us have, it isn't something that it's easy to have and we shouldn't take it for granted.
We were standing underneath a chandelier, in front of a mantle, in what constitutes an altar in an antique warehouse, and I listened as he pledged himself, his life and his efforts to me and mine. Then I got to say this:
My Favorite, my ai-ren,
You are the man who loves me. You are the only man I have ever known who has not been too afraid to love me as I am. You are the most thoughtful, wisest and humblest person I know. You are a student of the world, and you teach me to listen, and to seek lessons in surprising places. You are a human who cares about humanity, and who seeks to make small but indelible marks on the hearts of others. You are Bear, my playmate, you are my best friend; you are the one who makes me feel held and safe and loved in this world.
I choose you as my husband and my partner. I promise to love, honor and respect you. I promise to be faithful to you, and to walk beside you in all things. I promise to support and encourage the artist in you, in whatever shape or form your artist’s life takes. I promise to love you even when you hurt me. I promise to try to speak with honesty and tenderness, and to listen with an open heart. I promise that whenever I am scared or angry, I will always try to move toward you, and not away from you.
I want to reflect back to you the humor, the beauty and the joy I see in you. I want to be the woman who provides room and safety enough for you to take the risks that will help you grow into the truest expression of your self. I wish for us a marriage that learns to balance togetherness and intimacy with individuality and solitude; I wish for us a life of growth and discovery, full of affection and sharing.
I am a better woman for loving you. I hold you in my heart as my favorite today and forever.
I wasn't a mess: I knew I'd be crying through the entire thing, and I did, so I had an antique lace-trimmed hankie to wipe at my face. But I was awash, I mean, I can't feel the bottom of the ocean floor awash, in my emotions. It felt great. I felt like standing there with him, feeling all that stuff that made me so knocked out, I was the safest I've ever been. Later, people came to me and told them how emotional our vows had made them, or how they were worried for me and what I was feeling. But not me; for all the lip trembling and the heavy breathing and the pausing I had to do, I felt so safe in my vulnerability with that man. My husband.
So of the two of us, I guess he's still the one who operates on a more even keel. But he's touchable; he's vulnerable; he feels things, and I'm better able to tell sometimes that he's feeling something.
Vulnerability absolutely comes at a high cost. It means that you spend a fair amount of your time feeling like crap, because not every feeling can be good. But I'm glad I have a partner who can touch and be touched.