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Twenty-Something Journals: Life-Changing Events. Or are they? 6 January 2011

Posted by magicdufflepud in Random, Self.
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If you come here often enough, you’ll know that I don’t always talk about skiing and cycling. And that sentence might be enough to turn you away on its own. But on those weeks when I’ve been out of town, the snow is gone or something catches my eye, I wander elsewhere. That’s the purpose of this blog: to wander.

So I wandered home over the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and by the time I returned, three of the people I know well were engaged. Engaged, as in “planning to marry.” Yikes.  As our society moves away from marriage (here and the excellent James Q. Wilson here), the compact has—maybe?—acquired a greater sense of significance. Marriage is no longer the necessary step a relationship, but to do it anyway, well, maybe that says something. Maybe it means more. Considering all that, though, and then considering my friends, I don’t feel much at all—no real sense of surprise, or anything really, that they’ve told three other people that they’ll spend their lives together.

Yes, I’m happy for them, happy that they’ve found that special someone, but they’re still the same people. Two of them are, to my mind, still high schoolers waking up in the morning to go to a student council meeting or heading out to a Friday night party. That they now have a ring on it (rings on them?) hasn’t registered because I can’t tell a difference. Until last year, the bubbles of “engaged people” and “people that are my friends” didn’t intersect. It was one thing to understand engagement in the abstract (something two people much older than we did when they loved each other lots, typically in movies) and another to see it. Other people got engaged. My friends didn’t. Now they were the same.

It’s a significant thing this “to-be-married” stuff, but it only seems strange when given any thought. Kind of like having a dog for the first time or a girlfriend or anything other supposedly defining thing or state. It’s as if we’re all expecting something entirely different to come over us since a life has changed, that a wholly new person should emerge because the context is different. “In a relationship.” Now, “engaged.”

In short, we anticipate that the single E— couldn’t, nor can’t, be anything like the engaged E—. But when we figure out that she’s actually the same, though probably a little happier, the disparity between the reality and our expectations makes us think a moment. E—‘s still essentially the person we knew a month ago, and the context, no matter how much more extraordinary, doesn’t change that. It’s a funny feeling.

Come back five years later, though, and we’ll see a difference. On the scale of a life, it takes no more than a moment to lose a parent, to go off to college, to buy a house, to become a husband or a wife, but the change in ourselves takes so much longer. We react to each as the person we were on the day before. After that, our identities develop over time: we cope, we learn, we nest, we rely on one another, evolving an imperceptibly slow pace. Imperceptible, that is, until we reflect on how we were at another stage. When we’ve incorporated any number of things into our identity, we begin to realize just how different we were with or without them.

Which brings us back to today, the engagements. This is the beginning of a process, both for the engaged and for those of us for whom marriage still seems a long way off. Ten years from now, I suspect it will seem as though E—, K—, and C— have always been married. We’ll ask, with honest curiosity, “what was it like to be single?” When the first child is born, we’ll again wonder, “How is it that this kid who surfed down a flight of stairs on his knees going to take care of human offspring?” He won’t know. We won’t know. But we’ll all learn. And that’s the beauty of it.

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