During my stint in national politics in the late ’80s, I had an opportunity to meet then presidential candidate Al Gore along with his wife Tipper, prior to a presidential debate. The two were gracious to a fault even after learning that I was employed by a competitor. It is safe to say that we were all stunned to learn recently about the pending dissolution of their 40-year marriage. We recalled their romantic long kiss before millions of viewers on the stage of the 2000 Democratic National Convention. No matter what our politics, we appreciated their portrayal of a warm, loving, devoted couple―a sharp contrast to the Clinton marriage.
I, of course, do not possess any inside information as to the cause of the Gore breakup. Their home state papers in Tennessee are reporting that no affair was involved – that they had merely grown apart. This may be what infuriates me the most. I understand that in some circumstances divorce simply cannot be avoided. However, if a couple such as the Gores – a couple that has publicly professed to be active in their Christian faith; together raised four children; possess 40 years of shared memories, heartaches, laughter, and partnership; simply decide to walk away, that their marriage isn’t worth the struggle; that their individual pursuits are more important than their previous commitment to God and each other, what does this say about the current state of our societal values? From my perspective there is a societal story line behind this anecdotal celebrity gossip.
Marriage is difficult in even the best of circumstances. Martin Luther quipped that anyone wanting to understand the meaning of self-sacrifice should marry and have children. Marriage becomes even more difficult when we become disconnected from our spiritual existence, from our faith. When our faith is weak we become enslaved to ourselves. We seek – we conquer and we still “can’t get no satisfaction,” so we selfishly begin anew with another ego-induced pursuit. When this occurs, far too often our spouse and children become casualties to our inner needs.
The struggle is compounded because the self-indulged world in which we live does not value a life of service and sacrifice. We are told that the most successful life is one that has the most checks on his or her “bucket list.” If a spouse is getting in the way of accomplishing one’s desires, the easiest answer is to undo the knot. The idea that we are to serve our spouse through sickness and health, good and bad, young and old, becomes such a quaint and naïve notion; a remnant of the old days when one didn’t live much past retirement and the raising of children.
Al and Tipper Gore, like you and me, live in an amazing time. They, and many of us, possess health, wealth, and freedom that those before us could never imagine. By one account their net worth has increased one hundred fold over the past 10 years. They, like us, have the freedom to decide who and what to worship. Some of us will worship status or money and will never have enough. Some of us will worship beauty and will never quite measure up. Some of us will worship our vast intellect and be in constant worry that someone will unmask our fraud. Some of us will worship power but in the dark of the night will feel weak and afraid.
What still gives me hope is that others of us continue to choose to follow a different path. People like longtime Lutheran Social Services staff member and foster parent Irene Clements, who with her husband Billy have fostered 127 children during their 44-year marriage. In a perfect world it would be couples like the Clements and not the Gores who make the daily headlines. Couples who willingly set aside their own needs in order to care for each other and family.
Genesis 2:24 teaches us that through our marriage we are united and “become one flesh.” In order to keep our flesh “one” marriage takes hard work. We must be willing to give all of ourselves – body, mind and spirit – to our partner. On an emotional level, we share our thoughts, needs, burdens, fears, dreams, weaknesses and hopes. Spiritually, we join hands in prayer, kneel at the Lord’s Table regularly, forgive and encourage one another, and promise to love and persevere. Physically, we enrich each other through the intimate act of making love. In a Godly marriage husband and wife set aside ego and position themselves for a life-long service to each other.
Dr. Kurt Senske is chief executive officer of Lutheran Social Services of the South and author of The Calling: Live a Life of Significance (forthcoming, November, 2010)