This past June, I got married. It was one of the best days of my life, and I hope to never have to experience it again. As anyone who has been through one knows, weddings are a deeply magical experience festooned with deeply unmagical questions: inside or outside? Who pays for what? Is beet salad an "appropriate" main dish? Should we rent these ponies? Behind which bush do I need to crouch to smoke my cigarettes, and do I need to wait to play "Big Pimpin'" until after dark?
But never were the conversations with my fiancé more tender—never was the pink belly of Us more exposed—than when discussing the ceremony. As it should be, I think—the ceremony being the formalized articulation of the union, the part that should ideally express your private identity as a couple and yet serve as something that your friends and family can feel included in, too. Having been to a handful of priestless, DIY-type occasions before (and having officiated one myself), I was inclined to script the ceremony ourselves, in collaboration with an officiant picked from our friends or family. After some good, long conversations, my now-wife and I settled on our target: her dad.
Some background: Both my wife and I are Jewish. For those who don't know, Jewishness, the identity—as opposed to Judaism the religion—is one of those unavoidable technicalities of birth: You either are or you aren't. (There's a good David Cross bit in which he tries to tell a rabbi that he doesn't feel Jewish, to which the rabbi keeps asking—in his placid, rabbinical way—if Cross' mother's vagina is Jewish, a fact he can't talk his way out of.) As a kid, I went to Hebrew school and got Bar Mitzvah'ed; in college, I came home for the high holidays and led my family's Passover Seder. Jewishness was never something I enjoyed or felt close to, but I performed it the way I mowed the lawn or cleaned the house: Dutifully, with a tinge of grudge that always dissipated into mild boredom. Setting aside the specifics of my own beliefs for a minute, I can say that Rabbi Silverman would probably be disappointed, and yet as someone fully indoctrinated to Jewish guilt, I feel compelled to tell Rabbi Silverman publicly that I'm sorry.
My wife had a better experience, and still maintains a kind of abstract commitment to the idea of it—"it" meaning "being Jewish." Her parents are more formal in their practice. You can see the conflict taking shape here, regarding the wedding: We wanted to be true to ourselves, fair to each other, and respectful to her parents, especially considering that it was her father who would be doing the spiritual and legal business of putting us together.
I concede that this situation could have been infinitely worse: Her parents didn't consider me a heathen or think I was going to burn in hell for what I did or didn't believe. (My wife's sister had the very sad experience of having her childhood rabbi decline to marry her and her husband because his family was vaguely Christian, despite the fact that her husband personally wasn't religious one way or the other and made his peace with raising his children Jewish clear—a miserable, disillusioning situation.) Still, the friction was there. Would we say prayers? Would they be in English or Hebrew? Would we invoke God, and if so, would we invoke God as such?
At first, I tried to register my feelings in the most general terms possible: I didn't want to have a religious ceremony. It turns out that what constitutes a religious ceremony is up for some seriously passive-aggressive debate. Then I tried to register my feelings with bureaucratic specificity, as though programming a microwave: I'd prefer if there wasn't Hebrew, I'd prefer if we didn't use the word "god," etc. Mostly this served to escalate things to their inevitable head: a conversation with my almost in-laws about god. Humbly, some tips.
1. Know what you believe.
If this seems like an insultingly easy step, congratulations: You're probably already living on top of a mountain, breathing deeply of the aspens and firs, spending your mornings riding a bicycle and your afternoons embedded in haiku, with a few minutes of checking up on investments before dinner, which you will take amongst the elk. For most people, though, I sense that this is a process that takes one's entire young life to work out, with plenty of paralyzing moments of questioning afterward. (I can't say for sure, because I don't think I'm old enough just yet.) It wasn't until I considered dissenting from my wife's parents' beliefs that I realized I wasn't entirely sure of my own—a realization that I probably should've made on behalf of my own parents, but I've already apologized to Rabbi Silverman, and I risk dignity if I get too loose with my regrets.
What I'm trying to say here is that maybe you need to take yourself into a dim corner and ask yourself what it is you really want out of this religion-and-spirituality thing. Maybe it's nothing, maybe it's everything; in any case, when entering a space in which such topics could be of interpersonal consequence—planning a wedding, for example—it would serve you well to have been seriously honest with yourself, outside the shadow of your parents, outside the shadow of your community, etc. I joke with my wife that if she wants our children to be Bar or Bat Mitzvah'ed, I'm fine with it, as long as I can drive them deep into the desert with a gun and a huge sack of marijuana after the ceremony, because in god's eyes, that's the day they become an adult, and in turn should be given the adult privilege of making adult decisions. (They could shoot the gun or bury it in the ground; they could smoke the marijuana or feed it to a horse. This is one of the many ways I undermine my rearing.) Point being that if you're getting married, there's a good chance you're already an adult whether you realize it or not, so do yourself a favor and treat yourself like one. Ask yourself: How do you feel about the metaphysical world?
2. Say what you believe.
Sweating the prospect of telling your future in-laws that you think god is a corridor of energy that opens up between two people who in the face of all life's cacophony are able to see each other without judgment? I get it. But try and handle this the way you might handle the "What do you want to do with your life?" question: Nobody wants to hear you say, "Well, my degree is in Cherokee mysticism, but I had a pretty good time detasseling corn last summer, and I'm really into seals, so maybe, well … we'll see!" Steadiness will serve you well here; certainty will, too. Remember: You're marrying their child. Do them the kindness of presenting yourself as someone who has a grip on his or her life, even if these characterizations usually end up being projection. Maybe this is my own naïveté talking, but I would guess that your future in-laws are ultimately less concerned with you having the right answer than you having an answer at all.
Which brings me to an aside, or maybe a sub-step: State your beliefs in a way that doesn't step on anyone else's. (Or as my therapist, Dr. Gary, would put it: Try and avoid "You" statements.) Maybe you're an atheist because you were raised in the church and it ran out of answers for you, or you sensed some cruelty and inconsistency in its teachings. All right. But nobody wants to hear that the foundation of your beliefs is that everyone else's beliefs are wrong—it's disrespectful, unproductive, and ultimately beside the point. If we're talking about your beliefs, why should anyone else's even enter into the conversation? (Rhetorical question.)
I don't know how this squares with Christian mandates about missionary work or spreading the lord's word to every darkened corner, but I do think that—in light of step two's mandate for honesty—the crux of anyone's outlook on the world is ultimately a private thing, a thing that can exist in a vacuum. Certainly I acknowledge the history of new ideas growing out of friction between old ones (America!), but I also think that reactions are usually just the catalyst for some idea that comes to stand on its own. Think of it like a side project or a television spinoff. Nobody wants to have their relationship with god (or lack thereof) be called a spinoff.
3. Prepare to be somewhat disappointed.
Did you think this was going to end with some sweet, convenient story about my future in-laws telling me that they understood where I was coming from and were so proud of me for speaking my mind, and were even a little curious for me to share some more of my spiritual findings with them? Hmm. The reality was more that we—my wife and her parents and I—were all sitting around the dining-room table talking about the ceremony, and I said what I felt I had to say. (In short: I do believe in god, not as a creator or divine being but as a projection invented by people to try and consolidate everything we cherish but can't exactly define. I like prayer in a casual sense, whether it's a low-key grace before a good meal, or just marking a moment with appreciation through silence. Bluntly, god is the sound of my wife breathing at night, and what saves me from suicidal thoughts while reading the closed captions of Tim Allen sitcoms at the YMCA.)
Back to the table, where things got seriously quiet. I tried to make eye contact with everyone, but nobody returned it. Then my future father-in-law looked at his watch and said he had some errands to do.
When you're a kid, you're an electron buzzing around the nucleus of your parents or whoever else might've raised you. But part of getting married—at least as I see it—is splitting off from your familial atom and forming a new nucleus. I don't know how chemistry works; I only know that I passed it. But the metaphor always made sense to me: In marriage, you and your spouse become the center of some new life form instead of continuing to live at the fringes of an older one.
In the end, a Jewish god arrived at our wedding in some abbreviated form. (Compromise is always the most realistic of happy endings, though it doesn't make much of a story.) Honestly, I can't even remember the ceremony—like almost every other detail about the day, it got lost in the swell. (Though I will say that you should probably not go with beet salad as a main dish unless you're prepared to answer mean questions about beet salad.) What I do remember is the uncomfortable feeling of sitting at that table, then the uncomfortable feeling being replaced by something lonely but sturdy, something I would have to sit with but something I could call mine.
An anecdote, to finish: I remember putting together the ceremony for my friends' wedding and asking if I needed to include any kind of religious sentiment to appease the bride's family, who were devout Christians from that volatile state of Florida. "I think that ship sailed a long time ago," the groom said. Still, when the day came, I was nervous—I didn't want to be responsible for any kind of spiritual infraction. Like my own in-laws, I think theirs were quietly a little hurt by the omission of anything overtly religious, or maybe had hoped by some evolutionary instinct that their own teachings would seep into a new generation.
It's amazing, though, what a brass band and a good cocktail will do. At one point I found myself with the newlyweds and some of the bride's aunts and uncles, saying their congratulations. "What'd you guys think?" the bride asked. I could almost see the pain on her aunt's face as she composed the answer, like she was talking through a lemon. Then she sighed and smiled and said, "Well, gosh, it was just so dang y'all."
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Ariz. He has written for Pitchfork, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the LA Review of Books, and other places.
Art by Sam Woolley.
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