Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In a world full of numbers, I am but one.

About four days after I got engaged, a friend sends me this blurb. "Is marriage irrelevant?" says the headline. I'd already seen the piece earlier in the day and was just waiting for the link to come over my IM. I know how she feels about marriage.

Essentially, according to polls and sociologists and people in general, marriage is becoming obsolete. As usual, lots of statistics show up to "prove" this. Fewer American adults are married now than in 1970 (click through to the Time piece if you want all the statistical details). More children born out of wedlock. People are waiting longer to get married, which I suppose is meant to illustrate a certain level of ambivalence (although I think it's just good business). What I find so interesting about all of this is the fact that anyone would try to construe these numbers to determine marriages relevance. Relevance is determined by the individual. Fewer people may find marriage relevant to them, but this does not render marriage universally irrelevant.

This is just human nature, though. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and we make these decisions socially. We're social, relying on each other for survival. Therefore, the opinions of our peers are extremely important. We're wired to believe that making the wrong decision in the eyes of society is to risk death (because no one will help you survive if they think you're a bad person). This isn't to say we all agree. Western ideology revolves around the individual, and we've developed the skill of forming opinions. What we haven't developed is the ability to tack on "for me" at the end of the, "I think this is right," statement.

Reading another article on the "co-sleeping controversy" (i.e. parents apparently have very different and strong opinions on whether or not parents should let their children sleep in the parents' beds with them), I came across this quote: "A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, this isn't right for our family, but it might be right for another family.' No. There's no gray area: There's a natural way to birth, there's a natural way to parent." I was stunned. I can't imagine how anyone could say such a thing. It's just insane. Admittedly, I was raised by parents who said, repeatedly, "I am your parent, and how I raise you is my business!" This meant that they let me skip school whenever they thought appropriate, school officials be damned. Jealous? A quote like the one above stuns me because I just can't fathom how anyone thinks it's any of their business how anyone else raises their children as long as those people doing the raising are not breaking any laws. There are times when opinions are in order: child abuse is an example. Co-sleeping, like breast feeding, is not one of them. And questions over what constitutes abuse even vary. Cultural leanings color our personal perceptions. As of 100 years ago, it wasn't considered child abuse by pretty much anyone to marry off your 13-year-old daughter to a 40-year-old man. In some cultures it's still not considered abuse. As of today, most people will have a gut-level reaction to that situation that tells them it's wrong--it's a form of abuse. I'm inclined to agree, but I'm not sure I can say that I'm cosmically justified. That's the thing. When we're forming all these opinions, we're subconsciously saying that we're each on the side of God, whether we even believe in one or not.

It is scary to open ourselves up to the idea that there are different right ways of living one's life. If I can't hold other people accountable for their actions, how am I supposed to protect myself? Also, if I can't determine right and wrong, how am I going to elevate myself above others? This problem spills over into our forming of opinions even on matters that do not affect us personally. What difference does it make to anyone's life if I get married or don't? My choice may fly in the face of what you believe to be logical, but it doesn't have any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of your opinion in this matter. Many people think marriage is silly. I have no problem with this. Hell, I used to be one of those people. But if life has taught me anything, it's that my opinion on this matter affects me and only me. Perhaps it affects my intended, but he and I seem to be in agreement on this matter. That's the thing--you can choose to associate only with people who agree with you. This seems logical enough. This is how I protect myself from the actions of anyone whom I view to have differing moral leanings from my own. The problem is that we believe on some level that we all have to get down with the same standards because OMG BANISHMENT FROM SOCIETY! The threat is not the same today as it has been in the past. No one is going to drag you out in the forest, tie you to a tree, cover you in honey and leave you to the ants if you do or do not get married. At least not in America. However, we're all still very much attached to our opinions and their supposed universality.

I'm currently reading Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception. According to this book, statistics are pretty much always hopelessly skewed. All measurements of data in the real world are flawed, some more so than others. Survey data are some of the most virtually meaningless numbers out there. People lie. Also, their answers depend on the exact wording of a question. Change one word and the same person will change their answer. An example is that if you ask a person, "Do you think it's acceptable to smoke while praying?" you will get a different answer than if you ask, "Do you think it's okay to pray while smoking?" Knowing this, why do we even keep trying to figure out something as complex as the relevance of marriage (which, again, I would argue is a personal, not societal, matter) by using statistics? Raw numbers of people who do or do not do a thing tell us nothing about what they think of the thing (life circumstances being what they are, shit happens), and survey answers are going to be skewed because of systematical errors inherent in polling. But we keep looking to the statistics for answers to what we believe about the world. Why? Because we like the comfort of believing that we know, even when it's clear that certain things are unknowable.

And certain things are unknowable. We hate to admit it, but we've been chasing our tails on understanding certain things for millennia. To some degree, we have a deeper understanding of the mechanics of our universe. However, the whys of things generally escape us. We feel driven to turn feelings into facts, and we're looking for the numbers to back up those feelings so that we can prove to everyone else that they're facts. But even if my intended and I were the last people on earth who believed in the relevance of marriage to our lives, it would change the feelings. The reasons I believe in this marriage have nothing to do with facts, really. Scary? Oh, yeah. But at the same time, my gut tells me it's right. I have philosophical reasons to back up my gut, but nevertheless my gut doesn't operate on facts--they may teach philosophy in school, but even philosophical ideas are not facts. Survey says: many Americans believe marriage is irrelevant! My gut does not care. Comparing my feelings to the "facts" of the matter is an apples-to-oranges proposition.

And we all wind up statistics in the end anyway. In a world full of numbers, I am but one.


  1. Well, looks like hell has frozen over. Nah, I'm messing with you. Congrats on your engagement Nan!

  2. Congratulations again! I received similar comments and have since started adding on the "for me" to many things. Marriage, child raising, house cleaning, etc...

    Now you get to choose which wedding to have that is right for you.

  3. Today I was reading comments at Dan Savage's site wherein people said that putting those little family bumper stickers (you know, the ones where there's a mom, a dad, and X number of children to represent their family) were "advertising their lifestyle" in an apparently offensive manner. Sheesh.

    Thanks Bianca and Eileen!